SEO versus SEM - Maven Collective Marketing

SEO vs SEM: Beyond the Abbreviations

Erica Hakonson B2B Marketing, Search Engine Marketing, Search Engine Optimization 4 Comments

Marketing buzzwords and abbreviations are a dime a dozen. Quit scratching your head over SoLoMo and YMMV and instead consider Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM). Perhaps two of the most commonly used and effective digital marketing practices, they are also two of the most misunderstood. In this blog post, I’ll break down the differences between the two and explain how you can plan successful SEO and SEM B2B strategies.

SEO and SEM: What are they?


Let’s start by explaining exactly Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) respectively. As you can probably guess, both terms are related to search engines. What’s more, their goals are the same: drive high-quality traffic to a website site by increasing its visibility in Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). So where does the difference lie?

Search Engine Optimization [SEO]

In a nutshell, SEO refers to the process of increasing the quantity and quality of traffic to a website from the free, organic search results provided by search engines. It can be broken down further into two components: on-page SEO and off-page SEO.

On-page activities include:

  • Using strategic keywords in html elements such as  title tags, meta descriptions, heading tags and alt text.
  • Creating relevant and well-written content that is optimized for lucrative (yet attainable!) keywords.
  • Ensuring page URLs are simple, well-formatted and incorporate keywords.
  • Optimizing page load speed on mobile and desktop devices.
  • Leveraging social sharing buttons with your content.
  • Just to name a few…

Off-page activities include:

  • Developing a high quality, natural link profile comprised of both external and internal links.
  • Sharing content on social media channels.
  • Leveraging social bookmarking sites (Stumbleupon, Reddit, etc.).
  • Just to name a few…

Search Engine Marketing [SEM]

In the past, SEO was considered a component of SEM. However, today a distinction is drawn between the two. While SEO is geared toward organic search results, SEM refers to the paid search results that appear in addition to the organic results on search engines such as Google or Bing. Below is an example of the search results for “search engine marketing,” with the paid results appearing in the orange box.

A screenshot of the search results for search engine marketing, with the paid search results highlighted by an orange box

How do SEO and SEM work?

This is where things start to get interesting. To understand how SEO works, you have to understand (a little) about how search engines work.

In sort, websites are crawled periodically by search engines. This crawling activity results in a mass index of websites, which are used to return results when a searcher submits a query. The order in which pages appear in results is determined by factors such as which websites are relevant, authoritative and useful, all of which are determined by the search engine and its algorithms when it crawls a website’s content. The goal of SEO is to optimize this content in such as a way as to maximize it’s ranking potential.

SEM, on the other hand, increases your website’s visibility in search engines via paid advertising. It is also referred to as Pay-Per-Click (PPC) advertising, as advertisers pay every time an individual clicks an ad. Advertisers select a set of keywords and phrases that they want their ads to appear for and set the maximum amount – or bid – they are willing to spend per click. The ad platform (most commonly Google Ads or Bing Ads) assigns each ad a quality score and shows ads based on a combination of this quality score and the advertiser’s bid.

When is it best to use SEO? When is it best to use SEM?

There is no cut and dry answer to this question. It depends largely on what type of business you’re running and what your goals are.

In general, any time you’re building a website it’s smart to do so with SEO in mind. As reiterated at this year’s CTA conference, SEO fundamentals are still key to a website’s success. While an investment in SEO will not provide overnight growth, it will result in increased visibility, and consequently engagement, in the long run. And once you’ve made the initial investment, you can reap the rewards for years to come with proper monitoring and maintenance.

Alternatively, SEM can provide almost instant results. If your business is new or you are launching a new product and you want to generate visibility quickly, focusing first on SEM may be the right option. However, since every click costs you money, its important to ensure your ads are leading to conversions. Otherwise you can end up wasting quite a lot of money.

You may be thinking at this point, “couldn’t I just use both – build up some traffic with SEM now, and continuously work on SEO at the same time?” Well, if that’s what you’re thinking, you are 100% correct.

How can combining SEO and SEM boost search engine rankings?

You could focus just on SEO or SEM, but like peanut butter and jelly, neither method is as good without the other. A combination of comprehensive SEO and SEM strategies is a great way to drive results.

For example, good on-page SEO will contribute to a higher ad quality score, which in turn means you’ll pay less per click. On the other hand, well-executed SEM can contribute to your site’s SEO success. If your ads attract users who are interested in and engage with your site, search engines may perceive it to be more relevant, authoritative and/or useful and may rank it higher in search engine results for relevant queries.

How can combining SEO and SEM improve your marketing efforts?

In focusing on both SEO and SEM, you can generate data which can be leveraged to improve the success of your marketing efforts. For example:


  • You can use keyword and conversion data from SEM campaigns for SEO.
  • You can target high-performing keywords with both SEM and SEO.
  • You can move high-cost keywords, high-volume or low-converting (yet still important) from SEM to SEO.
  • You can retarget organic search visitors via SEM with messaging customized to them.
  • You can test your keywords in SEM before committing to long-term SEO strategies.
  • You can target users at all stages of the customer journey with relevant keywords.
  • You can increase confidence and awareness by having both strong organic and paid visibility.



Not only that, a combined approached leads to more traffic. In a study by Nielsen Research, the value of coordinating SEM and SEO campaigns was clear: when a brand name appeared in both organic and paid search results, the brand attracted 92% of total clicks. When the brand was mentioned only in organic results, the brand only got 60% of clicks.

How can you plan successful SEO and SEM strategies?

We’ve put together five steps to help you start planning how to incorporate these two practices into your marketing strategy:

  1. Analyse where you are right now. This includes what you are currently doing with SEO & SEM, as well as what your competitors are doing. Conduct an audit to uncover strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities.
  2. Set shared SEO and SEM goals that are aligned with business goals. For instance, if your business goal is to drive growth, SEO & SEM should be geared to support that goal.
  3. Conduct keyword research. The key (pardon the pun) to using SEO and SEM together is to use keywords effectively. SEO campaigns are a great way to find which keywords bring you traffic. These should be tested in your next SEM campaign. SEM keywords will show you what words actually lead to conversion, which can influence SEO assets and content strategy.
  4. Invest in content development. There’s a reason Bill Gates proclaimed “content is king.” Investing time and money in quality content will help both SEO and SEM campaigns be successful. This includes not only keyword optimization, but also blog content, ad copy, social messaging, and website copy.
  5. Analyze the data. Simply put, there is no way to achieve optimal results without analyzing your data. Google Analytics is a great option, however, there are a number of alternatives out there. This is how you will know whether your strategy is working or if tweaks are needed.

How can you measure SEO and SEM success?

How you measure success will – no surprise – depend on what your goals are in the first place. Sure, you’ll want to track your keyword rankings, but for the majority of businesses rankings alone are not enough. Some of the more common KPIs for search marketing are:

  • Impressions
  • Clicks
  • Click Through Rate (CTR)
  • Cost-per-click
  • Conversion Rate

The most important thing is to make sure that your KPIs match your goals.

Want to learn more about SEO and SEM?

Hopefully this has given you some insight into why you need to consider both SEO & SEM in your marketing efforts. If you’d like to learn more about these strategies or discuss how you can leverage them to achieve your business goals, get in touch at

Erica Hakonson
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Comments 4

  1. Before choosing any SEO company you need to know their past record although you can check it by looking at their portfolio which is great to know besides this you can also look for their experience level as by this you will get the brief idea about their services.

  2. I think both SEO and SEM are important in terms of traffic and getting leads and you have explained it very well in the article thank you for sharing the information

  3. Pingback: Moving Forward: 2021 B2B Marketing Trends

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