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What's the Difference Between SEO and SEM Strategy?

Every industry has unique acronyms that are commonly used in conversation. Some are well known like RV, HVAC, and LOL. Others are only well-known within the industry, but can be confusing to those on the outside.

SEM and SEO are two of the most common acronyms used by people in the digital marketing, web development, social media strategy world. Here at Lunar HQ, we are guilty of using them without much explanation—sorry!

In this blog post, I’ll break down the two acronyms in the title of this blog post, what they stand for, some examples, and why they are important to your business.

SEO: Search Engine Optimization

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. This is the process of optimizing, or improving, your website so that it can be easily read and understood by web crawlers. If SEO is done correctly, your web pages are more likely to rank higher on Google, and therefore give you more organic traffic. This is obviously important for nearly every business out there, but the process of SEO improvements can be challenging.

Optimizations can be broken down into two categories. On-page optimizations refer to items on your site that you can control like page content, website speed, and metadata.

Off-page optimizations refer to items that you cannot directly control, but you can influence. A few examples of this are backlinking and Domain Authority.

These two categories are what we at Lunar focus on during our SEO Website Audits. If you’d like to learn more about website audits, don’t hesitate to send us a note here.

SEM: Search Engine Marketing

SEM stands for Search Engine Marketing. This used to refer to the process of increasing visibility on search engines using both paid and organic methods (SEO). However, as an industry we’ve shifted to using SEM to refer to only paid digital marketing, most commonly pay-per-click advertising.

The most common example of SEM is Google Ads, previously Google AdWords. This encompasses both search and display ads.

With the new definition, SEO no longer falls under the SEM umbrella. Having two separate strategies or even separate people to work on each is becoming the new normal, but it is important for these two teams to communicate and work together, having an overarching strategy and goal.

Now that we’ve made clear the difference in definition, let’s talk about why these two somewhat related things have two VERY different strategies.

SEO or SEM: What Should I Do?

You can probably already guess the answer to the above question.

Both! You should be doing both SEO and SEM in order to drive visitors and sales.

Although they work together, the strategies for SEO and SEM are very different. The main difference is how quickly you’ll see it working.

Let’s tackle SEM first. You make some strong ads, bid on some keywords, have a strong landing page, and a decent Google Ad buy (that’s digital marketing speak for “a good budget”). The ads start running, people start clicking and your phones start ringing, most likely within the week.

That’s correct; SEM works fast. However, you are limited by your budget. Other companies are also bidding on the keywords you are and want their ads in your spot. This causes the cost of advertising to go up and become competitive fast, especially for crowded industries.

SEO, on the other hand, can take up anywhere from 4 to 6 months, yes, months, for results to show. I know, way less sexy, but still so important. Unlike SEM, SEO is a compounding effect. The more time goes on the more traffic you’ll get hitting your site with less effort. Therefore, reducing the cost of organic traffic over time.

Another plus of SEO is that there is less of a cost associated. If you’d like to double the traffic coming in from SEM, you’ll probably need to double your budget, but that’s not true for SEO. Starting to look more sexy, right?

Once you have built up your domain authority, all you really need is to post an amazing new blog or new informational page, then boom! The traffic will come flooding in. It just requires a long-term strategy versus a short-term one.

Did I lose you? If so, here’s the basic idea. SEM will give you results fast, but you’ll probably have to spend more money on it. SEO will take longer to give you results, but has a more steady cost associated with it. For ideal results, both strategies should be used in conjunction.

So What Now?

Now that you understand the difference between SEO and SEM and know that it’s best to utilize both strategies, it’s time to ask yourself about budget and figure out where you’re at.

If you’re working with a smaller marketing budget and this all seemed very daunting and unreachable, think again.

You don’t have to throw everything you have at both strategies. Maybe you start with SEM to give you some fast results. That doesn’t mean ignoring SEO completely; there are a lot of small fixes that can be done step-by-step, month-by-month for a lower cost.

Next, figure out where you’re at. Maybe you tried Google Ads and just didn’t have the time to maintain it or you know your site loads fast but you’re not sure what keywords should be on your homepage. That’s where we come in. Send us a note and we can help you figure out where you’re at and what the next steps are.
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