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The difference between SEO and SEM: are they complementary or mutually exclusive?

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In the world of digital marketing there are two concepts that you have surely heard and seen a thousand times: search engine optimisation or SEO and search engine marketing or SEM. But do you know the difference between SEO and SEM?

We could summarise it in that search engine positioning does not require large investments of money, but it does require time, and the results are seen in the long term, while search engine marketing is synonymous with paid advertising, so it does involve an economic investment, and its results have a more immediate impact.

Don't worry if you have any doubts, we are going to explain both terms, what their main differences are and which one is better.

keep reading this article to clear all your doubts on the subject!

what is SEO?

SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) refers to the set of techniques and tools that are applied to a web page with the aim of improving its positioning in a search engine. When a user performs a search, the position in which the different web pages appear, would be the work of SEO positioning. In Spain, this positioning in search engines focuses on Google, since it is the main and most used.

SEO refers to organic results, that is, we do not pay directly to a page or company to have a better positioning and appear in the first results of the SERP.

Search engine optimisation seeks to improve the visibility of a website in the search results, and it is done through optimisation work and increasing the popularity of the website. There are two key factors that influence the positioning of a page:

  1. relevance: A website is relevant when it responds accurately to the query or question posed by the user. On-page SEO is used to improve relevance, with techniques such as keyword optimisation, friendly URLs, better user experience, indexing, etc.
  2. authority: Here we refer to the popularity of the site, therefore all the actions that are carried out to achieve it. To improve authority we apply what is known as off page SEO, and we use techniques such as linkbuilding.


what is SEM?

SEM (Search engine marketing) or search engine marketing is the set of techniques used to improve web positioning by means of paid advertisements.

SEM consists of creating paid advertisements for specific keywords, i.e. when a user makes a specific search on the search engine, your website appears before those of your competitors.

The promotion of a website can be done through platforms such as Google Ads. Nowadays, social networks also offer their own tools for paid ads, such as Facebook Ads. You can also create ads with display platforms. These ads are shown in the SERP, which increases the visibility of your website.

In this type of strategy you pay per click (PPC) or cost per click (CPC), meaning, for every time a user clicks on your ad you are paying an amount of money. You pay for every time the user clicks on your ad, the more clicks, the higher the cost, but the more likely that those visits will turn into customers. This is done because you bid on one or a set of keywords.


Main differences between SEO and SEM

After analysing both terms separately, we can conclude that SEO corresponds to the organic part, those strategies for which you do not pay directly to the search engine to get visibility, while SEM is based on paid advertising campaigns through bids to appear in the top positions of search engines.

Although it is said that SEO is free, this is not the case, as it requires a high investment of time, effort and human resources to be in the top positions, so it does have a cost.

Other differences are the time it takes to obtain significant results: while SEM is immediate, and you can control the timing of the campaign, it is effective from minute one, SEO, on the other hand, takes more time, in the long term, and does not offer a guarantee of achieving the first results.

The place they occupy also varies, paid ads are placed at the top of the SERP, when you perform a search the first results are sponsored ads under the label "ad" at the beginning. And after these, the organic results appear.

are they complementary or exclusive?

Let's not beat around the bush, the answer is that they are complementary, together they complement each other to cover each other's weaknesses.

Although a priori it may seem better to invest only in SEM for its immediate results, remember that SEO gives you prestige in front of Google and, in addition, offers value for your customers.

Combined with ingenuity, taking advantage of the potential of both strategies you can achieve a better positioning result for your website. You can attract potential customers to your website thanks to paid ads, but if it is not optimised and does not have relevant content, this user will leave without making a purchase. So you must work on both.

In conclusion, these two digital marketing strategies are very different, but using them together will give you good results. SEM will give you results in the short term, but SEO will help you survive in the long term within the search engines. Now it's your turn to put these techniques into action on your website.

we hope you've enjoyed reading this and that we've answered all your questions!

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