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What is the Difference Between SEO and SEM?

Jul 24, 2015 | by Stacey Burke | Marketing Services | Google | SEO
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Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) – they sound alike but they are not the same thing. Both are broad categories referencing strategies used online to improve search engine results, overall market saturation, and brand awareness. The broader category is SEM, which actually encompasses SEO. Where SEO focuses solely on organic or natural search results, SEM uses digital advertising to target more specific audiences with precise messages.

Many lawyers call me to request information about vendors that have cold called them offering “page one Google” results. The goal of successful SEO is to achieve high rankings in the natural search results of all search engines in order to drive more traffic inbound to your website. Since many search engine users will only click on first-page results, the higher a website ranks naturally, the better its chances are to be clicked upon and/or visited by a searcher.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) 

SEO is the act of optimizing a website through website development, information architecture, and keyword-rich content to boost natural search engine results. SEO is only one component of a Search Engine Marketing program. SEO is an organic process that is an ever-changing, evolving optimization of your website’s design/appearance, functionality, and content.

Search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing collect information about online pages. Each engine has its own algorithm, or formula, for sorting through and categorizing online pages to help users find the information most relevant to what they are looking for.

The higher you are ranked on a search engine, the more people will find you. Effective SEO increases your organic search results rankings thus increasing your brand awareness and traffic.

SEO best practices can include:

  • Publishing good content on a consistent basis
  • Link building
  • Good page load time and site speed
  • Continually audit site performance
  • User experience improvements
  • Good title tags
  • Good URL structure
  • Image alt-text
  • Staying hyper-aware of search engine algorithm updates and adjusting accordingly

Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

SEM, also now often abbreviated to Search Marketing (SM) is the process of promoting websites or online pages to gain traffic from search engines. Law firms would use SEM to gain traffic and visibility from search engines through both paid and unpaid efforts.

SEM is a broad stroke term that includes not only SEO, but also the purchase of ads and the use of third party platforms to boost search engine results. SEM utilizes pay-per-click tools like Google AdWords, spending often a large portion of a marketing budget online. While over time the phrase SEM has begun to refer solely to the paid element of search engine work, it technically encompasses every strategy you can use to increase your search engine results pages (SERPs).

Search Engine Marketing includes many tools: 

  • Search engine optimization (SEO)
  • Paid inclusion (sponsored listings)
  • Paid search advertising
  • Social media marketing
  • Social media advertising

Advertisements in a successful SEM campaign will be shown as often as possible to the desired consumer base that is specifically searching for your law firm’s services or for information about one of your practice areas.

Are You Confused Yet?

If you work in a law firm or for a legal industry vendor, Stacey E. Burke, P.C. can help you navigate the confusing alphabet soup of digital marketing. Be sure to let us help you avoid law firm SEO scammers.

Sidebar stacey e burke About Stacey Burke

Stacey E. Burke is both an experienced trial lawyer and law firm business consultant. She works with lawyers and law firms around the world to improve their business development, marketing, and infrastructures.


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