SEO vs SEM What's the Difference and Do I Need Both?

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

As millennials and marketing nerds, we've almost grown up with SEO as part of our vernacular. As a marketing agency, SEO is never far from our minds. Clients are - rightly so - concerned about it, and Google is constantly changing what you have to do to get it.

In the last few years - especially since Google started to enforce many of its rules and preferences...a new metric for marketing success has entered the conversation: SEM.

What the heck is SEM? Wait a minute, back up, what is SEO? As a business owner, do I now have to get more grey hair worrying about both?

Take a deep breath - we're going to break it all down like a 90's rap battle.

“The vast majority of online experiences begin with a search engine, and nearly 75% of searchers start their searches on Google. Combine that with the fact that the first five results on Google get 67% of all clicks, and you get an idea of why search engine optimization is so important.”
- Neil Patel

What exactly is SEO?

Search engine optimization (SEO) uses organic strategies to improve your website’s search engine results. For example, Google will look at elements like the content of your website to determine how relevant it is and where it will end up in the search engine results page.

Though these results do take time to build, results reach a broad range of people and leave a very long-lasting effect. Oh, and did I mention it’s free?

The trickier part of the equation is figuring out what exactly Google is looking for.

“SEO changes all the time. The rules are often ill-defined. Besides, most of what we know as ‘the rules’ are simply just SEOs making predictions or looking at correlating data trends.”

With that being said, we do know that the most important components can be compiled into three major sections:

On-page SEO

Off-page SEO

Technical SEO

On-page SEO

On-page SEO tactics cover the actual content of our website.

This includes elements like:

  • Writing content that is straightforward and easy to read

  • Using compelling title tags and meta descriptions

  • Writing about a topic thoroughly

  • Complementing user’s search intent

  • Strategically placing relevant keywords

  • Using URL’s that are short and explanatory

Off-page SEO

Off-page SEO covers tactics used outside of the website.

This includes elements like:

  • Building brand mentions and citations

  • Getting backlinks from high authority sites

For local Business SEO..

  • Making the most of your Google My Business

  • Gaining positive reviews

Technical SEO

Technical SEO covers tactics that optimize the crawling, indexing and rendering of your website.

This includes elements like:

  • Making sure your website is mobile-friendly

  • Making sure your website is quick and speedy

  • Fixing any site errors or broken links

  • Set up a Canonical URL to avoid duplicated content

  • Installing an SSL Certificate

  • Checking Google Search Console for crawl errors as well as robots.txt

What exactly is SEM?

Search engine marketing (SEM) uses paid tactics to appear in search engine results. Pay-per-click, or PPC, is one of the commonly used SEM strategies.

When a brand uses Google Ads, the brand will identify which keywords are most relevant for their business (ie: medical supplies, surgical supplies, medical equipment, etc.). When a user opens up Google and searches any of these keywords, the brand’s website will appear in the ads section of Google. Whenever someone clicks on the brand’s website, the brand has to pay Google.

For example, Apple has to pay Google every time someone clicks on this ad:

Which is better? Do I need both?

Both SEO and SEM strategies are very valuable. Using a PPC tactic is a really great way to get your foot through the door. For instance, if you’re just starting your first website, using SEM strategies will give you quick exposure and clicks to your website. With that being said, it will cost you money, it will only show your website to a targeted audience, and it doesn’t guarantee anyone will want to stay on your website. By improving your SEO strategy, you’re ensuring a quality website that people will want to engage with, as well as leaving a secure and longlasting effect.

“SEO lays the groundwork for SEM through well-optimized content that prospects and customers find helpful. Without landing pages, web pages and blog content optimized for search, your SEM efforts will fall flat due to poor quality. Gaining visibility in SERPs will end up being extremely difficult as a result.

Organic SEO is less costly over the long term and helps establish search credibility. But it’s important to maintain it with the consistent creation of quality content and social media sharing. In other words, you need to have something worth searching for.”


A note from Captain Morgen:

We put this article together to help educate business owners and internal teams as they discuss marketing strategies.

The answer to: "Which is better, and do I need both?" Is... no two marketing plans will be the same. As an agency, we evaluate each brand separately and find the best marketing mix based on their company's short term, and long term goals.

Whether a brand has investors, needs immediate cash flow, or has a local presence and word-of-mouth traction, all factor into how we will structure your strategy. We take the consultative process seriously, and even once we've started a project - if something changes within the organization or the marketplace, we are quick to pivot with our clients.

If you have more questions about marketing strategy, and the best scenario for your brand, we'd love to talk it over with you.

- Morgen Reynolds, Founder, Brand Producer

Text: 772-999-6045