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What is SEM?


Search Engine Marketing (SEM) and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) are often confused for one another. Indeed the terms are sometimes mistakenly used interchangeably. Put simply, SEM is a paid tactic and involves bidding on keywords to appear at the top of the Search Engine Result Pages (SERP) and paying each time a user clicks on the ad. In contrast, SEO involves proving the relevance of your website for certain key terms and phrases so that when people search the terms, a link to your website will appear without paying to be placed on the SERP.

The easiest way to distinguish between the two is by their placement on a SERP. As a general rule, paid SEM results appear at the top of the page and are labeled as “Ad” whereas SEO results appear below. Clicking on the second group of links will not cost the website any money.


Most people instantly think of Google when they think about paid search engine advertising, but there are other platforms that excel at this including Bing and Yahoo.

How Does SEM Work?

When you start your campaign you decide which relevant words and phrases that customers are searching for that you want to use. Then you bid the amount you are willing to spend, without going over, to ensure your campaign is a profitable one.

For every user that clicks from the search engine to the web page you selected, the actions are recorded for analytics and billing. Nearly every search engine charges at a rate called “pay-per-click” (PPC); charging you for each user that chooses to click through to your website.


You can choose the time of day, precise customer location, and several other factors to alter if and when your ads appear in order to maximum campaign efficiency.

In the bidding environment, if you are the highest bidder, you are charged one penny more than the second highest bidder. If your bid on the term “mobile phone battery” is $1.50 and the second highest bid for the same term is $1.00, then with the highest bid, your ad would appear, but the click would only cost you $1.01.

This adds quite the strategic element to bidding and keyword monitoring, something that a battery producer does not have as a core competency. The right agency, however, is focused 24/7 on these terms and strategies to maximize the return on your media investment.


Everyone that is well versed in digital marketing will have a long-term goal of achieving organic search engine ranking for keywords relevant to what they offer. But is that the final answer to the SEM vs SEO debate? Well as with most things in life, the real answer is more complex than a simple go left or right.


Some people believe that they shouldn’t have to pay to push their content in any form. Not on Google, not on Social Media, not anywhere. While this belief is perfectly understandable, it takes a much longer time to grow your business organically. Sometimes quick results are needed, especially if you are working on a particular time-sensitive campaign.

New sites also lack the time necessary to build up the foundation they need to see organic results. The truth is, whether you pay to push content or pay to create consistent quality content, both involve paying to reach more potential customers.

The other challenge is that even the most well-intended organizations are often blindsided by catch phrases and internet memes. Take the Wisconsin Tourism Federation, who for years went by the acronym WTF. They had SEM campaigns around the term WTF until the internet decided that those letters meant something entirely different. The former WTF now goes by the Tourism Federation of Wisconsin as their key term “WTF” became prohibitively expensive and irrelevant.

Spillover Effects

An efficiently optimized SEM campaign can provide a positive Return on Investment (ROI) before it has any spillover effects on your other digital marketing efforts.

The first spillover effect in using PPC for keyword discovery is finding hidden gem keyphrases that can accelerate the time frame of your SEO efforts. One category of keyphrases is those that target awareness stage problem solving questions that your prospects are struggling with. For example, multi-national retailers have utilized keyword strategy to address the ways different regions call specific things, soda and pop being one of those instances.

Another category is purchase stage keywords, used by customers ready to buy right now. Usually these phases are expensive targets for both SEM and SEO. But, sometimes you can find more affordable, less obvious, “long-tail” (usually long winded phrases) that few of your competitors are directly targeting.


These “long-tail” phrases take a lot of patience to find,
but these hidden gems are profitable once found.

The benefit of finding these easy keyphrases, is that you can create content strategically to target them for SEO purposes. Potentially cashing in on your organic campaign in months instead of years.

A second spillover effect is what SEM can do for a conversion rate optimization testing (CRO) campaign. Essentially a CRO effort tracks user reactions to your sales pages, and helps you generate the best possible version that can possibly exist.

Doing so in a similar fashion to Formula One engineers making seemingly insignificant changes to the car engines, squeezing out performance improvements with each new version.

A CRO campaign has vastly greater effectiveness when driven by SEM instead of SEO alone. Powered by PPC, you can perform CRO analysis for a vast ocean of keywords, in a shorter time frame, with much greater accuracy.

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