Small businesses often feel that they can get lost in search engine results because they are smaller than bigger companies that are offering the same products. Small businesses also struggle with how to increase their search rankings and often opt for advertising methods to get their name in search results. While this is helpful, this is not always the best way for a business to increase its chances of being on the first page of Google, Yahoo or Bing.

To understand whether a business should participate in SEO efforts or SEM efforts, it is important for a business to understand the fundamental differences between the two.

According to Moz, a leading SEO tool for marketers, search engine optimization (SEO) is the practice of increasing the quantity and quality of traffic to your website through organic (free/earned) search engine results. SEO deals strictly with the content on your website utilizing keywords, phrases, SEO titles, headers, alt tags and meta descriptions to relay to google what the content is about.

Contrary, search engine marketing (SEM) is the practice of utilizing paid ad campaigns based on keywords and search terms to connect to users actively searching for brands like yours. SEM takes on the role of traditional advertising where ad placement is purchased in order to get your products or brand on the first page of searches.

Knowing the different of the two will not be enough to understand when to use one over the other or what your business should be using. Here is when you should use SEO and SEM:

Search Engine Optimization

Realistically, your brand or company’s website should always be optimized for search rankings. This means writing and producing meaningful content that sets you apart from the competition, that drives rankings in Google, and increases certain aspects of your Google Analytics.

A company that has minimal budget to spend on digital advertising will benefit more from SEO than it will SEM. A website should be optimized for search rankings in order to increase website traffic to the homepage, landing pages and blog pages of a website based on search terms that a potential customer or lead would be searching for. From having your website optimized, you are more likely to rank on the first page, organically, meaning without paying for advertising placement through programs like Google AdWords.

Search Engine Marketing

Search engine marketing can be a challenging venture for some businesses as advertising costs can be very high in certain industries, resulting in lower ROIs. Typically, SEM is reserved for businesses that are able to throw several thousand dollars per month on marketing. While this statement is generalized, it is often the industry thought. Because of the high amount of search traffic involved with search engines, you are competing with other businesses for the same consumer attention, and use bid strategies to beat the competition—this is where it gets expensive and hard for smaller businesses to keep up with bigger companies.

If a company has a scarce product that not many other companies have, they are offering some type of e-commerce sale, or they trying to sell products or services in a timely manner, it would be more beneficial for them to explore SEM over SEO. However, it is not recommended that a business allocate advertising dollars to use SEM as a form of brand awareness as this is better suited for SEO.


Search engine optimization and search engine marketing are no simple task for the common business owner. Specialists can return higher ROI no matter which form of search rankings you choose. Additionally, there are several hundred-page books to learn more about search engine optimization and search engine marketing, so it’s a topic that should be carefully considered before deciding which to move forward with.


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