SEM and SEO: Understanding the Key Differences and When to Use Each

by | Mar 15, 2024 | Content Marketing

If you’re a business owner or manager, you’re likely always looking for new ways to drive more traffic to your website. A quick online search will tell you that SEO and SEM are crucial elements of any marketing strategy. But what’s the difference between the two? Are there times when using one over the other is more effective?

There are some key differences between SEO and SEM. SEM is an umbrella term that includes paid advertisements and organic search results. SEO is a subset of SEM, whose primary goal is to boost organic traffic.

The terminology can be confusing, and you want to ensure you’re spending your marketing campaign budget wisely. Fortunately, Full Circle SEM is here to break it all down and give you the traffic-boosting tools you need to grow your company successfully.

The Role of SEM in Marketing

Search engine marketing (SEM) includes technical SEO, which is part of what makes these terms difficult to differentiate from each other. What makes SEM its own entity is that it also encompasses pay-per-click (PPC) search ads.

What are PPC ads? You likely encounter them every day. They appear on search engine results pages in two main ways:

Text-Based PPC Ads

These Google ads appear at the top of the page and look like organic search results. The key difference is that they have a “Sponsored” or “Ad” label indicating they were paid to appear there.

Shopping Ads

Shopping ads showcase product images and allow users to see prices, item descriptions, and more.

Creating PPC Ad Copy

You can design and publish your paid ads in just a few clicks. You want to communicate your message quickly and effectively to drive the most traffic. Then, you end your ad with a call to action, encouraging users to take action and go to your website.

SEO and Organic Traffic

While SEM strategies consist of many elements, including paid advertising, search engine optimization (SEO) refers to the process of optimizing your website to boost organic traffic. As a business owner, your goal is to create web pages that address what your target audience is searching for online. Doing so can organically get your website to the top of the search results page.

The more helpful and relevant your web content is, the better. Here’s how the SEO process works with a search engine like Google:

  1. You publish a page on your brand’s website or update an existing page.
  2. Google bots crawl your site and review the new pages.
  3. If the pages are well-written and thoroughly optimized, Google indexes them.
  4. Google ranks your pages as a search result for a specific query so prospects can find them.

To impress Google, the most visited website in the world,[1] and rank highly, it’s crucial that you know what the search engine giant is looking for. Some of its most consistent ranking factors include:

  • Relevancy
  • Quality
  • User experience

Does your content properly answer common user queries? Is your website high quality, complete with well-written copy and high-resolution images? Is your website fast and easy to navigate? Asking yourself these questions can help you adjust your web pages to meet Google’s specific ranking factors.

All About On-Page SEO

On-page SEO involves optimizing your landing pages according to search engine best practices. Some standard SEO techniques that can make a significant impact include:

Writing Authoritative Content

You’re an expert at what you do, which should be reflected in your web copy. Google’s guidelines for high-quality content are experience, expertise, authoritativeness, and trust. If your writing is unique and confident, Google and other search engines will reward you accordingly.

Finding and Incorporating Relevant Keywords

A keyword is a term a user will input into a search engine when looking for information on a specific topic, product, or service. Once you figure out what your target audience is searching for, you can incorporate these words and phrases throughout your website to direct them to your company.

Crafting Proper Meta Tags

Meta tags include the titles and descriptions of the web pages that appear on search results. They give Google a basic understanding of what that specific page is about to determine how to rank it and which queries to search for. Compelling meta tags help you rank properly and entice users to click on your page over competitors.

Off-Page SEO Tips

There are activities you can engage in to boost your SEO outside of making changes to your web pages. For example, you can try:

Link Building

When another website links to yours as a source, that’s called a backlink. Backlinks are extremely valuable for SEO because they boost your authority and tell Google and other search engines that users can benefit from your content.

Optimizing Your Google Business Profile (GBP)

The more detail you put into your GBP, the higher the likelihood you’ll have of ranking well. And because it displays your reviews, your endorsements from satisfied customers are on full display for prospects to see, drawing traffic to your brand.

When Should You Use SEM and SEO?

You should use SEM and SEO strategies to help your business stand out from the rest. But is there one you should prioritize over the other? Let’s break it down.

You should prioritize SEO if you:

  • Have a smaller budget
  • Are targeting informal keywords
  • Are aiming to establish your brand and build credibility

You should focus more on SEM if you:

  • Want quick results
  • Have a flexible budget and want more control
  • Are targeting transactional keywords

If you aren’t sure which strategy to focus on first, an expert marketing agency like Full Circle SEM can analyze your unique needs and create a custom plan that helps you meet your goals.

Grow Your Business With SEO and SEM

While there are key differences between SEO and SEM, both play crucial roles in helping businesses grow. When you take advantage of these strategies at the correct times, you can attract more customers to your website and boost your click-through rate. Full Circle SEM is here to help you reach your company goals through top-tier SEM and SEO marketing services. For more information, contact us today.




Justin Ober

Justin built his first website and eBay store while in high school (circa 1999) and has had a hand in internet marketing ever since. After graduating from Penn State University he headed for warmer weather in sunny South Florida, where he worked on both the client and agency side of digital marketing. Yada, yada, yada, he's since managed over $30 million in digital ad spend and is an expert in all things PPC.

If you’re ready to take your brand to the next level, call 888-757-2714 or contact us here today.