SEO vs SEM – A Complete Overview

Owning a website is a lot of work. Creating new, useful content takes time and dedication. Meanwhile, delivering traffic to your site can be inconsistent and expensive, especially when first starting out.

To make things harder, competition in internet marketing has never been more fierce. SEO vs SEM is a classic comparison of two highly effective marketing channels. They are two of the most powerful traffic sources that you should understand and focus on when starting out (or when taking the next step) with your website.

My goal in this article is to explain the major differences between SEO vs SEM, and help you decide where your time, money and effort should be focused. Let’s start with a brief, simple explanation of the differences between SEO and SEM

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SEO vs SEM – What Are the Differences?

SEO vs SEM
Plain text Google example of SEO vs SEM

SEO

  • Free to compete
  • Listings show on Google and Bing below paid ads
  • Takes a long time to rank (years to be highly competitive, especially in lucrative markets)

SEM

  • Costs money
  • Ads show in a variety of places, including above all of the organic (SEO) results on Google and Bing
  • Ads can be running within hours
  • 40-60% of people click ads

So to put things simply, SEO is your free entryway onto Google, and SEM is a paid entry onto the results page. Both channels can be extremely challenging, and both are no doubt competitive. They are also very different in practice.

What is SEO?

^ See this heading? The big, bold text that reads, “What is SEO?” Behind that, in the HTML code of my website, it is defined as an <h2> header. This is important, and it might be the reason that you found my website today.

Put simply, SEO, or search engine optimization, is the process of structuring your website content and code to be highly compatible with search engines (like Google and Bing). This allows the major search engines to display your pages and posts on their sites when people are searching for relevant terms.

For example, if you search “SEO vs SEM” on Google, you might see my article displayed like this in the results:

Organic listing components

I have defined my SEO title and SEO description so that Google knows what to put in each section.

What are the Benefits of SEO?

Using proper SEO guidelines on your website will allow you to better rank on Google’s organic results (and other search engines). Google has an incredibly complex algorithm that runs on every single search that takes place. It takes many things into consideration when determining what websites should show up, and SEO practices can help you rank higher.

The benefit is obvious: if your site ranks higher on the search engine results page (SERP), you will get more clicks to your website. With more clicks comes more opportunity to drive your business.

Google Ads SERP

Structuring Content to be SEO Friendly

Let’s take a hypothetical situation: You are writing an article about bear attacks, and how to avoid getting attacked by a bear.

You can approach this in a couple ways:

1. Write a huge, 3,000 word paragraph all about bears, without using any line breaks or headings.

  • This is not great. It is going to be hard to read and will likely not give your bear fearing readers a good experience.

2. Write a concise, 1,500 word article with easy to read formatting and spacing.

  • This is much better. Most reader’s like smaller paragraphs and bold headings to know where to find the information they are seeking.

The second option is clearly better, and Google knows it.

Best practice in SEO ultimately aligns with giving your website users a better browsing experience.

At the most basic level, this means using header tags properly, like your <h1> Header 1 tag</h1> and <h2>Header 2 tags</h2>. These are simple HTML codes, but they allow you to tell Google what your article is about.

The H1 is the overall intent of your article. This should clearly define what your page is about in a few words.

H2s are the next level of structure in your content. These are sub-headings that are usually bold, and define major categories of the content on your page.

H3s are the next level of structure, and can help break down your writing further.

You get the idea. It’s basically like using bullet points, where each further indented point is a higher header level:

H1

  • H2
    • H3…

However, header tags are not the only important SEO guidelines to follow. Here are a few of the most important SEO rules to improve your likelihood of ranking.

SEO Ranking Guidelines (This is an H3)

  • Focus your content. Focus your article on a very specific topic, or a certain search term that you want to rank for on Google. Use these terms throughout your article to ensure Google knows the subject matter. (However, don’t be spammy! Too much unnecessary repetition can cause the opposite effect)
  • Acquire backlinks. Links to your posts and website from other, reputable websites tell Google that your site is trustworthy. This is a key ranking factor, but it can be difficult to acquire links early on.
  • Be helpful. Ultimately, you can’t do better than actually helping a user when they are in need of your expert knowledge or service. Google is getting better and better at understanding when a website actually helped, vs when it did not.
  • Learn more from Google’s own SEO optimization guide guide.

How To Improve Your SEO In WordPress

Following SEO guidelines in WordPress is made easy by things like Gutenberg blocks and a myriad of useful plugins. If you are using WordPress, you will probably see something like this when you write articles:

Gutenberg block selector.

This allows you to select whether your text is a header, a paragraph, or some other type of HTML object (like an image, a list, a table, etc.).

Tip: You should also download Yoast SEO. This is a free WordPress plugin that will analyze your article for issues and help guide you to get your posts into good SEO shape.

Yoast SEO plugin.

Does The Length Of An Article Affect SEO Rankings?

It can, but only if the content needs to be long to help your customer. The article you’re reading now is a long one, but the subject is pretty complex. There is a lot to learn about SEO and SEM, so I am writing a lot to be thorough. If you write 3,000 words on a subject that can be answered in 500 words, that excess writing isn’t going to help you rank.

For example, “How many stars are in the Milky Way?” is a pretty simple question. Someone searching for this is likely looking for a quick number, and most are probably not looking to read every possible fact about the Milky Way galaxy. The length of your article should depend on how long it needs to be to cover the subject matter thoroughly.

However, if you are writing a broader article about the Milky Way galaxy, you could perhaps answer this question within a sub-section of your article, and rank within a featured snippet.

Featured snippets are highlighted organic search results that appear in boxes above the organic listings, and below paid ads. They aim to answer a searcher’s question without having to leave the search engine.

The most commonly seen snippet is when searching for the weather. However, they are becoming very prevalent for question based searches. Let’s use our Milky Way example:

I wanted to know how many stars there were in our galaxy, and now I know. (Well, I know within an error margin of 150 billion…). But the point is, I didn’t even have to leave Google to find out.

This can be bad for website owners, but many searchers will still click through the organic Google snippet to find out more information. So it has become another target when attempting to rank on Google SEO.

Having a clear structure on your articles is the key to obtaining the featured snippet position for a given search. Simply put, using your H2s and H3s properly, and providing clearly defined descriptions below them is the optimal recipe.

For example, in a long article about the Milky Way, we may have an H2 headline titled “How Many Stars are in the Milky Way Galaxy?” Below this, a paragraph would outline a few simple sentences answering the question clearly, perhaps using bold text on the most important sentence.

Through this practice, your larger articles can end up ranking for a variety of smaller searches. In some cases (if you’re a bit lucky) you’ll get the featured snippet for these more specific searches and increase your traffic.

Note: Your article doesn’t have to be in position 1 on the organic results in order to achieve a featured snippet! If you have a better page structure for getting the snippet, you may just outrank position 1 for the snippet.

What Is SEO Schema?

While using proper heading tags and formatting is imperative, a newer form of coded structure can give more detailed information to the search engines. SEO schema is the markup language used to give detailed information about your web pages to Google and other search engines. This data is used to display more informative and rich organic results.

Here is an example of an organic result that pulls “review schema” from the website and displays it in the form of a star-rating:

What Is Product Schema?

Product schema are tags added to your product pages for different elements on the page. For example, you can mark up your product’s Title, Price and even Reviews. Once you have added the code, Google can use the data on the page to display a more meaningful organic result. Using product schema is key for increasing your CTR from organic results. The more details you have, the larger your organic result often becomes.

This is an example of Product Schema used on a product page at apple.com:

This organic result is more informative, includes some color, and is all around more likely to be clicked.

Do I need to use Schema markup?

Not every industry warrants the use of schema markup. It can be a time consuming task with little benefit if you don’t have useful information for Google to use. However, if you have things like reviews, products for sale or any inventory that can be in or out of stock, you should learn more about using Schema.

Use Google’s structured data markup helper to start to get a feel for how Schema works, and whether your site will benefit from it’s use.

How Long Does it Take To Get SEO Traffic?

This is a key factor for some marketers. If you don’t have patience, SEO will not be your friend. It typically takes a new article over 6 months to begin seeing meaningful results from organic SEO-based traffic.

However, this is not always the case. A new article written for an established website that has hundreds of backlinks and a great SEO history may take just a few days or even hours to rank highly on Google.

The toughest part of SEO is in the early stages of a new website.

How to Rank Faster in SEO

  1. Find a niche. Using keyword research, you can often find very specific topics that are related to your main field. Seek these out, and write about them in depth. Don’t expect to start a new camera-based website today and be ranking for “best cameras” tomorrow! But maybe you can rank for “best underwater cameras for snorkeling” in a few months.
  2. Make connections. Whether you like it or not, your competition can also be your friend. Backlinks are one of the most important ranking factors in organic search, so if you can get more legitimate websites to link to your site, you will fare better.
  3. Keep people on your site longer. Pay attention to Google Analytics. If your users are bouncing away from your site quickly, spending only a few seconds on your site before leaving, this is a bad sign to Google. Watch bounce rate and session duration.
  4. Be useful. This is not a direct SEO ranking factor, but if you are actually helping your audience with what they need, then the organic rankings will follor.

There is always more to learn about SEO, and the landscape is constantly changing. However, if you leave here with one simple takeaway on SEO, let it be this:

Google wants nothing more than for searchers to find what they are looking for, fast. Deliver that, and you are sure to excel.

What is SEM?

SEM is also a type of search engine tool, but instead of simply organizing your website to rank better naturally, you are paying to show up on the SERP.

Put simply, SEM, or search engine marketing, is the paid placement of advertisements on Google and other marketing platforms. SEM has many other names, like PPC, display marketing and PLA advertising to name a few.

Google earns over 90% of profits from PPC advertising.

This should tell you something. If Google, one of the world’s largest companies, makes almost all of its money through paid ads, then you know it is a huge industry.

But it is also one of the most effective forms of advertising. It can be easily monitored and analyzed. Budgets can be clearly defined and paced throughout the days, weeks and months. It is a fast way to gain exposure across a multitude of platforms and areas on the internet, not just on Google.com.

What Are The Different Types of PPC Ads?

There lots of platforms that you can use to place paid advertisements. Here, I will focus on the major platforms and what types of ads they offer. I will also limit this to search engines (as SEM pertains to search engine marketing). Even so, there are plenty of options.

Text Ads

Text Ad Example
Example screenshot of a text ad on Google.

These are the ad placements that you see when you search for almost anything on Google. If you want to buy something, or especially if you are looking for a specialty service (like an accountant or lawyer) you’ll see a PPC text ad.

Product Listing Ads

PLA Ads
Example screenshot of PLA ads.

Product listing ads, or PLAs, are advertisements specifically designed for selling physical products (like headphones or sneakers). These ads contain an image, a price and a seller, and often appear in a horizontal bar along the top of Google.

Not all product categories are eligible to serve PLA ads, as not everything sold really requires a graphic. These ads tend to have a very high CTR when compared to text ads on the same SERP.

Banner Ads

Example screenshot of a banner ad.

These are not strictly located on search engine platforms, but they do appear on YouTube and some other search engines. Banner ads are on the Google or Microsoft’s display networks. They are image ads that advertisers can place across thousands of websites on the internet. Targeting can be tricky, but you can usually narrow down where your banner ads will show to a specific demographic or audience.

Video Ads

Video Ads on YouTube
Example screenshot of a video ad on YouTube.

Almost always a YouTube strategy, video ads are full blown video advertisements that can be placed on the internet. You’ve likely seen these in a skippable format on YouTube before a video begins.

These can be highly effective for branding purposes, or for generating leads. Again, you can target your ads by narrownig down by gender, demographic, age, interests, and much more.

Amazon PPC

Amazon Sponsored Product Ad Example
Example screenshot of an Amazon Sponsored Product ad.

Amazon is a massive marketplace for buying physical goods online. So now, more than ever before, people are starting their buying journey on Amazon.com. That means that Amazon is actually a pretty huge search engine. Amazon now allows you to place sponsored product ads on Amazon that appear above the “organic” Amazon results.

These ads are only for products being sold on Amazon’s platform, so if you are only selling on your own website, this option may not be suitable.

Alternate Platforms (Quora, Twitter, Pinterest)

Example screenshot of a Quora ad.

There are a few other websites that are highly popular, but tend to cater to a very specific audience. However, this may actually be a good thing for your business. Quora is hyper focused on answering users’ questions. Twitter is both a product based and news based platform. Pinterest is largely used by females, and tends to focus on DIY projects and sharing creative ideas.

All of these platforms offer paid advertising for businesses, but are not as general as the aforementioned PPC ad types.

How Expensive is PPC Advertising?

PPC budgets vary extremely widely. However, the barrier to entry is extremely low for many businesses. When compared to other advertising mediums, like TV or radio ads, the cost to get started is much more attainable. The average cost per click on Google Ads is about $2.50. This number is much lower for some industries, and is much higher in others.

Put simply, the price of PPC advertising is fully dependent on how much your competition is willing to pay for website traffic. If you are advertising on competitive terms like “attorney quote,” then your cost per click will likely be higher.

Price should not however deter you from starting with SEM. The price per click is often justified by the value of a customer. Using clever marketing strategy, you can decrease your CPC and make your SEM well worth it.

Can I do SEM for Free?

Many platforms offer a start-up promotion for new advertisers. If you are brand new to Google Ads, they are known to offer a $100 ad credit when you spend $50. Check Google here to see if there are any active promotions.

Aside from introductory offers, SEM is not free. By definition, PPC is a pay-per-click advertising medium, and the paid traffic is what differentiates it from organic SEO.

How Can I Learn PPC Advertising?

If you’re interested in learning how to manage your own PPC advertising, start by reading through my introduction to PPC. I spent 50+ hours compiling all of the resources you need to get started from nothing.

From there, be sure to continue learning about PPC by staying up to day with the PPCAdGeek newsletter. I will send you emails with actionable tips and insights into the latest PPC trends.

Proven PPC Marketing Tactics
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Easy To Implement PPC Tips

SEO vs SEM – Which Should I Use?

So now you have a basic understanding of the differences between SEO vs SEM. Now it’s time to decide: which is right for you?

Do you want to focus 100% on SEO, writing useful content that is well organized and thoroughly researched?

Do you want to focus all your time on SEM, balancing money spent with money returned to deliver quicker results?

The answer is never the same for two businesses, but I will offer some advice: Never put all of your eggs in one basket when running your online business.

If you put everything into paid marketing, and neglect your SEO quality, your business is going to be highly dependent on PPC. If you focus all on SEO and ignore PPC, you could be missing out on over 50% of your potential traffic.

Spend some time considering your options to market your website with SEO and SEM. There are constant changes in both industries. Make it a habit to read new articles as they come out. And as always, if you have any questions about SEM in particular, feel free to contact me.

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