What is SEO and SEM?

A red dart lays on a black and white target with a red bullseye. Behind the dart is an out-of-focus black text reading "Search Engine" in all caps.

You’re reading this blog. That means you’re taking leaps beyond the vast majority of marketers. It’s only fair you earn yourself cool new title. Let’s call you an ‘optimizer’.

That’s what the “O” in “SEO” stands for. Optimization. In full, it’s Search Engine Optimization. The process of optimizing your website and content for search engines. Even working with fifteen-year veterans of digital marketing, I still hear people say, “SEO optimization” on a daily basis. That’s like saying “ATM Machine” or “PIN number”.

(Hint: The ‘M’ in ‘ATM’ stands for “Machine” and the ‘N’ in ‘PIN’ stands for ‘Number’.) 

Don’t let me catch you saying ‘search engine optimization optimization’ or I’ll feel like I’ve failed you.

There’s one more lingo landmine you need to be aware of. It’s the difference between SEM and SEO. Often used interchangeably by managers and higher-ups, these are not the same. Now that you’re an optimizer, you can join me in scoffing when someone uses them wrong. It’ll be our little inside joke.

If SEO is the optimization of your content for search engines, SEM is the treacherous alternative. An acronym for Search Engine Marketing, SEM implies paying for ads on search engines. In SEO, we write better content. In SEM, the content doesn’t matter: we pay Google to display our site for a list of specific keywords.

Is SEM wrong? No. First, the practice of SEM is deep in the culture of hundreds of thousands of large organizations around the world. It’s a great way to surface your content when it underperforms or when you don’t have time to wait for Google to find it. SEM also implies something many of us don’t have: budget. That’s why, to me, SEM does have a tiny ‘the work of the devil’ vibe to it. I’ve never been a marketer with deep pockets.

Where companies go wrong, though, is in treating SEM like it’s the end-all, be-all of getting listed on search engines. In fact, a website with well-optimized content is likely to receive more than 60% of it’s traffic organically from Google. “Organic” meaning it shows up in search results without the company paying Google for the placement. The more-common (and unfortunate) scenario is many large organizations pay for 20-30 percent of their traffic. To the tune of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and yes, sometimes millions of dollars every year.

In these scenarios, you’ll see organic traffic making up 30-40 percent of a website’s visitors. Why is this problematic? It implies a company has an overlap between their paid and organic traffic. They’ve paid for ads to an audience which was already going to see (and click on) their content.

Or worse, they haven’t optimized their content to get as much organic (translation: free) traffic as possible. They’ve skipped ahead to paying for more traffic, despite their content. If the content isn’t liked enough to get Google’s recognition already, it’s not likely a user is going to love it, either.

All this is to say that SEO, the knight-in-shining-armor cousin of SEM, is free. All it takes to get your content into Google is to make sure it’s well-written and well-posted. We’ll talk about that well-posted part a lot in the latter sections of this book. First, we’re going to focus on the quality of your content. None of this matters without the content being the best possible content for your user.

In that regard, content is queen. But before we talk about why, it helps to understand how search engines function.

One response to “What is SEO and SEM?”

  1. Thank you for taking the time to create this article and share your knowledge. It is really appreciated! I’ll remember to say SEO not SEOO.


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