Digital Marketing

The world of websites can be complicated and confusing, especially as it is littered with terminology you may never have heard of before. When you want to grow your business through online channels, the two most important concepts you will find searching the internet are the acronyms SEM and SEO. When incorporated into your business strategy, these two can be just what you need to take to the next level. But what are SEO and SEM and what is the difference?

They are often misused interchangeably, but SEO and SEM are two different marketing channels that businesses can use to reach their target audience on search engines, such as Google and Bing. The main difference between SEO and SEM is that the former is an unpaid strategy focused on bringing organic traffic to your website. While the latter is a paid strategy optimized to primarily capture traffic through spending on a budget.

The difference between these two is simple to understand once it has been explained to you. This article will provide a clear understanding of each of the definitions and what the differences are. Read on to learn more about the difference between SEM and SEO .

SEM vs. SEO: what you need to know

Before starting to plan your strategic approach to improve the online visibility of the company, it is necessary to understand the main difference between Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM). In fact, these are the two main areas of what is called search marketing, in detail:

  • SEO is an approach that uses organic, or non-paid, methods to appear in the results of a search engine, such as Google's. Consequently, the goal is to position one's website among the first results that a person encounters when searching for a word on the internet;
  • SEM is an approach that uses paid methods. Through this strategy, we try to get traffic, or people who visit a website, through pay per click (PPC) ads, for example, positioned on the search engine.

Said in another simpler way, Google search results are divided into two main categories: paid search results and organic ones, the former are free and the latter paid. However, it is very simplistic to define these two digital marketing tactics with such a basic concept, for this reason in the next few lines we will go into the two areas in depth.

What is SEO?

What is SEO?

Search Engine Optimizatio n, SEO for short, is the strategy that allows you to continuously optimize a website in order to position itself on the organic, and unpaid, search engine (SERP) results pages. The term SERP, or Search Engine Results Pages, indicates the page that contains the ordered list of web pages that a user gets when he searches for a word on Google, for example.

In a very competitive world, like the one we find ourselves in today, to be able to be found by potential customers and thus maximize your sales and profit, it is essential to invest in this tactic. In fact, when you are asked a question to the search engine, only the first results that appear are taken into consideration, and you never go to look at the second page. Hence, most of the traffic is received from the links to the websites that are in the top positions. In the digital marketing industry it is said that if you do not appear on the first page it is almost like not existing for users, who do not want to spend too much effort to answer their questions and needs.

Optimizing a website from an SEO point of view means working on technical aspects that allow the site to be easily understood by the search engine crawler. That is, in a simpler way, it means going to tell Google, or others like Bing, what your website is about, what questions it answers, how it might be useful for a potential user, and so on. Google uses more than 200 ranking signals in its algorithm to identify if a site is "good" or not, and therefore should be rewarded by appearing in the first results.

That said, SEO can be divided into four main sub-categories: On-page SEO, Off-page SEO, Technical SEO, and User Interaction Signals.

On-page SEO optimization

On -page SEO is about all the improvements that can be done directly on the site. Next, work on keywords that a person might be searching for you with. A good practice is to include the main keyword in the title tag, meta description and URL of the webpage. Other main components of on-page SEO are:

  • Page title optimization,
  • Meta description optimization,
  • URL optimization,
  • Image optimization (through the use of ALT text),
  • Optimization of H1 tags,
  • Content optimization.

Off-Page SEO Strategies

Off-page SEO allows you to work on the authority of a site, i.e. Google rewards those pages that receive external links from other websites. This mainly involves building a high quality backlink strategy to your site, where a backlink really means an external link pointing to your site. But Google can also use other off-site signals to gauge authority, such as sharing their page on social media.

For beginners, this concept might be a bit strange, but it can be thought of as a ranking system, where the website that has more external links ranks higher. This is also why off-site SEO is referred to as link building .

To avoid any misunderstanding, it's not just a matter of how many links you have pointing to your website, but also where they come from (and a number of other factors). In fact, the more the site from which the link comes is famous and visited by people, the more weight that link will have.

The importance of technical SEO

The term technical SEO refers to the process of optimizing your website for crawling and indexing. With technical SEO you make sure that search engines can crawl and index your website without any problems. It is a concept similar to that of on-site SEO, but it refers to those more technical jobs, which almost border on programming, so it is essential for an SEO specialist to have basic knowledge of HTML, CSS and Javascript.

The main components of technical SEO are:

SEO-oriented content strategy

Content is a major Google ranking factor , and without great content that adequately matches your search intent, you will struggle to rank high. But content goes far beyond simple copywriting, and there must be a solid strategy in place and an ability to know how to answer the questions people ask, which is why the term SEO-oriented copywriting is often used.

What is SEM?

What is SEM?

SEM, or Search Engine Marketing , is often considered the part of search marketing that uses paid tactics to gain visibility in the SERPs. This strategy is often referred to as paid search marketing or pay-per-click (PPC).

Google Ads (formerly Google Adwords) is the most commonly used search provider to create ad campaigns. Through this tool, digital marketing companies, or the specialists who deal with them, conduct research on keywords and create campaigns that aim to target the most used terms for their sector, products or services. When users search for those keywords, they see personalized ads at the top or bottom of the SERPs. Whenever a user clicks on one of these ads, the person or company that created it pays a certain amount of money.

Below we explore the main methods through which these campaigns can be carried out.

Search ads (text ads)

These ads can appear on Google results pages and across the Google network . The Google network is divided into groups to give more control to campaigners and decide where they want their ad to appear. There is the search network, then the Google search results pages, other Google sites such as Maps and Shopping, and search sites that collaborate with Google to show ads. Plus you have the Display Network - Google sites like YouTube, Blogger and Gmail - plus thousands of partner websites on the Internet.

Text ads might look different on the Display Network or on mobile devices. Keep in mind that text ads often appear in language that labels them as advertisements so viewers understand that the links are paid promotions.

Shopping ads

Shopping ads are ads that include comprehensive information about a specific product you want to sell, such as the image, price, and merchant name. They are all those results that are obtained on the side of the SERP, or sometimes above. E-commerce are mainly those who create shopping ads, so as to get the result immediately to the user when looking for a particular object.

Display ads

A display ad , also known as a banner, is a form of paid online advertising that is typically a rectangular image. Interested people can then click on the photo with the relevant promotion or CTA (call to action), and then be taken to the corresponding landing page.

Display ads work differently from text ads because they are not found in search results. They can be found on websites and can feature interactive displays or some type of animation to engage the user. This type of ad is often used for retargeting. For example, on an ecommerce or shopping site a user can put something in their shopping cart and then leave the site without buying. The ads can then be used to advertise exactly what the user has placed in his cart on other third party sites, to convince him to complete the purchase he left earlier.

Gmail ads

These ads appear in Gmail accounts , specifically in the "Promotions" or "Social" tabs. They appear in a collapsed state, with a subject just like an email. When a user clicks on the ad, it launches an advertiser's landing page that expands to take the form of an e-mail, in which there is often text explaining the type of promotion and a call to action button. , to carry out the conversion.

Ads on YouTube

Advertising on YouTube , done through Google Ads, is a way of advertising your video content on the platform or in search results in order to maximize the reach of your users. Your video may play before one user sees another's video or appear in YouTube search results to be viewed in full.

Differences between SEO and SEM

The main difference between SEO and SEM , in addition to those already highlighted above, is speed. In fact, SEO is a strategy that takes some time to observe the results, in some cases even a long time, especially if your site is new and does not yet have many backlinks. When trying to compete with big brands that target the same keywords that their website focuses on, then it's hard to see the results.

On the other hand, if you focus all SEM efforts into PPC, you can start seeing results pretty much instantly.

In conclusion, if with search engine optimization it can often take months to see real results, with search engine marketing you can get clicks and conversions in a very short period of time. However, the reality is that SEO and SEM shouldn't be viewed as isolated channels and ideally should be viewed as two parts of a larger digital strategy that drives search engine visibility, traffic and conversions. To compete in the target market, these two strategies must be combined, and efforts must be made equally on both.

Author: Alessio Hocevar

Alessio Hocevar


Dr. Alessio Hocevar our expert SEA (Search Engine Advertising), SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and SMO (Social Media Optimization), graduated in Communication Sciences and Technologies, also deals with copywriting, e-mail marketing and Video marketing. Google Ads Fundamentals Certified, Google Shopping.

Product added to wishlist