SEO vs. SEM – A SMB Survival Guide for 2018

SEO vs SEM: Both Search engine marketing (SEM) and search engine optimization (SEO) are important tools available to help small businesses grow...

Okay, there are a lot of acronyms and buzzwords that get thrown around when it comes to marketing your small business website. If you’re not in marketing, you may be left scratching your head as you try and get your website to pull more leads for your business.

So let’s simplify it: it’s all about how people find you.

First off, how are SEO and SEM different?

SEO stands for “search engine optimization.” SEM stands for “search engine marketing.”

What’s the difference?

SEO is all about optimizing your page to be easily found by search engines. This is the type of web traffic you “earn” by being the most relevant results for someone’s search term.

Google and other search engines crawl your site with bots that look for things like relevant keywords, good links, and quick page speeds, using complex algorithms and prioritize those sites accordingly. SEO tactics are all about optimizing your site to get prioritized naturally in this process.

SEM is a broader concept. Technically, SEO is a facet of Search Engine Marketing, but when most people talk SEM, they’re usually referring to content that you pay to promote via search engine. Think of it as advertising on Google.

Both of these concepts are important to understand and employ in a long-term digital marketing strategy for your business. SEO has long-term, residual benefits… but it can take a little longer to spin up. SEM can give you more conversions, and little jolts of profitability… but constantly paying to boost a single page isn’t sustainable in the long term.

How does search engine marketing work?

Whether using SEO or SEM, it’s important to understand how search engines work if your aim is to market with them effectively.

Queries & Keywords

Okay: so, you’re looking at Google. The first place you gravitate to is that little rectangle where you type what you’re searching for. That search is called a Query.

A query is a question that people want answered. It’s a product they’re looking for. It’s a problem that they need a solution for. And it’s an opportunity for small businesses to address customer pains right at the source.

That opportunity is real. On Google alone, there are 3.5 Billion queries per day.

With each of those queries, the search engine analyzes the terms provided in the query box for keywords, words that are mapped to the query using their algorithms. It then uses those keywords to help find the most relevant results.

For example, if someone submits the query “Best shoe insoles for retail,” all of those words are analyzed and used to filter relevant results. Best, shoe, insoles, retail, and the complete phrase. The search engine’s goal is to find the best, most relevant piece of content for that particular set of keywords.

SERP Features, Organic Results, & Paid Results

Once the search engine gets results from it’s search, it needs to present it. There are three different areas that can happen.

SERP Features:

SERP stands for Search Engine Results Page. It’s what you look at after you search for something on Google. The first and most prominent area where your eye is drawn are the SERP features.

SERP features are usually at the top of the page, and they are any type of result that isn’t a paid or organic link.

There are a few different types of SERP features. They could involve maps:

Or it could be a list, or an answer to a question related to the query:

These features are the holy grail of SEO and SEM: they are eye catching, they appear before most other results on the page, and they are directly related to the query. Showing up in SERP features is often considered “Position Zero”… that is, even higher than the coveted “position one” on the Google ranking page!

How do you get on a SERP feature? It’s usually SEO, though once in a while you may see a sponsored SERP feature.

Paid Results

The next set of results that show up are the results of SEM, the paid results. They tend to look a little something like this:

Note the little “sponsored” tag at the top right of that SERP feature, and the little green “ad” designation under the sponsored result. These results are bought and paid for by SEM efforts, and while they don’t fool most searchers into thinking they are the organic results for the search, they still can be an effective way to drive traffic to your site. (But we’ll get into that in more detail below.)

Paid results are usually found just above or just below the SERP features, and then again at the bottom of the page after the organic results.

Organic Results

This is that “earned traffic” that your SEO efforts are trying to get you. Google’s bots crawl through all the indexed pages and prioritize the most relevant content.

We all know what an organic search result looks like:

Organic results tend to be high-trust: people will gravitate toward them even though they sit below the paid results because they tend to believe by default that organic results will be more relevant than paid results.

Search Engine Marketing

A good search engine marketing strategy may involve elements of both SEO and SEM in order to get on that coveted first page of Google. Because let’s be real… when’s the last time you clicked into page 2?

Yeah. That’s what we thought.

So, now that we’ve got the big picture view of how search engine marketing works and looks, let’s dive into SEO and SEM with a little more detail.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

With SEO, we’re trying to maximise those organic results. Looking to have the most relevant content for your potential customers’ pains and queries. How can you be the #1 answer for your customer when they search about what you do?

Let’s start with the two different types of SEO: onsite and offsite.

Onsite SEO

On-site or on-page SEO is all about the stuff that you have control over. The way you can optimize your site to make it easier for Google’s bots to crawl on.

Your choice of platform. The placement of well-chosen keywords. The load time of your pages. The way you compress and optimize your images. (Because non-keyword SEO elements are important, too!)

These are all things you have direct control over, and can implement best practices to make sure your content is always at it’s SEO best.

[bctt tweet=”Having good On-Page SEO best practices for all the pages of your website help you set a foundation to really maximise your marketing efforts. ” username=””]

If you optimize your landing pages with good keywords, they will help your advertising rank better. If you optimize your blog posts, you’ll see more top-of-the-funnel traffic and leads as people find answers to their questions.

Offsite SEO

Offsite SEO are the elements of SEO that you don’t have direct control over. Elements of your site you can’t just tweak.

The big one is backlinks.

One of the metrics that Google uses to determine a site’s relevance and quality are the number of other trustworthy sites that link to it. If you write a blog post on milk, and the National Dairy Commission links to it, you can expect to see a much better Google ranking.

You can earn more traffic by trying to build more links to your site. Reaching out to relevant sites and organizations and asking them to link to your content.

The more links you have, the more it enhances your site authority. When you have good site authority, Google’s bots tend to bump your content up a few notches. After all, Google wants to provide the best quality, most relevant content. So they’re going to look for the most authoritative places for that content.

Backlink building is a crucial part of a great SEO strategy. Check out this awesomely helpful guide from Gotch SEO on backlinks!

Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

By contrast, with SEM, we’re not looking for the slow build of SEO tactics. We want that first page of Google. We want it now. And we’re willing to pay for it.

Why Pay For Google Results?

Why pay for results when SEO efforts are free? Usually, it boils down to one thing:


A good SEO strategy may take months or even years to produce fruitful results. It’s a slow build. (Which is the reason most businesses don’t blog, even though they know they should.)You’re rolling a boulder, trying to build momentum. Which can a great long-term strategy. But what if you need business now?

If you’re a site with a small footprint, still trying to get your SEO game face on, SEM efforts are a great way to get jolts of traffic. It’s ideal for testing new offers, driving traffic to a featured product, or promoting a lead magnet.

Increasingly Popular

SEM is a growing industry. Massively growing. Over 25 Billion per year level growing. (And, by the way, Google owns about 89% of that market. The rest are divvied up between engines like Yahoo & Bing.)

Why? Well, SEM has a unique advantage over other forms of digital advertising.

Let’s say you advertise on Facebook. (Or a comparable social network.) You can choose your target audience, you can tailor a message right to them and put it right in front of their nose. It’s great, right?

Well, it is. But for different reasons.

Facebook is all about discovery. People learning things. They aren’t necessarily looking for an answer to a question, or a solution for a pain. They are there to look at pictures of cats and pretty landscapes and Aunt Shirley’s weird hat.

In contrast, SEM efforts place you smack dab in the middle of a question that you can provide the answer to. It brings you in a little lower in the sales funnel and gets your product and service in front of someone who explicitly needs it.

How Does SEM Work?

SEM results are paid, but what are you paying for?

Essentially, you’re bidding on the keywords that make up a particular query. If your budget allows for you to “win” on certain keywords, you’ll show up in the paid results.

There are a few different ways that search engines and online advertisers can bill you for SEM efforts:

PPC (or CPC)

Pay-Per-Click, (or Cost-Per-Click,) ads are paid search results that you pay for every time someone clicks into that link. If someone clicks on your result, you pay a little something to the search engine.

The amount varies based on keyword. If, for example, we wanted to pay to show up for the keyword “small business website”, we’d have to pay around $26 a click. Every time someone clicked our link, we’d have to shill out 26 bucks. That sort of thing can add up quick.

Some keywords, however, aren’t as pricey. “I need a website for my small business” is only $12 a click. “Website basics for small business” is $1.75.

As you can imagine, it takes a decent amount of sophistication to learn how to do this well, which is why many growing businesses rely on 3rd party digital marketing firms to handle it for them. That being said, it’s possible to learn to do it well. There are some great courses to learn how to maximize PPC ads, like this one on Udemy.


Another digital advertising model is cost-per-acquisition. Basically, you don’t pay for an ad until you see a sale or a pre-designated conversion, such as a generated lead.

You don’t see this one too often in SEM, it’s mostly a model that digital display networks use. But it may be a way to pursue digital marketing that could bear fruit for your company.

CPA models are usually very high cost, though they tend to have very high payouts.


CPM models are Cost-Per-Mille, or cost per thousand impressions.

With this model, you’re paying for however many times your result shows up for your relevant keywords, whether your link gets clicked or not. You pay a set rate for every thousand people who have your link show up in their query results.

This model is the lowest cost, and is the most predictable. That being said, it has the weakest correlation between dollars spent and actual sales made.

Why (and when) to pick SEO vs SEM

SEO and SEM are often muddled. Which makes sense to an extent… they do have some similarities.

Both SEO and SEM are all about the keywords. Both promotional strategies involve really getting your hands dirty when it comes to keyword research. Make sure you know which keywords you’d like to rank for, and how difficult they are to rank in. When your site is being built, ask your web developer to keep your relevant keywords in mind.

If this seems overwhelming, fear not! Sign up now for a free website audit and we will help you analyze your site’s potential SEO improvements!

Also, when it comes to optimization… stuff like page speed, properly compressed images, metadata and page relevance… these are all important for both SEO and SEM. If it has direct bearing on a search engine query, it’s something you’ll want to address for both approaches.

That being said, when it comes right down to it, SEO and SEM have different goals in mind.

When your goal is more immediate conversions…

With SEM, it’s all about lead generation. Trying to get more traffic to your company. Usually, the content you’re paying to boost is a landing page, or some other conversion tool.

It should be an offer that’s attractive, possibly time sensitive, and compelling to click on when searching for a solution to a problem. Map your landing page to the right keywords and, when the relevant query is entered, your “buy now” solution is right at the top of your prospect’s search results.

When your goal is consistent, long-term traffic…

SEO, on the other hand, is about promoting evergreen content… that is, content that isn’t dated or time-sensitive. This content can be stumbled upon whenever and provide relevant information for potential customers.

Blogs and lead magnets, like ebooks, are a good example of evergreen content. (Provided, of course, they aren’t about something time-sensitive.)

A good blog, mapped to a relevant query, can get your educational/top of the funnel content placed in Google for free. Possibly even on a “position zero” SERP feature!

This is why a business blog is a great tool for SEO. While home or product pages can (and often do!) rank for different queries, one of the big benefits of a business blog is that it casts a wider net for your website to show up for more queries, organically.

For maximum effectiveness, optimize your blog to convert as well as educate! Make your content useful, effective, and interesting… and include plenty of call-to-actions, links, and lead boxes for people to find as they become educated on the issue.

Think about it: you’re an expert in your field. People are learning great stuff from you and your blog. If they’re looking for an answer to their question, why not give them the opportunity to use your expertise fully and purchase your product or service?

Here’s an example of this in action: At SuperWebPros, we are passionate about helping small businesses grow by strengthening their digital presence. If you want to increase your SEO footprint, we’d love to help. Our Accelerate service includes onsite SEO for all your pages, and regular blog content to help your customers find you online. Sign up for a free website review to get started, and partner with us for your small business website.

Duke Kimball

Duke writes words, good. When he's not crafting content for The Pros, he's crafting stories, enjoying craft beer, or gourmet coffee. He is Portlandia.
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