The difference between SEO and SEM - The NERD MKTG Tribune

Written By: Ross Hill, Founder of NERD MKTG and Director of Strategy

I've recently had coffee with a few potential customers of our firm, and there is a looming question that almost every one of them has, "What is the difference between SEO and SEM?" 

As someone who is interested in learning more about either of these topics, you may read that question and think to yourself "Wow, silly people, how do they not know!"  But before you let that reaction stick, I wanted to write a beginners guide to both; because at the end of the day, they both have a lot to do with the other.  If you don't understand fully how SEO and SEM impact one another, enjoy:).

What do you mean, Ross?

If you weren't aware, your SEO can drastically affect the performance of your SEM.  It can reduce your costs, or it can drive them up.  Having a solid understanding of both is critical to maximum ROI.

What is SEO?

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization.  Here is a definition that (hopefully) everyone can understand.  SEO is what a search engine crawls your website to find relevant information.  Your site is either designed and developed with SEO in mind, or it is not.  You are either using best practice for SEO or you are not.  Using proper SEO will provide your site with the ability to rank higher on a given search engine.  Traffic driven through SEO, is essentially free web traffic; however the time capital investment to create great SEO for your site is most definitely not free.

What is SEM?

SEM stands for Search Engine Marketing.  The most commonly used Search Engine Marketing tool is Google AdWords.  Google AdWords allows users to create marketing campaigns to advertise to visitors looking for their specific product or service.  For instance, if you were a "gluten free bakery", you might set up a campaign for your local market, wherein when someone searches "gluten free bakery" you come up as one of the top search results and direct PAID traffic to your website.  

How does SEO affect SEM?

If you are Google AdWords user, you may or may not be familiar with something called Quality Score.  At the end of the day, your Quality Score affects the performance of your ads.  It affects where they rank in the engine, and your cost per click.

Only people inside the Google walls completely understand the algorithm behind Quality Score; but here are the basic components of how they judge Quality Score for an advertiser.

  1. Click-Through Rate
  2. The relevance of each keyword to its ad group
  3. Landing page quality and relevance
  4. The relevance of your ad text to the search term
  5. Your historical AdWords account performance

While many sources cite that Click-Through Rate is the most important attribute for your Quality Score, if you ignore #'s 2-4, you are sure to fail in your AdWords campaigns.

When you are using best practices for SEO, those attributes, 2-4, are surely to be through the roof, therefore increasing your Quality Score and decreasing your costs.  In some scenarios, advertisers with high quality scores 10/10 pay 40% less and rank higher than advertisers with low Quality Scores 3/10.

To learn more about SEO best practices, I would suggest you check out the following resources.

How To Make SEO Work For Your SEM

A Beginners Guide To SEO - By NERD MKTG