I have never pretended to be a search engine optimization (SEO) or search engine marketing (SEM) expert – far from it, in fact. I haven’t been involved in building a website in over five years, and even then, I had minimal input on the keyword descriptions and meta tags that were going to be used – people with far more experience than I were responsible for that. It wasn’t until recently that I began to really understand the difference.
I always understood that the “M” in SEM pointed more specifically toward paid advertising options; I distinguished the SEM and SEO by associating the “O” as organic and naturally built instead of bought. Perhaps the easiest way to visualize the difference between SEO and SEM is to picture your typical Google search results site broken down into three areas: the top above the natural results break, the area under the top results, and the right side bar. The top and side represent the SEM aspects with the bottom links comprised of the SEO results:
My first exposure to the SEM world was about a decade ago, when I was working for a dot com that focused on higher education recruitment for specialized programs. I was in charge of public relations for the company, but I was often recruited to help think of “key words” when one of my colleagues ran into a lack of creative thinking for her “word buys.” Little did I realize then that I had run headlong into the 2004 version of SEM by way of pay per click (PPC) advertising. We just thought it was cool that Google came to visit and brought t-shirts.
Looking back at that experience, I was really immersed in the SEM world without knowing about it. The products we marketed were paid inclusion sites, which was an extremely popular way in the early days of the internet to end up at the top of search results; paid inclusion sites were essentially the forerunners to today’s paid search results.
Pay per click (PPC) was one of the next steps in the SEM realm, which was my first foray into SEM and SEO. The “word buys” I mentioned earlier were based on key word budgets for the early Google AdWords campaign that my company was running. I think back to how small our AdWords budgets were for a number of fairly generic terms and wonder what those budgets look like today and how competitive those words and phrases have gotten over the past decade.
While SEM in general gets most of the press because it encompasses a number of integrated marketing techniques, SEO is a crucial component of an SEM campaign. Smaller companies in particular that might not have the marketing capital to spend on AdWords PPC campaigns, sponsored ads, or don’t have the staffing for the maintenance that can be required for a full paid campaign. Making sure a company website has a fully developed SEO presence can be equally impactful. Both internal and external content linking are crucial to SEO, along with title tags, meta tags, keywords, links, and site quality.
While SEO and SEM are definitely two distinct marketing concepts, they cannot live independently of each other and survive. While SEO is a crucial part of SEM, SEM doesn’t work without property optimization.