What Is the Difference Between SEO and SEM?

September 27, 1998 Melissa Boileau

For small local businesses, there are few better ways to reach consumers than mastering the art of search. Research shows that four out of five consumers use search engines to find local businesses, and people who seek out local businesses on search engines are more likely to become customers.

But there is more than one way for local businesses to leverage search engines to get in front of prospective customers. The terms SEO and SEM are frequently used – and sometimes interchangeably – when it comes to strategies for reaching customers on search engines. But they don’t mean the same thing.

SEO, which stands for search engine optimization, refers to techniques businesses can implement to improve how their websites rank “naturally” on search engines. SEM, meanwhile, means search engine marketing – an umbrella term for SEO and other techniques that can help local businesses grow search engine referrals. In addition to SEO, SEM may also include paid methods for reaching consumers. While this article explains the basic approaches to optimizing search engine performance, Yellow Pages search experts can help you design the optimal strategy using SEO and/or other SEM techniques to drive more traffic to your website from search engines.

SEO: Search engine optimization means using a prescribed set of best practices that help search engine crawlers understand exactly what it is that your business offers. This, in turn, allows search engines to show your content to people who are seeking your products or services.

Done properly, SEO best practices can help your website naturally rank higher than other similar offerings. A key difference between SEO and other SEM techniques is that businesses can’t pay their way to better organic rankings. These rankings are ultimately determined by search engine algorithms – do everything right, and your website may show up higher in search results while SEO mistakes can result in lower search rankings or even getting delisted from Google, which is why many businesses enlist the help of experts.

Here are some things search engine crawlers look for to deliver content to users:

  • Descriptive page titles and URLs which incorporate relevant keywords
  • Regularly updated, highly relevant content such as articles and blog posts
  • Inbound links from other websites which show that your website is credible and authoritative
  • Mobile-friendly content

SEO best practices can work separately or have a cumulative effect. The challenge with SEO is that every time a search engine such as Google changes its algorithm for ranking websites, these best practices may change too. It can require a lot of work to keep up, which is why many small businesses prefer to leave this aspect of their digital marketing to SEO experts such as Yellow Pages.

SEM: Search engine marketing is an umbrella term that encompasses the full set of tactics that can grow your visibility on search engine results pages. In addition to SEO, SEM can include paid techniques which allow businesses to strategically purchase advertisements that will only appear under specific, predefined circumstances.

Search engine ads are seen as particularly effective because they allow businesses to hone in on their most valuable audience based on criteria such as what a user is searching for, their location, interests or demographic data.

Unlike SEO, a key difference is that when you buy search ads, your business is guaranteed a presence within search results. There are several different models for purchasing search engine ads. You can buy ads based upon the number of people who see your ad or only pay when people actually click on your ad or even take a specific action as a result.

Pricing for ads typically works on a “bidding” system, with your bid determining the maximum you are willing to pay to have your ad shown. But there are lots of technical tricks for honing in on the right audience and reaching your target at the lowest cost. An SEM expert can help you plan and optimize your search ads to get the most bang for your buck.

Making search simpler

Whether it’s properly setting up your website to be search engine friendly or designing a paid campaign that helps you reach your most desirable potential customers, mastering SEM is an effective – but fairly technical – process. Yellow Pages experts can help simplify the processes involved in using search to help you connect with your most valuable audience.

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