SEO vs SEM: Everything you need to know

Hi, I’m Polina! Formerly, I worked as a senior digital marketing manager and now I am the marketing mentor at Pathrise. I help job-seekers prepare for their future in digital marketing through technical workshops and 1-on-1s. Check out my article where I compare SEO vs SEM.

If you are a digital marketer looking to get a great first role or advance your career, knowledge of both SEO and SEM is important to have on your marketing resume and in your toolbelt. You can expect that your digital marketing interview questions will spend a good amount of time on these topics as well. In this article, we are outlining the differences and similarities between SEO vs SEM and including important tips for your to keep in mind as you learn and talk about these tools during your job search.

What is SEO?

If you are looking to get into marketing, or if you have been working in marketing in the past, you have likely heard of search engine optimization or SEO. As ubiquitous as the phrase is, do you know what it actually means?

SEO refers to gaining traffic from a search engine’s organic rankings. Therefore, if you are working on SEO for content, you are likely doing tasks like finding keywords with strong search volume and creating content pieces like blog posts, case studies, videos, and web pages that target those keywords. Then, you want to establish a backlink strategy that gets your piece of content on other high quality pages because this increases your organic search rankings.

Why is SEO important?

Now that you understand a bit more about what SEO is, you might be wondering why SEO is important. When you have content with good SEO, it means that people will find it on their own (organically) by just searching for those keywords on Google or another search engine. This is free traffic for you and it helps establish your brand as an expert.

If your content has authority, which means it has high quality pages that link back to it (backlinks) and it is useful, which means that is well organized, readable, and relevant, Google will place it higher on its results pages. 

What is SEM?

Search engine marketing (SEM) has a similar goal to SEO except that SEM uses paid and organic search to get results. That means that the term SEM comprises SEO as well. Therefore, digital marketers who work on SEM need to have knowledge of SEO as well as pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, which is what is used for paid search. 

When marketers are working on a PPC campaign, they bid on specific keywords so that when someone searches for that keyword, their ad will come up above the organic search options. You can see this anytime you search on Google. The more the marketer bids, the higher their ad is on the list. If someone clicks on the ad, then the marketer pays what they bid, which is called the cost per click (CPC).

Photo of SEO vs SEM

What goes into successful SEM?

You can make your CPC lower by getting discounts on your ad. If more people click on your ad, it will tell Google that the ad is relevant and useful to people and you will get a discount. The quality of your landing page, which is where the user goes after clicking, also contributes to your score and overall pricing.

So, if you want to get more people to click on your ad so that you can get more people to your website and decrease the cost, you need to make sure you are checking off the following boxes.

  • Target the right keywords. If your ad is not relevant, people will not want to click it. This decreases your quality score, brings less leads to your site, and increases your cost per click.
  • Create a strong landing page. Where are people going when they click your ad? This page should be well organized, intuitive, and full of content or a product that answers the person’s question immediately.
  • Write compelling ad copy. You are competing against many other ads as well as organic content, so you need to take the time to write ad copy that will stand out and get people to click.

SEO vs SEM: What to use?

Companies do not need to choose SEO only or SEM at the beginning of their lifespan and then never alter course. In fact, most marketing plans begin bootstrapped out of necessity and then grow as the company grows. The lower cost option is to focus on SEO because you are usually able to keep the cost to labor, which can potentially be a freelance or contract position. Therefore, if you are interviewing at a startup or small business and they ask you about your thoughts for their marketing, you should focus mainly on SEO. 

When you are interviewing with a company and you plan to talk about SEO, take the time before your session to search for keywords with high target volume that match the company. For example, if you are about to meet with a startup that focuses on cryptocurrency, you should come prepared with ideas for SEO-rich content that would catch people looking for informational posts about cryptocurrency. You can use websites like SEMRush or ahrefs to find the keyword search volume numbers. Because link building is also a big part of SEO strategy, you should also look up some similar companies with which you can establish guest post and backlink partnerships as well.

Larger companies will likely have the budget for their marketing departments, which means they have the means to invest in PPC. In this case, they will probably be working on both SEO and PPC to increase their website traffic. Therefore, you can suggest a broader range of tactics, including writing optimized content, getting backlinks, and bidding on ads for targeted keywords. However, be wary that if you are not experienced in Google Ads and paid search, you might not be the right fit for a SEM role. 

More info

SEO and SEM are important tools for digital marketers to master so they can be successful in their job search and in their positions. If you are looking for more guidance on how to become a digital marketer, check out our guide.

Pathrise is an online mentorship program that works with students and professionals 1-on-1 so they can land their dream job in tech. If you want to work with our mentors to get help with marketing technical topics or with any other aspect of the job search, become a Pathrise fellow.

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