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SEM vs SEO: What’s the Difference?

Date Posted: Tuesday, 18 June 2013 18:04
Posted By: Kerry Butters

Most people who deal with websites have come across the term SEO (search engine optimization) before, but are not so familiar with the term SEM (search engine marketing). Many assume that they are one and the same, but they would be wrong on this count.


SEO can be considered a part of SEM, but the latter really is an overall term to describe how a site is placed in by search engines. Unlike SEO however, SEM has more tools at its disposal, including:

  • Pay-per-click (PPC)
  • SEO
  • ROI monitoring, analytics and reporting
  • Paid for inclusions and trusted feed programs
  • Reputation development

Sometimes you may hear SEM being referred to as PPC marketing, but again, this doesn’t really encompass the broadness of the discipline.

PPC and Google AdWords

PPC marketing revolves mostly around keyword research to effectively create targeted marketing campaigns. Advertisers pay when an ad is clicked, either through a set monthly fee (although a daily budget is generally used) or by bidding for keywords, which are relevant to their target market.

A very popular and well-known example of PPC ads is Google AdWords and when a search is made, these results will often be shown at the top of the page. This depends on the keywords used and relevancy to what the searcher has entered as a search term. On search engines and other sites, you will see these appear as sponsored links or sponsored ads.

There are two main types of PPC: flat-rate and bid-based, both of which rely upon how much value an advertiser places on the potential click. These should be highly targeted using primary and secondary keywords and are based on interests, content, location and whether the searcher intends to buy or not.

The basic formula for both models is as below:

Cost per click = advertising cost ÷ ads clicked

For flat-rate PPC, both the publisher and advertiser agree a fixed price for each click, depending on the perceived value of the content and how much traffic it receives. This model allows advertisers to achieve a high level of targeting and often point to sites whose entire income depends on advertisers.

Bid-based PPC allows advertisers to participate in a kind of auction on an advertising network, where they compete against others to use keywords that are highly popular. This is all done automatically when an ad is clicked through on, with the highest bidder winning the advertising spot. However, when there is more than one spot, for example on the search engines, often the winning bidder will appear at the top of the list, with others below.

Advantages to SEM

As it’s a paid model, SEM obviously has a competitive advantage over SEO, although ideally the two should work together to increase visibility and keep costs down. SEM can be invaluable for campaigns that involve special offers and marketing drives. These days there are numerous sites that can offer PPC, including social, so a well thought out campaign can be very effective.

It’s a difficult matter to get a website to the top of the SERPs organically, so if your business relies on internet sales, then SEM is almost mandatory. Chances are, if your site is well-optimized and uses SEM, then it could appear both as a sponsored link and organically further down, doubling the chance of a click-through.

As far as competitors go, this can mean that they can effectively be ‘filtered’ down the search results if the job is done properly, although this won’t always be the case as it will depend largely on advertising budgets.

Landing Pages

A landing page is a targeted page that allows you to measure how much traffic is gained by offering some form of incentive or call-to-action (CTA). This will be the page that a visitor arrives at when they click through on your ad, which will generally include something to capture interest.

Whilst many companies have their home page as a landing page, these are commonly not optimized to convert visitors into leads or sales. This is because information on the home page is often general and doesn’t offer a specific incentive.

A landing page should prompt user action and so when creating, it should be optimized for this purpose. This can be something along the lines of special offers, which can then be acted upon once the visitor gets to the site, effectively prompting them to complete the transaction.

Good landing pages should be:

  • Clear with simple navigation
  • Strong CTA
  • Highly appealing visually
  • Social sharing enabled
  • Short and sweet
  • Tested thoroughly

Keyword Bidding and distribution

We’ve already mentioned the importance of keywords and touched briefly on bidding, and a good starting point for the beginner would be Google AdWords and search engine suggestions. The latter will tell you how competitive a keyword is and suggest bids and how much scope they should have.

Keyword research does take some experimentation and testing to get it right, but this can be an interesting process. Software can also help with this, there is a plethora of SEM/SEO software out there and even a good CMS can make keyword suggestions that you can go on to compare with those offered by the search engines.

Keyword research is an ongoing process, as often you will be outbid by a newcomer on the scene or a competitor may boost bids in an attempt to place better than you. Distribution is also relevant to this, as new publishers come along all the time that may or may not provide improved traffic.

Despite it being a paid model, keywords should not be abused in PPC any more than they should in SEO. This means that they should be distributed onsite evenly and not over-used, especially in headers and meta information.

Keyword stuffing is spam, even if you’re paying for advertising, and search engines take a dim view of it.

Both SEM and SEO are complex and there is no exact science to say how it should be carried out, no step-by-step instruction. As such, it’s recommended that a SEO professional is used to oversee campaigns, although basic upkeep for content and keywords can be carried out by staff.

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