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Search Engine Optimization vs. Search Engine Marketing

They are actually very different things.

by LACI ROTH | MAY 2, 2016

What’s the difference between Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM)? Both fall under the umbrella of digital marketing, and though they are often confused with each other, they refer to starkly different things. The easiest way to think about how they are different is one word: advertisements.

Organic Results & Paid Results

When you conduct a search on a search engine, the results you see can be divided easily between Organic Results and Paid Results.

Paid v. Organic

Paid Results appear at the very top of search results as well as in a column on the right-hand side of the screen. Everything else is Organic Results.

What is Search Engine Optimization?

SEO aims to make your website more attractive to search engines like Google, so that you appear as high as possible in the Organic Results.

If, for example, you own a pet store in New Orleans, you want your store’s website to appear at the very top of the list when somebody searches for the phrase “pet store New Orleans.” SEO will write the content on your website to be more attractive to search engines, and help you rise organically in the results.

What is Search Engine Marketing?

SEM involves purchasing a spot on the Paid Results section of a search. If you own that same pet store in New Orleans, you could purchase a Paid Result spot on the search results for “pet store New Orleans.” Your site would appear in the right-hand column or above the Organic Results.

How are they similar? 

Both SEO and SEM require a deep understanding of a similar body of knowledge—search terms, geography, and consumer behavior, to name just a few. Picking one over the other involves trade-offs—do you want to invest your marketing budget into Paid Results, or into an SEO analyst’s labor to try to get you better Organic Results? Do users trust Paid Results or are they likely to skip over them?

Both play an important role in a company’s digital marketing strategy, and a comprehensive marketing strategy will involve both. But for a company on a more limited budget, careful consideration must be given to what it wants to achieve and how it wants to achieve it.