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SEO vs. SEM: Which Should You Use?
Is it time to dial up your online marketing? Make sure you know the basics, and where to invest your time and money, before you jump in.

Founder & CEO, Crackerize

This post originally appeared on OPEN Forum, an online community providing small business owners with information and advice to help them do more business.”

Internet marketing is a rapidly changing field. The process of education is a never-ending one, and without it, it’s easy to get left behind. Nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM)—two of the core fields of Internet marketing. Are you up to speed on the differences between SEO and SEM? If not, educate yourself with this quick primer.

What is SEO?

A few decades ago, when business owners were just beginning to sell things on websites, it was enough to put keywords into the meta section of a website, along with a keyword-rich meta description. Those were the days of simple SEO, and an entire industry has since been built around it.

These days, simple SEO is no longer enough, and hasn't been for quite some time; namely, since the launch of Google’s Panda and Penguin algorithms. Search engine crawlers that scour the Web on behalf of Google and Bing have become much more sophisticated. They don't just look for keywords, but evaluate many more factors in determining search engine rankings.

In short, SEO is the field involving organic search results. These listings can’t be bought, but can be influenced indirectly by engaging in various SEO tactics.

What is SEM?

Conversely, SEM (also known today as PPC, which means pay-per-click marketing) does cost money. Search engines allow marketers to purchase "sponsored links" that appear at the top of relevant searches for a "pay-per-click" model, which enables the search engine to charge the company a small fee each time a user clicks the sponsored link. With the growth in popularity of this technique, search engine marketing agencies have sprung up, claiming expertise that can maximize the ROI of methods, such as Adwords.

Tracking SEO and SEM

Google Analytics is the most widely used back-end tool that analyzes the performance of a website in the search engines. It can record not only the absolute number of hits a site receives, but can also track the behavior of the user once he or she has arrived at the site.

This is called "page tagging," and can answer questions such as “which pages does the user explore, and in what order?” and “how often does the user purchase one of the site's products or take another desired action?”

SEO vs. SEM: Which Should You Use?

In short, SEO and SEM are simply subdivisions of the larger phenomenon of Internet marketing. The basics of SEO can be understood by just about anybody with enough exposure and training, whereas SEM requires more technical aptitude.

SEO is more for folks who like puzzles and love to think strategically and for the long haul. SEM is more for mathematical thinkers and data analyzers. SEO is more of a long-term strategy, an investment, whereas SEM can show immediate ROI.

SEO and SEM are a lot like the difference between buying or renting a house. With SEO, every dollar you invest in your campaign builds equity, in a sense, in the foundation of your online visibility. With SEM, every dollar spent is immediately consumed; when you turn off the budget, your visibility will vanish immediately and entirely.

That’s why SEO is more of a long-term game than SEM; it takes more time, but just like owning property, the investment will eventually pay dividends.

With that said, there’s no instance in which a company should never use SEM or SEO. I firmly believe that all companies with an online presence should invest in SEO, but SEM investments should be done on a case-by-case basis, and with the guidance of a trained professional.

Photos: iStockphoto


The opinions expressed in this article are those of its individual writer, and do not necessarily state or reflect the views of American Express Canada or Amex Bank of Canada. Third party web sites may have privacy and security policies different from Amex Bank of Canada. Links to other web sites does not imply the endorsement or approval of such web sites.

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