If you’re a small business owner with little digital marketing experience trying to figure out the ins and outs of search engine marketing (SEM) and search engine optimization (SEO), you’re not alone. It can be very confusing, especially given that the two terms are often used interchangeably. Although the two terms are related, they are in fact different, and here’s how.

Search Engine Optimization

First and foremost, SEO is one of many components that make up the larger category of SEM. SEO’s primary function is to improve a website’s exposure within search engine results. This subsequently helps bring organic and free traffic to your website. The focus of SEO is creating valuable, high-quality content relating to your business which can then be considered relevant to searchers by the search engine itself.

SEO is comprised of two distinct pillars, on-site and off-site. On-site is everything within your own website including:

  • Keywords, title tags, meta descriptions, images, headings, etc.
  • Blog posts and page copy with high-quality content
  • Well formatted URLs
  • Fast page load speed
  • Social media links for sharing content

Off-site SEO refers to actions that happen externally from your site that influence your ranking in search engine results pages (SERPs). This encompasses:

  • Building backlinks (links created when another reputable website links to yours)
  • Guest blogging
  • Social media sharing and marketing

Google’s search algorithm is constantly changing, so if you’re serious about an SEO strategy, it’s crucial to understand and monitor these changes. It’s also important to understand that SEO tactics do not yield immediate results, but when utilized correctly over time, they can provide loads of free traffic and result in numerous additional benefits.

Search Engine Marketing

By definition, SEM is, “a form of Internet marketing that involved the promotion of websites by increasing their visibility in SERPs through optimization and advertising.” SEM utilizes paid search listings and advertisements. SEM, unlike SEO, provides fast results by giving quick, relevant exposure to your chosen website or individual web page.

Here are some popular practices for optimizing your money within a paid search campaign.

  • Keyword Research
    Keywords are the main component of SEM, as they are what users put into search engines to find something. Before you spend any money, it’s wise to conduct keyword research to find out what your customers are looking for to find your product or service. There are several free keyword tools available if you’re unsure of where to start.
  • Pay-Per-Click (PPC) Campaigns
    These campaigns are highly targeted, so you’ll want to complete extensive keyword research prior to purchasing. Once you’ve chosen the keywords that are most relevant to your business, you can then purchase ads on the SERPs where those keywords would fall. With PPC campaigns, advertisers pay a fee each time an ad is clicked. Popular platforms for this practice include, Google AdsWords, Bing Ads and Yahoo Search Ads.
  • Geo-Targeting
    This practice involves delivering specific content or ads to a website user based on their geographic location. Geo-targeting is meant to target local consumers, so it’s a great strategy for small businesses to utilize.