SEO vs SEM: What’s the Difference?

SEO vs SEM: What’s the Difference?

As you begin to plan out your online marketing strategy, you’re going to get bombarded with a bunch of different terms.

Most of these terms are acronyms, seemingly representing the same things. Probably the first two terms that you will come across are going to be SEM and SEO. Their definitions are very similar, mostly because SEO is a subcategory of SEM.

Read on to understand what the specific differences with SEO vs SEM.

SEO vs SEM: What’s the Difference?

Keep in mind that SEO stands for search engine optimization, while SEM stands for search engine marketing. Your search engine marketing strategy will include search engine optimization because it is a broader stroke of your plan to market online.

That is a simple summary of the main categories that you should be using to think about these terms. Many of the aspects involved in these things are essential to establishing an effective presence online. We’ll cover them both in detail in order for you to have a good understanding of the terms and how they can benefit your website.

What is Search Engine Optimization?

A lot of hype has come up recently surrounding search engine optimization and for good reason. Developing a sophisticated plan to have a highly visible website is one of the few things you can do to make your business, website, or blog grow exponentially.

The foundation of SEO is the idea that all search engines operate using an algorithm. Google’s algorithm, for example, has a highly intelligent algorithm that uses somewhere around two hundred factors to determine which websites are relevant and which aren’t.

Other search engines operate similarly, but Google’s is the most commonly used so it is researched more intensely. Search engines have an agenda, and it involves providing results that are most relevant to the searches that users put into their sites. If the results are more relevant, the logic goes, the more likely the user is to come back to the site.

What Does That Mean for Site Owners?

This means that search engines have a lot of motivation to keep their algorithms secret. If all websites understood and used the algorithm to their advantage, sites that held literally no value to the user could cheat the system and rise to the top of the search, providing no benefit to the person searching and devaluing the search engine’s reputation.

There are some tried and true methods that we know search engines have to use, however. We’ll cover those methods in the following section, but one thing to keep in the back of your mind is to never overdo these methods because search engines will catch on.

Pandering to the criteria of a search engine will get you a lot of results in the short run. Still, search engines have a vested interest in providing quality content to a majority of people around the world. The algorithm also accounts for people who are trying to cheat the system, and doing so could potentially get you unlisted from Google.

Things like spam, pointless content, and false advertising are all things that will look terrible for you, and will only do you harm in the long run. The ultimate goal is to create quality content that also fits into the specifications of the search engine.

What Are the Things We Know About the Algorithm?

There are a few primary tactics that all websites should use to be well received by search engines. While we don’t know the specifics of any algorithm, we do know that search engines need to use the following specifications in order to optimize user experience.


The first information that gets put into the search engine is a word or phrase that a user is trying to search. This is the primary piece of data that sites like Google will use to find what a person is looking for.

Say a person searches for “good baseball gloves.” Google will search through its inventory, find the top websites that have that specific set of words in that order, and categorize them in order of which has that set of words the most times. This brings up an idea that we already discussed– pandering to the algorithm.

Google might find three websites in the vast ocean of the internet that have the words “good baseball gloves” over three thousand times. Unless the web page is novel-length, there is no reason for it to have that phrase that many times. That will be a red flag, eliminating that page from the possible options.

Websites that have the keyword or phrase in the right amount are the ones that will be the most successful and likely to show up in a search. From the end of the website owner, things are a little bit more challenging.

How to Optimize Keywords

The main goal when you’re considering keywords should be to organically place keywords and phrases into the text. You don’t need to overdo the placement of keywords, because doing so will actually harm you. The best bet is to have a word or phrase in mind and use it whenever you see fit.

Having an idea of what word to use will usually prime that word in your mind while you’re typing, allowing it to come up organically. If you’re struggling to find keywords that you should use, try to imagine what words you would use to find your site.

If you would type “best food near me,” and you live in Austin, Texas, make your keyword something like “best food in Austin.” It should just be whatever would be most widely used as a keyword or phrase to find the information on your site.

Competitor Analysis

One of the best ways to get a jump on your own SEO strategy is to find out what your successful competitors are doing. There are a lot of options online that allow you to get a rundown of the SEO strategies of those who are in your niche. You can find a surprising amount of relevant data for you and your website.

You can narrow your research down to the keywords that they are using, how often they are using them, which people are searching those keywords, and where those people are from. It’s likely that you are just starting out with your website.

When you’re just starting, you are likely trying to reach an audience that is centrally located around you. People in specific areas search different keywords than they would if they lived elsewhere. For this reason, using competitor analysis to find out what works in your area can be life or death.

How to Approach Links

Linking is another essential element of search engine optimization. You can think of links as votes in favor of the relevance of the site they are linking to. If there is any indicator that is exceptionally reliable, it is going to be linking.

The thing about links is that they are hard to come by. Unless you reach some level of authority online, with people raving about your site and wanting others to see it, you are going to have to work for the links you get in the beginning. It is probably something that hasn’t crossed your mind if you’re new to optimization.

You want to have a healthy variety of links. Link to your own content in your pages where it is relevant. While links from yourself aren’t as valuable as ones from others, it still won’t hurt to throw a few in there. You’ll also want to link to other sites in your content.

Spread the love around to relevant sites within your niche to create a large network of sites that are connected to yours. Links to more popular sites will do better than ones to less popular sites.

The most difficult, and most valuable, thing that you can do when it comes to links is to find people that will link to your site. This may require a little conversation, bartering, and work. One effective way to do this is by offering to write something called a guest post.

This is when you offer to write a blog article or web page for another person and embed a link to your site within the text. This brings us to the final essential element of SEO, which is creating original content.

Creating Quality, Original Content

The reason people go to a website is to read and learn about content that they’re interested in in the first place, right? This should be your primary concern. You can do as much SEO legwork as you want to, but without content, your website will never amount to anything.

You may be thinking that your site is simply a directory of your business, and there aren’t many ways for you to add more content. That is fine, and you are wrong about the content. When all else fails, you can bank on the fact that regularly posting to a blog will give you an avenue to post content.

In fact, having a blog could be the most valuable way for you to implement other aspects of SEO as well. Posting once or twice weekly will give you an opportunity to insert keywords, add links, and have more material online that is available to come up in searches.

So, What is SEM?

Search engine marketing is a broader area than search engine optimization. As we mentioned before, SEO is encompassed by SEM. While SEO is a huge element of search engine marketing, there are a few other elements that are essential to note.

The most important is advertising.

Advertising Via Search Engines

While searches are going to give you a huge amount of traffic, advertising online might be a little more effective and fast. Most search engines have platforms that allow you to pay for advertisements that are targeted to specific audiences.

This poses two huge benefits. The first is that your advertisements are going to be readily available for people to see on Google without having to do the heavy legwork of crafting an SEO strategy and paying ridiculous amounts for results that might not happen. Additionally, there is an ingenious process called “pay-per-click.”

Pay per click allows you to get extremely effective results at low prices. You create an advertisement and agree to a rate with, say, Google. You don’t need to pay an initial fee, rather, you are only charged a specific amount every time your advertisement is clicked.

This is great because you can stick to your exact budget. If your advertisement is successful and appealing to audiences, you will get a number of clicks that reaches your pre-established budget. The price will not go over that budget, however, because the ad will be removed once you’ve hit the max amount of money you agreed to spend.

Target Audiences

In this way, you get exactly what you pay for. Additionally, you get to choose exactly which demographic you advertise to. Google has a thumb on who is using their site, and they know their habits. Because of this, you have the ability to choose, say, young females in Virginia, and Google will place your ad in places that those people generally go on the internet.

For the two reasons listed above, using advertisements through search engines can get you extremely effective, affordable marketing results. This kind of advertising is probably the most essential element of your SEM platform. There are other elements that you should consider, and this is only a taste of SEM, but the information above should serve as a good way of understanding SEO vs SEM.

Need Any Help With Other Web Technologies?

Understanding SEO vs SEM is only the beginning of creating and managing a successful site. There are a lot of things that you don’t realize you need to do before you actually start your site.

If you’re interested in getting more information on ways to optimize and manage your site, we have all of the information you need.

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