SEM and SEO: What’s the Difference?

Trying to promote a website? No double you’ve seen the terms SEM and SEO being thrown around. While similar, they are not interchangeable; SEM, or search engine marketing, properly contains SEO, search engine optimization.

Most people are largely concerned with SEO, which refers to measures taken to improve the visibility of a site in the organic results (in other words, the ones that come up naturally, not the results in the sidebar that you pay for). This encompasses a variety of techniques, from white hat methods such as building great content with proper keyword density and getting natural links, to black hat methods such as keyword spam, doorway pages, and comment spam. Google encourages webmasters to use white hat SEO techniques, but actively pursues and deindexes those using black hat techniques. There’s also grey hat: methods that aren’t exactly on Google’s list of spam indicators, but might not be the most ethical either. Here at One Ear Productions, we use white hat SEO only.

Notice how there are multiple links in this post to other articles on the One Ear blog. The anchor text, which is the words that you actually click on, tells both the user and the search engines what to expect from the page the link is going to. For the user, it makes it easier to find other posts that are relevant to what he or she is searching for. For Google, it makes it easier to decide exactly what the post is about and return it correctly. While we always prefer external links (that is, those coming from other websites, preferably in the same area), setting up a proper link net on our site helps improve its standing with Google.

Search engine marketing, on the other hand, is concerned with making sure that a website is getting traffic from search engines, and SEO is just one method that someone using SEM might be using. It also includes paid advertising, such as the contextual ads that show up next to the Google results and the targeted ads that show up in Facebook and GMail. Some search engines (not including Google) allow webmasters to pay a fee to be included in the search listings. While an effective SEO campaign is the most efficient way to build up traffic in the long run (as the improved search engine visibility will continue after the campaign has concluded), many companies prefer to use paid advertising as it can lead to immediate results. Generally, the advertiser has a choice of paying for ads either by CPC (cost per click), where they pay a certain amount of money for each click, or CPM, where they pay a certain amount for every thousand times the ad is displayed.

Is one strictly better than the other? No. While we believe that SEO is more cost effective in the long run, and have run some small SEO campaigns to get this blog to position #1 for certain keywords, we’ve also used paid advertising to get the word out about limited time special offers, targeted at the people we wanted to see them. When those campaigns ended, however, there was no longer-term effect. The SEO should keep growing our traffic indefinitely.