As digital marketing continues to evolve, its terminology becomes more complex. We need this terminology to distinguish between different types of strategy and their finer details but this also makes our marketing glossary more confusing.

A good example of this would be SEO and SEM: search engine optimisation and search engine marketing. Not only do these terms sound similar, the strategies they refer to overlap and any modern brand today needs to think about SEO and SEM.

So what exactly is the difference between SEO and SEM?


SEO vs SEM: What they really mean

As we mentioned in the intro, SEO refers to search engine optimisation and SEM stands for search engine marketing. So the only difference between these two terms is the optimisation vs marketing element and this tells you a lot about what the two strategies involve.

To make things absolutely clear, let’s quickly define the two:


  • SEO: The optimisation of websites and pages to improve their search ranking and the quality of leads generated from organic traffic.
  • SEM: The strategic use of search engines as a marketing channel for both organic and paid traffic.


So, in other words, SEO aims to improve your search ranking and SEM combines SEO and PPC. Which means you can do SEO without doing SEM but you’re doing a pretty lousy job of SEM if it doesn’t include a solid SEO strategy.


So which strategy is right for my brand?

Well, the simple answer is you need to be doing both. Thinking of this as an SEO vs SEM scenario is counterproductive and you’ll run into a lot of problems in digital marketing with this mindset.

Let’s look at SEO for a moment and consider some of the key things you need to optimise for a better search ranking:


  • Quality content
  • Inbound links
  • Keyword research
  • On-page optimisation
  • Off-page optimisation
  • Mobile-friendliness
  • Loading times
  • UX and engagement signals
  • Secure encryption


A quick look at that (very incomplete) list of SEO essentials and you can see how much web design, UX design, content marketing and website security affect your ranking in search. You can’t have a great SEO strategy without designing great experiences, creating quality content and providing a secure website for your visitors.

SEO isn’t just SEO and the same thing goes for SEM.

Now, let’s look at search engine marketing in a similar way. For starters, SEM includes SEO and this means all the same requirements in terms of design, content and everything else apply here, too.

Then we come to the PPC aspect of SEM and you’re not going to have a great PPC strategy if you’re only advertising on search engines. You also need to be advertising on social media to generate certain types of leads you simply can’t get from search engines.

So now your SEM strategy is also linked to social advertising, organic social marketing and even your email marketing strategy as soon as you start using email lists for PPC features like similar audiences. If you don’t have all of these elements perfectly synced with your SEO and SEM strategy, you’re never going to maximise results from any of them.


Why is it so important to do SEO and SEM?

There are two reasons why you need to be doing SEO and SEM, which are the exact same reasons you do search and social advertising, email and social media marketing, etc. These are:


  1. They generate different kinds of leads
  2. They improve the performance of each other


With organic search, you’re playing a long-term game where you generate leads who are looking for information, products or services. This could be a “best 8K TVs in 2018” article, a “how to remove stubborn stains from cream carpets” guide or the nearest DIY centre that sells power drills.

In most cases, these leads aren’t about to hit the buy button but grabbing their attention now could mean they choose to buy from you when the time comes.

With paid search ads, you’re generally targeting users who are about to hit the buy button. When there’s a strong commercial intent behind a user query, this is when search engines provide ads linking people directly to what they’re looking for: products, services, special promotions, local businesses, etc. Crucially, these are people who tend to have a good idea of what they want and it only takes the right offer to open their wallets.

You can’t really get this kind of lead from anywhere else.

At this point, you may be wondering why you don’t just pump all of your resources into PPC and forget about search engine optimisation. After all, why waste your time with leads that aren’t ready to buy when you can focus on those that are?

Well, the problem is the vast majority of people aren’t ready to buy yet and many of them don’t even know what they need to buy. This is why buying guides, product reviews and comparison sites are so popular – because people need help when it comes to spending their money. They want to know they’re getting the best products or service for their needs, within their budget and from a seller they can trust.

Sure, you can ignore these leads and focus on the ones who are ready to buy know, but this means the vast majority of your potential customers will buy from your competitors when the crucial moment comes and you’ll fall behind as they grow. An unfortunate side-effect of digital commerce is that it’s created a zero-sum game, which means every time one brand wins, another one loses. So the bigger your rivals grow, the more you shrink – and you’ll eventually disappear altogether unless you stay competitive.

Yes, you absolutely want to make the most of those ready-to-buy PPC leads but capturing those early SEO leads and making sure they buy from you when they’re ready is what the biggest brands do best. That and turning first-time buyers into repeat customers that don’t get tempted away by the competition.


Hopefully, that clears up any confusion you might have had about SEO and SEM, plus why they’re both important – for very different reasons – to any good marketing strategy. If you have any more questions or need help with getting more from your marketing efforts, don’t hesitate to get in touch with our team today. You can reach out t us on social media, fill out the contact form below or pick up the phone to give us call.