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What’s the Difference? Understanding SEM and SEO Once and For All

SEO in play letters on wooden table

Heard of the terms SEM or SEO and wondering what all those letters mean (and what you should be doing with them)? These are important concepts to know, especially if you want to market your business online.

But trying to figure out SEO and SEM can get confusing, because the terms are similar and often used interchangeably. So what is the easiest way to start understanding the difference between the two?

SEM stands for search engine marketing, and can include a wide range of activities. SEO, or search engine optimization, is a specific tactic that can fall under the SEM umbrella.

Let’s take a closer look at what else SEM entails — along with what SEO is specifically — and consider how both can benefit your small business.

Understanding SEM for your small business

Search engine marketing refers to a range of activities and campaigns you can undertake in order to market your business online. Specifically, SEM aims to increase your site’s visibility in search engine results.

You can achieve greater visibility with SEM in two main ways. The first is by optimizing your site and your content. When you optimize, search engines view your site as more relevant, valuable, and authoritative than other possible results and therefore rank your site higher.

The second way to increase site visibility in search engine results is through advertising. Small businesses can use various ad campaigns offered by the search engines themselves to appear in better positions for relevant searches.

These campaigns are usually pay-per-click ads, or PPC. AdWords, offered by Google, is the most popular ad platform for SEM.

The basics of SEO

That first way of achieving greater visibility describes search engine optimization. This is an organic approach, meaning you earn rankings and results rather than paying to be more visible to search engine users.

SEO is all about making your site more user-friendly for people, and easier for search engines to understand and catalogue. Following best practices means you set up your website and other content (like a business blog) in a way that’s organized and easy to understand.

The ultimate goal of an SEO strategy is to rank higher in search engine results, by signaling to those search engines that your site offers important, relevant, high-quality content that searchers want to find.

Just as SEO is only part of SEM, there are countless different steps and processes you can follow as part of an SEO-specific strategy. Some of these best practices include:

  • Understanding the keywords that people are searching for, and optimizing your site to rank for those keywords.
  • Using keywords in important places, like page titles, headings, and image names.
  • Creating a responsive site that’s well-designed, clearly organized, and easy to navigate.
  • Earning links back to your website from other, high-authority sites.
Should you focus on SEM or SEO?

Again, the biggest difference between SEM and SEO is that SEM describes a wide range of activities you can use in your digital marketing efforts. SEO is just one of those specific tactics, and a good SEM strategy will make use of SEO.

Ultimately, “what’s the difference?” might not be the right question to ask. If you want to build a great website and then draw people to your site, you need to ask something like, “What SEM strategies make sense for my digital marketing plan?”

SEO should be one of the answers to that question. You can use an SEO-friendly website builder to create a site that’s optimized to perform well with search engines. And then you can continue to use SEO best practices on your site and with your content to draw in traffic.

Once your site is up and running with SEO tactics in mind, you could also look at other SEM tactics, like pay-per-click ads that appear in search engine results. You could dabble with AdWords campaigns or paid ads on social media platforms, too.

Go organic first with SEO, explore SEM later

Prioritizing SEO over other SEM tactics means taking an “organic-first” approach. That means you prioritize activities that can organically earn you traffic. If you try other SEM activities first, like paid advertising, you’re paying for traffic instead of earning it.

There’s nothing wrong with either approach. But for a small business looking to grow, focusing on organic first can save you money and help you expand your reach to a wider audience without paying for ads. Turning to paid advertising later lets you capitalize on that initial growth and continue to scale.

Now that you know the difference between SEM and SEO, you can learn more about search engine marketing with confidence — including how you can use search engine optimization to help your site naturally appear more visible in search results. Go forth and start digging into the strategy that feels best for the stage your small business is in!

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