Key Differences Between SEO and SEM Keywords

July 2019


Targeting keywords can mean very different things depending on whether your focus is SEO or SEM. Although some people use the terms interchangeably, they actually serve two separate functions. SEM, or Search Engine Marketing, uses paid strategies to appear in search. SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, uses organic strategies to appear in search results. Some marketers consider SEM to be an umbrella under which paid search and organic search belong. However, because paid search keywords differ from organic keywords, we’ll focus on the difference between SEM and SEO in terms of paid versus non-paid.

Here are the key differences between SEO and SEM keywords to help refine your holistic marketing strategy. We’ll also cover some ways in which they work in tandem. 

Conducting Keyword Research

According to Search Engine Land, the margin for error in SEO is “very large.” That’s because SEO doesn’t cost a fee per keyword. If a marketer realizes that a keyword isn’t performing well, it can be swapped out for another. Keyword research is continually refreshed according to new technologies, products and ideas. 

SEM keywords can also be refreshed, but not for free. Every keyword used in paid search costs money, so marketers must be more sensible in the types of keywords they bid on and cut out any that don’t work while also adding negatives (phrases that won’t trigger your ad). SEM keyword research is more careful and calculated, while SEO keyword research is more like its bungee-jumping brother.

One crucial difference in researching SEM keywords is considering purchase intent. SEM marketers must brainstorm keywords that will lead to conversions — not necessarily keywords that have impressive search volume. A search you make while gathering information simply isn’t as powerful (for conversions) as a search you make when wanting to buy something. Not knowing the difference will result in revenue loss. 

Using Keywords 

Keywords targeting on-page SEO populate meta data like page title tags, meta descriptions, heading tags and image ALT tags. They should also be integrated into page copy and well-formatted page URLs.

SEM keywords populate ad copy like pay-per-click ads and cost-per-click ads. Because these ads often have character limits, crafting messages that are informative, search-friendly and succinct may present more of a challenge to marketers. SEM also allows marketers to target by demographic and promote time-sensitive offers.

Using SEO and SEM in Tandem

SEO and SEM are similar in that they both heavily rely on keywords to drive traffic to websites and require continual refining of keywords. While some people with limited budgets choose to focus on either an SEO strategy or an SEM strategy, the two are complementary. According to Didit, a study conducted by Nielsen Research found that when a brand appeared only in organic searches, the link received 60 percent of clicks, but if a brand appeared in both organic and paid search results, the brand attracted 92 percent of total clicks. Consumers trust a brand they are familiar with, and showing up in both paid and organic campaigns is a good way to tap into that familiarity. One smart step in combining SEO and SEM strategies is to divide the use of keywords instead of trying to rank for the same ones in two places. Remember to use high-competition keywords for SEO and moderate-to-low-competition (but high-converting) keywords for SEM.

If a marketer had to choose between the two strategies, SEM might be the best route for immediate results even if more expensive, because SEO adds value over time. However, declaring one to be more important than the other simply doesn’t work. If SEO and SEM stepped into the boxing ring, it’s safe to say there’d be a draw.


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