It’s hard to get all the acronyms straight these days. When it comes down to it, what’s the difference between search engine marketing (SEM) and search engine optimization (SEO)? Isn’t optimizing your website an important part of marketing? But isn’t SEO meant to provide consumers with a better user experience, not sell them products or services? Clearly, the debate can go on endlessly, so let’s lay out the facts.

Search engine marketing

To be clear, SEM should be approached much differently than SEO, so the obvious distinction between the two comes from what each practice can achieve. SEM is the process of manipulating search to work in your favor by positioning your content in specific places behind organic search results. In many cases, marketers create ads and use a pay-per-click (PPC) model to take up more SERP real estate than is normally allotted to organic links. Another term used to describe this type of marketing is cost-per-click (CPC).

Search engines like Google deliver users a variety of media to suit their unique needs. On a given SERP, web searchers will see promoted ads above organic search results, ads to the right of search results, the organic links themselves and suggested results below those.

The URLs above and to the right of organic results follow a real-time bidding model, requiring brands to pay for ad placement based on the competitiveness of select keywords and traffic volume. PPC can drive a lot of traffic back to websites, but many argue the practice doesn’t deliver qualified site visitors. This means a lot of people click on the links, but very few convert.

Some marketers don’t want to invest in content marketing because it could hurt their PPC, by taking away from something that works. Here’s why we recommend both SEO and PPC

Search Engine Optimization

SEO takes a separate approach to reaching web users. The practice takes a lot of different shapes based on a company’s end goals. Overall, SEO is the act of designing, editing and improving a website to make it easier for internet users to find the information they want most. Webmasters will look at on-site, off-site and back-end components of their web presences to make sure the right keywords and best practices are being used to rank higher in search results. However, content marketing also depends on SEO for brand lift and traffic upticks.

Web content is a growing trend for online marketers. Brand journalism helps companies reach new and existing customers by allowing marketers to update their websites with relevant and interesting articles. These posts can report on industry news, answer customer questions and provide readers with unique, credible insights about various topics. When brands create content with SEO in mind, their sites populate the organic links in search results. The better the content, the higher up businesses will rank in search, and the more traffic they drive back to their websites.

SEO is a free service; businesses don’t have to pay for their content to rank organically in search results, but many marketers look for outside help to nail down the basics and best practices. This is also a major difference between SEO and SEM (PPC and CPC): the upfront investment in SEO is much less than what goes toward an SEM campaign, and some argue that the ROI from SEO is also much higher than that of SEM.

Here are some SEO successes our clients have seen with content marketing:

Isn’t SEM just the umbrella term that covers PPC, CPC and SEO?

You will meet the internet marketing guru who says everything done online falls under the SEM umbrella, and that’s fine. People look at web marketing in all different ways, which is what makes it so unique. However, Brafton believes in specialization – the same tactics cannot be applied to both SEM and SEO.

As content marketing continues to push forward and earn the respect of major brands, SEO will inevitably become a component to high-quality content creation. This is the most, and final, reason why SEM is different than SEO. Content marketing doesn’t need to pay for better search placement because optimized articles attract more qualified clicks, convert site visitors and cost less than paid ad placements.