Paid Advertising

A Beginner's Guide to SEO vs. SEM

December 10, 2019

Search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) are two terms that you've probably come up against in your school marketing efforts. But what's the difference between them?

SEO is the process of increasing your visibility in search results by performing a number of technical and creative activities to attract free, or "organic" traffic. SEO activities include:

  • Performing keyword research and strategically incorporating them into on-page content
  • Writing informative content and blog posts that answers common search queries
  • Optimizing technical elements of your website, including page speed and URL formatting
  • Building links to your website from other reputable websites.

SEM, on the other hand, refers to activities that you would perform to capture primarily paid traffic from digital advertising, including Google Ads and Bing Ads. The term SEM is often used interchangeably with pay-per-click (PPC) advertising.


Paid traffic vs. organic traffic

New updates in search engines are making it harder and harder to distinguish paid search results from organic, or free search results when you type a question into Google or Bing. Typically, paid search results are the list of links that sit at the top, bottom and occasionally side of a search results page. They are distinguished from organic search results by a little box next to the title of the result that says Ad


SEM Illustration -01


Paid results look very similar to organic search results, meaning searchers often don't realize they've clicked on an ad, particularly if the content of the ad matches their search query. This has led to Google generating over US$32.6 billion in advertising revenue in the second quarter of 2019 alone. 

Organic search results are the list of links that sit below paid ads. Rather than appearing because someone has paid for them, they are pulled by Google's web crawlers based on the quality and content of the webpage. Organic traffic that appears in the top results is usually considered more trustworthy than paid search results by users. 


SEM Illustration -02


Should I invest in SEO or SEM?

Deciding where to focus your digital marketing efforts all comes back to having a thought-out marketing strategy. If you are looking to create awareness about a promotion or an event, and have budget to put towards paid search, SEM can be a great way to drive traffic to your school website, fast. With the right resources, you can get a Google Ads campaign up and running really quickly

On the other hand, if you are looking to the future, investing in SEO is the way to go. The traffic gained from performing regular optimizations is significantly more valuable and cost-effective in the long-term. Think of it as building up equity in your brand, piece by piece, rather than paying "rent" to platforms like Google Ads. You do need to be prepared to play the long game, and wait for your efforts to pay off months (and even years) into the future.

Here's an example of a blog post that we published two years ago. As you can see, the initial organic traffic to the blog (represented by the green line) was low, however over time it steadily increased, driving more and more traffic to the Digistorm website. 


Screen Shot 2019-10-03 at 9.39.02 am

In short, both SEM and SEO are highly effective digital strategies. They each have their place and can be used to drive excellent results for your school. Most schools implement a mix of SEO strategies, such as blogging, and SEM strategies, such as advertising on Google Ads. 


Getting started with SEO and SEM 

When it comes to digital marketing, schools have a few options. You can: build up your in-house resources, engage a marketing agency, or do both. The route your school chooses to take will depend on your marketing budget, time and team capabilities. Whichever you decide, here are some resources to get you on your way:


So tell us — do you plan on using SEM, SEO or a mixture of both in your upcoming marketing strategy? Email us, message us or tweet us! We love hearing from you.