Understanding the differences between search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) and how they can complement each other is critical to achieving business objectives.

Today’s multichannel, customer-centric, highly personalized world is creating a new sales paradigm. More and more, traditionally siloed sales and marketing departments are coming together to ensure target audiences are receiving consistent and unified sales and marketing messages.

This necessary alignment is also taking hold in two key digital marketing strategies: search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM). Understanding their unique attributes and bringing them together in a comprehensive sales and marketing plan can create a significant competitive advantage for brands that get it right.

What is SEO?

SEO is a holistic digital marketing process designed to help businesses improve their rankings on search engines’ unpaid or organic results pages.

Search engines crawl web pages (i.e., download articles, images and videos), analyze keywords, tags and backlinks, index and store this information, and then serve up the most relevant content to searchers on their search engine results pages (SERPs). The higher the rank, the greater the capacity to attract visitors.

Fast fact: Google is the world’s most popular search engine. It is visited more than 83 billion times each month. 

Ranking high on Google’s SERPs requires producing high-quality, relevant content that meets the user’s search intent and ensuring that once a user lands on your site, it delivers a great customer experience. To this end, your website must be easy to navigate, optimized for mobile and pages have to be stable and load quickly. These are the criteria Google’s algorithm uses as it works to realize its mission to “make a better web.”

What is SEM?

While SEO is focused on driving organic search traffic, SEM is focused on driving paid search traffic. Hubspot describes SEM as “one of the most effective ways to grow your business and reach new customers.”

SEM has a few key benefits that help brands stand out:

  • SEM improves brand recognition because it guarantees a top position in user searches.
  • SEM increases the number of high-intent shoppers visiting your site because you can clearly define and target the audience you want to reach.
  • SEM can be measured and monitored, presenting a clear picture of your return on investment and opportunities to improve campaigns.

SEM involves several types of paid search advertising, including:

  • SEM ads. These campaigns run on a search engine’s results pages and are managed by the search engine’s advertising platform, such as Google Ads or Microsoft Ads.
  • Pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. These ads allow advertisers to pay a fee for each click an ad receives.
  • Social media ads are sponsored and can take the form of PPC advertising, branded content and display ads. Most social media platforms offer their own tools and advertising products to promote their products directly on their channels.
  • Retargeting advertising campaigns use cookies on your website to create a picture of how individual users have interacted with your site, where they landed, the pages they visited, products they clicked on, etc. When these users leave your site, retargeting cookies show them relevant ads based on the data collected to keep your brand and products top of mind.
  • Display/banner advertising campaigns are delivered by ad servers and appear across the top, bottom or sides of a web page or social media platform.
    • Tip: Google’s display ads appear across the Google Display Network, which reaches 90 per cent of all internet users around the world and is made up of some 2 million sites, many of which are AdSense sites. These websites have agreed to receive and display relevant ads from Google as part of Google’s AdSense program and are paid when visitors click on them.

How SEO and SEM complement each other

While SEO and SEM are distinct strategies (free versus paid), they share the same goal: to generate website traffic based on a user’s search queries. To this end, they both rely on prominent search engine rankings to get people to a desired website or web page – and this requires websites to be optimized for SEO. Put another way, an SEM campaign can only succeed if it is built on a strong foundation of SEO best practices.

Four SEO/SEM best practices

  • Prioritize the user experience by ensuring your website is accessible to all, intuitive, fast, stable, secure and optimized for mobile.
  • Create and regularly share relevant, high-quality content across all your online channels.
  • Implement a strong keyword strategy that features the words and phrases your target audience is using to find your products. Use the same keywords in your paid search campaigns.
  • Build a credible online presence that users can trust. This involves generating positive reviews and enhancing your backlink profile by connecting with other, high-quality websites.

A strong SEO strategy will help establish your credibility with Google’s algorithms. With this foundation, SEM campaigns can be designed to build on and enhance a brand’s online presence. Together, SEO and SEM can help generate high-quality, high-intent traffic to your site and ultimately improve conversion rates.

For sales and marketing professionals, understanding the roles SEO and SEM play in today’s marketplace and staying up to date with evolving SEO and SEM tools and best practices is essential to help ensure sales and marketing efforts will help brands get discovered and drive sales.