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The More You Know: 5 Main Differences Between SEO and SEM

The difference between SEM and SEO

SEO is a hot-button term in the digital marketing world. Everyone wants their content optimized with SEO-friendly keywords, key phrases, headings, pictures, videos, and so on. Did you know that there’s also something called SEM? SEM stands for Search Engine Marketing. But wait, how is that different from Search Engine Optimization? What is the difference between SEO and SEM?

Great question!

SEO and SEM both have the goal of getting you a top spot on a search engine results page (SERP) and, ultimately, getting more visitors to your website. They are pretty different in the way they work, though. Follow along for some key differences between these two marketing strategies.

1. SEM Costs Money, SEO is Free

This is one of the key differences between SEO and SEM. SEM involves paid ads and those paid search result spots you see when you conduct a search. The more money you have to invest in your search engine marketing, the more people you will reach, which gives you a better chance at getting more clients or customers. 

A major component of SEM is something called Pay Per Click (PPC). PPC works by charging the business every time someone clicks on their paid search result. This means you need to make sure you have enough of a budget set aside to keep your PPC ads running.  

SEO is completely free to do, but it takes more strategic work to get noticed organically. Here is where you really want to focus on using tested and effective strategies to optimize your content for searches. Search engines like Google have particular guidelines on what they are looking for in a piece of content to determine if it is useful to users or not. The more useful your content seems, the more likely Google and other search engines will promote it by placing it higher in a results list.

2. SEM Sees Quicker Results, SEO Lasts Longer

Because SEM is based on payment and not just strategy and algorithms, you will be able to reach potential clients from an SEM campaign much quicker than you would by just using SEO. As soon as you decide to run a paid ad, it’s out there showing up in people’s SERPs. And, just as quickly as you turn it on, you can also turn it off.

SEO, on the other hand, takes time to build. It can take months or longer for an SEO campaign to see optimal results. That said, you don’t put any money into it and, once achieved, the results of an SEO campaign can be lasting as long as you continue to optimize your content.

3. Target Your Audience With SEM, Can’t Target With SEO

When you create a paid ad, you can select a particular audience to target based on a number of criteria including geography, demographic, and age. SEO content can’t target a specific audience, but you can use keywords to point your content towards particular search terms, and sometimes even locations. Depending on the purpose of your content, you may or may not need or want a targeted audience.

4. SEM is Better for Competitive Keywords, SEO Works on the Gaps

If there is a lot of competition for the keywords you are using, a paid ad will fare much better than trying to fight organically through all that competition from bigger, more well-known brands. SEO is best when you are targeting lesser-used or more niche keywords and key phrases. With some research of your competitors and their keywords, you can likely find some gaps in the keywords they are using and go for those in your SEO plan.

5. SEM is Best for Testing

Because SEM sees immediate results, it is the most effective method to use for testing an ad to see how well it does. You can run the ad for x-amount of time, stop in, tweak it based on the results of your test, and run it again. You can even run two ads at the same time to see which one does better. This is called A/B testing.

SEO content is best when you already understand what your clients are searching for. Then, you can cater your content to reflect those key phrases and concepts, giving your content a better chance at coming up during a potential client’s search.
At Thump Local, we specialize in both paid and organic search. Most businesses benefit from a combination of SEM and SEO strategies catered to each business’s needs. In fact, the differences between SEO and SEM mean they complement each other rather well in an overall search marketing plan. We work closely with all our clients to create a customized SEM and SEO plan based on budget, goals, and industry.

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