SEO vs SEM – The Basic Guide for the Novice Marketer or Busy Business Owner

Geoff Grigsby


One of the things I come across all the time when meeting with business owners is that most have a foggy idea, at best, of what SEO and SEM are. Many don’t understand the difference, don’t know why exactly they are important, don’t know which is the better option for them, haven’t the faintest whether or not they should try this stuff on their own, or if they should invest in this type of marketing at all. On top of that, a lot of you are bombarded with phone calls from us marketers, many of whom will never step foot in your town (or even state), trying to pitch one while bad-mouthing the other.  You may be so fed up with telemarketers that you now have a bad taste in your mouth for SEO and SEM, but the truth is both have legitimate places in the market.  Hopefully I can answer those questions for you in this blog, and hopefully it won’t come across as too sales-sy…

Another struggle, especially for well-established business owners, is how and why to make the switch from more traditional marketing to digital marketing. Well, the facts prove that more and more consumers are using search engines to find, research, contact, and ultimately purchase products and services.  Google dominates the landscape, gobbling up about 65% of search, while Bing and Yahoo grab about 30% and about 5% goes to miscellaneous engines.  There are even more important statistics around who actually earns the consumers’ clicks…. the newest studies show that 48% of of clicks go to the 1st organic search result, 12% go to the 2nd spot, and 8% go th the 3rd result.  That means almost 70% of clicks go to the top 3 links!  Furthermore, about 90% of clicks go to the first page of results.  That means if you aren’t on the first page of search results for your core products and services in the geographic area you serve, your website is almost irrelevant.  That’s a tough statement, but it’s true.

(For a great explanation of how search engines decide how websites show up in organic search (SEO) watch this short video, and to see how paid search (SEM) is organized watch this slightly more involved video)

What is SEO?

SEO is Search Engine Optimization. It refers to the work that is done on your website, and behind the scenes of your website, to increase your relevance with consumers (e.g. – end users or searchers), and in turn, search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo.  There are 2 types of SEO – on-site SEO and off-site SEO – and without question, the websites that get both enjoy the best results. I’ll get into what each entails a little later.  You cannot pay a search engine to improve your placement, but when a user clicks on your link it doesn’t cost you anything.


  • more authoritative in end-user’s eyes
  • clicks are “free”
  • best way to increase traffic to your site for your core products and services
  • transparent reporting and track-able results


  • traffic depends on placement
  • not cost effective to optimize non-core products and services
  • can take several months to see desired results

What is SEM?

SEM is Search Engine Marketing, and is commonly referred to as pay-per-click.  The most common version of this is Google AdWords.  This type of advertising shows up on the top, bottom, and/or right side of the page of Google searches (similar for Bing/Yahoo). Relevance is the main criteria for placement, but there is a bid process that also comes into play. The newest, and most surprising, research to us marketers shows that Clicks on paid search listings beat out organic clicks by nearly a 2:1 margin for keywords with high commercial intent in the US!


  • guaranteed traffic
  • flexible budgeting
  • best way to promote all aspects of your business, not just your core products or services
  • unlimited keywords regardless of your budget
  • can get you placement in search results almost immediately
  • comprehensive reporting, completely track-able, and direct ROI


  • doesn’t help SEO
  • you disappear from the page when your budget is depleted

(Here is a screenshot of a Google search for a quick visual reference of SEO and SEM)

Should I Outsource my SEO and SEM?

Well that depends… To do either type of marketing real justice one-of-three things has to happen:

  1. You should spend a lot of time researching SEO/SEM practices, learn how to best implement them, and then rinse and repeat… SEO isn’t just something you do one time or for just a little while, and SEM needs constant tracking and revision.
  2. You should hire an employee to take care of your marketing, and have them dedicate a large portion of their time to SEO and SEM.  This takes a lot of, and continual, training.
  3. You should outsource it to a company that can show proven results, give you monthly reporting, and can dedicate their resources to keeping your campaigns running efficiently.

So you should ask yourself a couple questions… “Do I have the time to dedicate to doing this right?”  A half-hearted effort isn’t going to yield you very good results – remember 90% of clicks go the first page, and  about 70% to the top 3 links for SEO.  “Can I afford to hire a dedicated marketing professional?”  Many medium, and even some small, businesses have chosen to go this route, and it’s the ideal situation if you get the right person in place.  But many of these businesses still outsource SEO and SEM responsibilities because they are such complicated and ever-changing arenas.

Here is why SEO is complicated – it goes back to the definitions I promised you.  On-site SEO refers to the things you physically do to your website from a development perspective.  Things like title tags, meta tags, keywords, hyper-linking, creating relevant and changing content, placement of content, etc. These things can, to some degree, be handled in-house, but the main problem is that Google changes their search algorithms 500 times per year – that’s more than once per day! Even the best SEO companies cannot keep up with that, but they know the trends and what seems to be most important. Off-site SEO is a tad more complicated for the in-house marketing rep.  It is everything that happens outside of your website – basically how other websites see your website.  This has to do with “PageRank“… and authoritative linking… and being on the right industry-specific and most authoritative directories. It’s a whole other blog to itself.

SEM presents a different set of issues.  Check out the training to become Google AdWords certified.  It’s 15 sections with 59 subsections! And I can promise you very few of them are short.  On top of that there are nuances in keyword selection, choosing geographics, and bidding algorithms. I sell this stuff for a living and only have a slight grasp of it all.

The bottom line is one last question – “If I can’t afford to do this on my own, can I afford not to do it?” This is where the ROI piece comes into play.  I personally believe there are no more effective marketing tools today than SEO and SEM.  They are similar to the Yellow Pages of yesteryear. When someone needs a product or service they used to reach for the phone book.  Now they reach for the lap top, tablet, or smart phone.  These consumers are searching for you.  They aren’t random eyeballs you hope to catch with an advertisement, or ears that you hope to catch at just the moment they happen to need your service as your ad hits the airwaves.  These people are actively searching for what you do… they are HOT leads! What does one new customer mean to you? How about 5 or 10? It’s certainly different for different businesses (a roof costs more than an ice cream cake), but here’s the other area where SEO and SEM have an advantage on more traditional type of advertising – transparency, reporting, and ROI.

  • Can a magazine show you, from month-to-month, how many eye-balls landed on your specific ad?
  • Can a TV station tell you how many people DVR’d the show and then fast-forwarded through your commercial?
  • Can the radio station tell you how many people changed over to the other country station during the commercial break?
  • Can your SEO provider give you a report that shows how your placement improved every month? Or what your traffic numbers were to your site?
  • Can your SEM provider give you a dashboard that monitors how your campaigns perform?  Or give you detailed accounts of which keywords receive the most traffic? Or show you how many people contacted you via call-tracking or email-tracking?
  • Can you install a free program called Google Analytics that can further track where internet sales originate from or where people leave your website?

The answer to the first 3 bullets is NO.  The answer to the second 3 should be YES. What I love about SEO and SEM is that you can easily track your progress. Specifically to SEO you can see the correlation between higher placement to increased traffic and sales opportunities, and with SEM the number of clicks, contacts, and sales.  By tracking these you can easily determine if the ROI makes these investments worth it for your business.


Hopefully the blog has been helpful.  I welcome your feedback and will gladly try to answer any questions you have on these topics.   or (207) 780-9425