• Emily Lynch

The Difference Between SEO and SEM and When to Use Them Both

Did you know that According to a study done by MOZ, only about 7% of searchers look beyond the first page of Google?

This same study also shows that 77% of participants in the study used Google three times a day to find information.

It’s never been clearer that Google is the modern-day go-to for information, which makes it the number one place businesses compete to be seen.

The two common acronyms we use when talking about search results are SEO and SEM. Some people use them interchangeably, but there is actually a number of things that set them apart.

People will also tell you that you only need one of them (usually the one they are trying to sell you), but there’s no reason why you shouldn't leverage both of them.

So, I’ve written a guide to introduce you to these two digital marketing channels so that you can make up your own mind about them and how they suit your business.

What Is SEO?

SEO stands for search engine optimisation. It is the process of getting your website to show up in search engines organically.

When you go to Google and search for something the results you see on the first page haven’t landed there randomly. SEO is extremely competitive and the businesses that show up on the first page have designed their websites, content and other digital profiles to tick all the boxes Google is looking for.

There are a few key things to understand straight up about SEO:

1. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it can take quite a bit of time to yield results (around 6-12 months or more)

2. It’s something that you always keep working on; you don’t reach number 1 in Google and effortlessly sit there forever.

3. The rules change all the time; this is part of the reason why you have to keep working at it.

4. You should NEVER use dodgy, black hat SEO tricks to try and boost your SEO. This will not work for you unless you really want to see if you can get banned from Google and crash your business’s online presence.

Now, there are two approaches to SEO, on-site and off-site. It's a good idea to learn how to do both of them the right way.

Digital Emily infographic SEO checklist

On-Page SEO

When a search engine crawls a webpage, it is looking for signals within the website to determine how relevant it is to the search query. Everything on the website can be optimised for Google’s algorithms. This includes:

  • Written content containing keywords

  • Photos and videos with keywords in the alt text and file description

  • Page titles

  • Page meta descriptions

  • Subtitles in videos on the webpage

  • Website architecture

  • Internal links

  • Relevant external links

It’s easy to get carried away (and confused) with all the details of on-page SEO, so here’s a hack.

Google is always trying to produce the most accurate and helpful search results possible. If your first priority is making your website as helpful and user friendly as possible you will automatically be doing a lot of the things that make for good SEO.

Focus on creating excellent content and a website that is easy to use and half the battle will be taken care of.

Off-Page SEO

The other indicator that Google looks for is everything happening online, but not directly on your site that points towards your webpage. The more that other sites point to yours, the more useful Google will think your site is.

Off-Page SEO includes:

  • Backlinks; these are links to your website from other sites

  • Your site URL or brand name in the text on another site

  • Influencer marketing

  • Content marketing on social media

Google figures that other pages will only talk about and share content that is good quality. Link building is by far the most popular strategy for off-site SEO. The higher the rank of the page that links back to you, the higher Google will rank the link.

It’s important to note that Google is advancing in the direction of entity salience recognition and machine learning. What this means for links is that Google is rating the relevance of where a page links to in context with the rest of the page content. So having high quality, relevant links is becoming more important for SEO.

This is an example of how Google is always advancing its algorithms to weed out spammy SEO strategies.

Why Do We Always Talk About Google and Not the Other Search Engines?

I read and write about SEO aaaalllllll day, and I only ever hear people talk about the allusive “other search engines” when they talk about how they are so spectacularly outperformed by Google.

All search engines have their own algorithms, but Google really blows them all out of the water. Here are some stats for you.

According to Net Marketshare, Google dominates over 70% of the search engine market share. The remaining 30% is divided between nine other search engines.

Net Marketshare graph of search engine market share

According to Internet Live Stats, Google processes 3.5 billion searches every day.

Graph of Google searches per year

This is why, at this stage of internet revolution, people are really only focused on optimising for Googles search algorithms.

What Is SEM?

SEM stands for search engine marketing and generally refers to paid ads within the search engine. This paid search option is often referred to as PPC, which means pay per click, because you pay when a user clicks on your ad.

Sometimes people count SEO as a part of SEM and sometimes they separate the two. Basically, SEO is focused on organic search results whereas SEM is like “get there however you can”.

You can pay to promote your website by using Google Ads. This is done by bidding on keywords to show up at the top of the SERP (search engine result page).

Paid search ads look like this in the SERP.

Screen shot of Google SERP

When Should You Use SEM Strategies?

The main advantage of paid search is that you get results instantly. On average, Google ads get a 2% CTR, which doesn’t sound overwhelming but compare that to 6 months of SEO work just to get one click.

It’s like jumping the queue, or at least increasing your chances of getting to the front. If you need to get your message out in a tight time frame, or you want to target a specific audience, it’s time to invest in paid ads.

When to Use Them Both Together

So, remember how I said that some people will tell you to forget about SEO and some people will tell you that you don’t need to pay for ads (and it’s usually, coincidently, in line with their product)?

There are advantages to both so why not leverage them? A high organic search ranking is a major trust winner because people trust Google’s quality control. A paid ad in the search results is a quick way to get in front of a new audience.

Also, remember how we talked about SEO being a thing that you keep doing all the time? You don’t need to run PPC ads all the time, just do it when you want to give a boost to your website or landing page.

Digital Emily infographic about SEO vs paid search

Hi, By the Way, I’m Emily!

The world of digital marketing changes fast, it’s a fact. What works today will probably have slightly changed by tomorrow and could be a major no-no in a year.

Keeping up with all of this is a full-time job, it’s actually my full-time job! So, if you’d like to hire me to keep your digital marketing blog up to date please don’t be shy, get in touch!