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What’s the Difference Between SEO and SEM?

Brianna Barcena
May 30, 2018

What’s the Difference Between SEO and SEM?

SEO stands for search engine optimization, and SEM stands for search engine marketing.

So what’s the difference between the two?

SEO experts focus on generating traffic and leads through organic search whereas SEM experts aim to generate traffic and leads through organic and paid search. When it comes to practicing SEO and SEM, it’s not an either/or — SEM actually includes SEO tactics.

Still confused

Still confused? Don’t worry, it can often sound like jibberish! We’ll explain what both SEO and SEM experts do, rather than soley their differences, to help paint the picture for you. 

What does an SEO expert do?

An SEO expert’s job includes a number of day-to-day responsibilities, from finding the right keywords to go after to reading industry news daily to ensure that the right tactics are being used. Below are some tasks an SEO expert might focus on.

Perform keyword research

Anyone working in SEO should have a firm grasp on how to perform keyword research.

So, what’s a keyword? A keyword is a word or phrase you type into a search engine, like Google, to find the answer or result that you were looking for.

If you’re trying to figure out what kind of spider you just ran away from was, you might type in “ugly brown spider in Texas.” As long as it may seam, that is, in fact, a long-tail keyword.

SEO associates need to understand the difference between long-tail and short-tail keywords, know the industry well enough to find relevant keywords, and be able to perform competitor research using tools like Moz and SEMRush.

They also must be able to find new keyword targets to go after, and should be able to identify which pages on the site should be used to achieve a ranking in search engines.

Optimize copy for keyword success

Finding the right keywords to target is nowhere near the stopping point for an SEO team. They also need to be able to optimize pages for keyword success.

Between meta title, meta description, on-page copy, and blog posts, there are usually a lot of words for SEO experts to work with. There’s an art to optimizing copy for keyword rankings, and it’s not always easy when Google is constantly changing their search engine algorithm.

And I mean CONSTANTLY changing their algorithm. 

There needs to be a balance between creating engaging copy for readers and ensuring that the right keywords are naturally, but prominently, placed. This makes it easier for search engines to understand your content and boost your rankings.

Optimize on-page experience

SEO experts are also invested in the way site visitors engage with site content.

Little is known about how search algorithms evaluate stats like bounce rates, time spent on page, and average pages per visit. What we do know is that how engaging your site is matters. If a site contains clear and engaging content, it is more likely to rank higher in a search engine, which can directly create organic traffic.

We also know, from a business perspective, that you should be optimizing your site for conversions. Whether a conversion for you is a purchase or a subscriber, an SEO expert needs to make sure that the site is going to both get the traffic and the conversions needed for success.

Understand technical foundations

Even if you have the best copy and an engaging experience for visitors, it’s going to be difficult for you to get your pages to show up organically without understanding how to:

  • Reduce image file sizes to improve page speed
  • Create optimized URL structures
  • Use internal linking strategies to boost higher-priority pages

They also need to be able to use tools like Screaming Frog and Deep Crawl to look at the technical aspects of the site. A strong technical foundation is necessary to make it easier for search engines to crawl your site.

Develop a high-quality backlink profile

SEO experts know that in order to rank, you need to build up your site’s domain authority. Domain authority is your website’s level of authority in the eyes of a search engine.

There are websites out there that have built up a ton of authority–think Forbes, Amazon, Facebook–and they have done so by receiving a bunch of references (links) from other sites.

An external link shows search engines that your site is worth sharing with a publisher’s audience. The more links you have from reputable (not spammy) sites, the more authority your site will have. This creates a better chance for you to rank for your desired keywords.

Search engines prefer to show users a reputable site over one that’s new and hasn’t gained any street cred. An SEO expert has to work to develop a backlink profile filled with high-quality, relevant links.

A link from a seafood market website to your luxury shoe website will look a bit fishy, and a bunch of links from spammy or low-quality sites won’t help much either.

Sites like Ahrefs and Moz are often used to look at backlink profiles to make sure they are credible.

Social sharing signals

While social media may not seem connected to search, it absolutely is! A website’s digital presence should include a presence on social media, as well as on search engines.

Social sites like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, and Pinterest are actually some of Google’s top competitors. Each one of these sites is competing for audience time because the longer a person is on the site, the more ads they’ll see. The more ads they see, the more money the company will make.

A strong social presence can increase your success in search.

Think about it…

Say you post an adorable video of Oreo the cat snuggling up with Henry the pig on Facebook and it goes viral. You better believe that Google is going to show the video as a top result when people search for “cat and pig snuggling.”

Otherwise, Google wouldn’t be providing the best results.

Pig and cat cuddle

While the exact details of how social presence impacts search results are unknown, SEO specialists definitely see a relationship between social and search success.

While there is much more involved in the everyday life of an SEO expert, this sums up some of their main priorities. Some SEO pros may focus on one specific area, while others may have well-rounded knowledge in all of these areas.

Now let’s move on to how SEM relates to SEO!

What does an SEM expert do?

An SEM expert may do all of the above, and then some.

Typically, if a marketing organization has an SEM team rather than an SEO team and a separate paid search team, there will still be divisions between paid and organic tactics within the SEM team.

So, since we already know what the organic side of the team would work on, what would the paid side of the team do?

Perform keyword research

Yes, an SEO team will perform keyword research too, but the way that an SEM team will perform keyword research is a little different. Both need to expertly understand the difference between long-tail and short-tail keywords. The difference is, a paid search expert will need to look at a cost in addition to relevance.

An organic search expert will likely try to rank for every single relevant keyword. A paid search expert, on the other hand, will only bid on the most profitable keywords and will need to make tradeoffs on a regular basis.

Tools like SEMRush and Google Adwords are most commonly used in SEM to find the right keywords to target in their bids.

Understand quality scores and CPCs

Quality score is Google’s rating of the relevance and quality of keywords and ads. A paid search expert must understand what goes into the calculation of a quality score and how it relates to CPCs (costs per click).

A Quality score depends on a number of factors including your ad’s click-through rate (CTR), landing page quality and relevance to the targeted keywords, relevancy of your ad’s text, and your AdWords account’s past performance.

An ad’s quality score is used to determine your CPC and is multiplied with your maximum bid to determine your ad’s ranking. Better quality scores are important to keep costs down and ensure that your ad is placed well in search.

Calculate CPAs and LTVs

Lowering your CPCs directly relates to your CPAs (costs per acquisition). Lower CPCs means you’ll get more visitors to your site. Assuming that your site is relevant to the ads you’re serving, more visitors to your site means lower cost per acquisition for subscribers or customers.

A paid search expert must know how to calculate CPA as well as customer LTV (lifetime value). If your CPAs are higher than your LTVs, then you’ve got a problem.

Use retargeting

One of the key areas in which a paid search team can work with an organic search team is through retargeting. The SEM team can use paid advertising to retarget anyone who visited the site already. There’s a good chance that a lot of your paying customers had more than one interaction with your site before they made a purchase.

You might be getting a lot of organic search traffic to your site, but if conversions are low, then you may need to put some effort into retargeting to get visitors to come back and make their purchase. Retargeting is also used in paid social efforts, and your paid search and social teams should work together to determine the best strategies.

The main difference between SEO and SEM is that SEM includes paid search strategies. Some marketing organizations may split their entire team by paid and organic. Other teams may split by channels–search, social, influencers, etc.

same but different

No matter how the marketing organizational structure looks, it’s important that your two search teams work and build strategies together.

About the Author

Brianna Barcena
Brianna Barcena is a Content Specialist at TrustRadius. When she's not in the office, she enjoys reading, watching a good historical drama, doing yoga, and going on adventures with her dog, Deeks.

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