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SEM and SEO: Understanding the Difference and When to Employ Each Digital Marketing Tactic

As the owner of a digital marketing agency whose primary focus is to serve as an SEO company (a firm that helps organizations be found on Google and rank as high as possible in search engine results listings for desirable terms in appropriate geographies), I have a great passion for helping both for-profits and non-profits determine when they need to employ SEO tactics, when they need to employ SEM tactics, and when they need to employ both.

What is SEO?

So what is SEO? SEO is the acronym for “search engine optimization.” In general, when someone employs the term SEO, they are referring to non-paid-advertising tactics that are executed to support a listing with a link to an organization’s website appearing on the first two pages of Google or other search engine results for search terms that are relevant to the products, services, and solutions to problems that their organization offers. Sometimes, SEO will be modified by the terms “organic” or “technical” to indicate a large variety and number of tactics that can be implemented to support an organization ranking well “organically” in search engine results. These include, but are not limited to:

  • incorporation of high-volume search terms, known as keywords, in website content and behind-the-scenes website tags, known as meta tags
  • establishment of a Google My Business profile to support ranking well in “local search”
  • saving image/photos with file names relevant to an organization’s products, services and solutions that Google or other search engines can crawl/index

While SEO does not involve paying for advertising, there are manpower costs related to implementing one-time and ongoing organic/technical tactics, and depending on your organization’s staffing level and digital marketing expertise, you may need to hire an SEO agency, such as Results Communications & Research.

What is SEM?

SEM is the acronym for “search engine marketing” and refers to ads such as the one below that appear in the top or bottom four spots on a search engine results listing page, in Google Shopping Ads, or on other Google properties or marketing opportunities. Sometimes, you’ll hear the following terms used in lieu of SEM:

  • paid search
  • paid SEO
  • online advertising
  • search advertising
  • Google Ads or Google Search Ads (this is advertising bought related to ranking well specifically in Google’s search engine for relevant terms; you can also purchase such ads from Bing and Yahoo)
  • search text ads
  • text ads
  • PPC (pay-per-click) advertising

Organizations often employ search ads/paid search when:

  • They are in a very competitive environment, i.e., other organizations are running paid ads – causing up to four ads to appear in search engine results for desirable terms before organic search/unpaid results listings
  • They’ve only recently implemented tactics on their entire website or on a specific page of their site to rank well organically for relevant terms, and can’t wait for such tactics to impact ranking results
  • Their website or specific site pages aren’t optimized to rank well in search engine results
  • Competitor sites or other pages of an organization’s own website rank above the site page that an organization wishes to rank well for certain terms

Are There Times When It Doesn’t Make Sense to Invest in SEO or SEM?

In general, implementing technical/organic SEO tactics is a best practice. That said, the only way to know if an organization’s target audiences are actively searching to identify someone offering the services, products, and solutions that the organization offers is to conduct keyword research.

If keyword research reveals that, at least for the time-being, individuals are NOT conducting searches, relevant to an organization, then less time and money should be spent in optimizing a website to rank well organically in search results. And, it wouldn’t make any sense to invest in paid search advertising/SEM since there wouldn’t be many appropriate searchers to whom to serve up ads. In the aforementioned case, you’ll want to employ marketing tactics, such as Google Display advertising or social media advertising where you put the idea in target audiences’ heads vs. waiting for them to search for someone like you. We discussed this aforementioned strategy of creating awareness of the benefits and features of a particular product, service, or solution, known as push marketing, in our blog post “Why Keyword Research Informs So Much More Than SEO.”

As Greater Boston SEO experts, we are always here to help you identify whether SEO, SEM, or both, are the right marketing tactics for your particular organization. We assist clients in making these decisions regularly, so that they maximize marketing budgets, as well as internal marketing team’s time. And, while we never guarantee results since there are so many variables at play, we’ve helped clients, throughout the U.S., who’ve engaged our SEO agency for SEO services, appear in the top two pages of Google Search results for certain terms — when they previously hadn’t — or move from page 1 to page 2 through both SEO and SEM tactics. So, please reach out for a complimentary discussion if you need help capitalizing on SEO and SEM opportunities.

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