SEM: What it is, how it is done, and how it differs from SEO

The SEM is the set of Marketing activities carried out to channel the greatest number of users interested in the content offered on one’s own website.

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is one of the main branches of Web Marketing. According to its original meaning, the SEM consists of two fundamental disciplines:

  • SEO, or search engine optimization;
  • SEA, search engine advertising.
  • Indeed, over the years, the acronym SEM has been used to refer exclusively to paid activities (SEA). Today, however, the term ” Search Marketing ” is conventionally used to indicate both disciplines. Below, we will refer to the most current terminology.

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Let’s see what are the differences between SEM, SEO, and SEA.

SEA: what is it?

Search Engine Advertising refers to the paid promotion activities of a website that the various search engines allow to carry out.

This discipline allows you to indirectly “purchase” qualified traffic from search engines, upon payment of a price that is determined on the basis of an auction mechanism. We say “indirectly”, because, in reality, advertisers compete to win the best positions in search results (the first four), which ensures greater exposure of their ads to users who search and browse. The monetary amount, defined by the auction, is charged every time a user clicks on the ad.

The important feature of these advertising systems lies in the fact that the advertiser pays for highly qualified traffic because the ads are shown to those users who carry out searches closely related to the products or services offered.

SEO: what is it?

Search Engine Optimization refers to the set of non-paid optimization activities, which can be carried out on a website in order to position its pages in the first organic positions of the SERPs. The objective of this discipline, as for the SEA, is to obtain qualified traffic to one’s site, with the difference that no cost will be charged for users’ clicks.

SEO activities can be divided into two macro areas:

  • On-site SEO, which is exercised through the optimization of page contents, in order to make them easily understandable by search engine crawlers;
  • Off-site SEO, refers to the activities of optimizing websites and structuring internal and external links, which increase the authority of sites in the eyes of algorithms.


Although both disciplines are search engine-based activities and have the common goal of getting qualified traffic to sites, there are marked differences that can be traced back to three topics:

  • The clicks that are received through search engine advertising activities have a price which in technical language is called Cost per Click (CPC). On the other hand, users who land on a domain by clicking on an organic search result do not generate any costs for the webmaster. However, this does not mean that they are free activities, on the contrary. SEO Specialists are among the highest-paid professionals in the web area, as the exercise of this discipline requires a lot of time as well as having a very significant value.If you aim to be an SEO manager, you can start by joining the Certified Course.
  • The operation behind these two activities is completely different. As we have already seen previously, SEM Specialists use software owned by various search engines, are more analytical, and manage large volumes of money. SEO Specialists, on the other hand, use WordPress or other content management systems, can get their hands dirty with HTML code, and have not only analytical skills but also humanistic skills useful for creating content.
  • The time setting of the objectives: even if the search engine crawlers only need about a month to read all the pages on the web, the optimization activity, both On-page and Off-page, certainly requires more than a few months to can bring relevant results in terms of positioning in the Google SERP. This is even more likely if the Authority that Google attributes to the domain is low. Search Engine Advertising, on the other hand, allows you to obtain traffic volumes in the short term, with more or less important results in proportion to the investments made.

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You can learn more about these topics by attending our SEO and SEM Specialist course.

Search Engine Marketing Strategy

Following a SEM strategy means adopting a very powerful sales strategy for entrepreneurs.

When you need a product, you yourself are probably the first to go looking for it on search engines. Therefore, you will immediately understand that SEM is a very powerful sales lever because it has a very important return on investment (ROI).

SEM marketing as a sales strategy for entrepreneurs

If you are an entrepreneur, you can certainly make an investment in intelligent, conveyed, and parameterized SEO and SEA services in order to obtain results in terms of business. So, you can leverage search engine marketing to sell.

how seo workThe SEM strategy allows you to position yourself among the first results in search engines and above all satisfy the purchase search intent. The user who has an informative intent tends to scroll the results of the Google SERP and consult the first organic positions.

Diversifying your digital marketing strategy by investing in paid search advertising allows you to be present among the sponsored results, therefore on top in the SERP, among the best positions. The latter mainly respond to the need to purchase, so it is important to invest in SEM activities to generate qualified traffic to your website and apply inbound marketing techniques.

The main objective of entrepreneurs is certainly to increase sales and web marketing strategies work towards the realization of this need.

Drawing on the eMarketer source, the proposed graph shows the paid search trend for Google from 2019 to 2024.

What to consider before setting up a SEM campaign

The advertising part and the organic visibility part are not two separate worlds, let alone two totally competing worlds. Because actually, users prefer to click on sponsored results when they have one type of need and they prefer to click on natural organic results when they have another. So the good digital marketer doesn’t put the two channels in competition, nor does he consider their alternatives, but rather tries to make an integrated strategy.

SEM campaignA small suggestion to orient yourself in the SEM SEO marketing strategy is SEO on a few keywords with high traffic, SEA, or advertising, on tens, hundreds, or thousands of keywords with a lower traffic volume. When you start wanting to be present on search engines, you immediately start SEA in the short term, while in search engine optimization, you manage it more in the medium term because it requires much more time and much more patience to see good results.

In summary, two parameters, in particular, are relevant to define SEM and SEO strategies aimed at improving visibility in search engines :

  • Budget availability;
  • The time period in which to obtain results.

Undoubtedly, in order to set up SEM marketing activities, it is essential to have an adequate budget, you must invest, even small amounts at first, and measure the ROI.

The time frame in which to achieve results in terms of search engine positioning and therefore the optimization of the search marketing response affects the choice of the SEM strategy. Investing in search engine advertising allows you to quickly position your keywords among the results of the SERP, among the first positions, the paid ones. Search Engine Optimization, on the other hand, acts within organic search and requires more time and a lot of “manual” work on the part of SEO specialists.

Increase your visibility on Google. Learn how to manage SEM campaigns effectively!


The winning strategy in search marketing: SEO and SEM

Their respective advantages and disadvantages represent the difference between SEO and SEM, let’s see some of them.
An undisputed benefit of SEO is linked to the characteristic of working in the long run. It is possible to build the brand’s online presence over time and therefore give value and credibility to the search engine results.

At the same time, among the advantages of SEM, we can mention the possibility of competing with big brands in the same sector, getting more traffic to your page in a shorter time, making your brand, product, or service known, therefore getting known quickly and segmenting the audience to be reached so that it is more targeted.

The often rewarding strategy is to work on both search marketing methodologies in parallel, combining the benefits of SEO and SEM, working hand in hand with credibility and notoriety with an integrated strategy.

SEM how to do it: Google ADS (formerly AdWords)

How to approach SEM to make the most of it? The search engines around the web are as diverse as the applications designed for creating and managing advertising campaigns on them. In addition to Google ADS (before Google AdWords), by far the most used by all marketers in the world, Bing Ads has undoubtedly been able to carve out niches for itself, which delivers a large part of the advertising also on Yahoo, Yandex Ads for the Russian market and Baidu advertising for the Chinese one.

Their complexity has gradually grown as the number of permitted functions has increased. But let’s try to learn more about how SEM specialists from all over the world work with Google ADS. First of all, when building an SEM campaign, the first thing you have to do is choose which network you want to communicate on. There are mainly three different types of campaigns and channels:

  • Search Network Campaigns. They are the ones that everyone commonly refers to when it comes to advertising on search engines. This type of campaign allows you to communicate with your target user while he is carrying out a search and therefore is expressing an effective question. The construction of this campaign starts with the study of keywords. It is about defining the audience by imagining what search terms users type to search for our products/services. Fortunately, there are several tools to support this activity, such as the Keyword Tool, which returns ideas and volumes based on searches carried out in the last 12 months. At this point, all that remains is to define the copy of the ads and bid for each keyword to participate in the auction.


discover google search network ads
  • Display Network campaigns : they allow reaching the user through the publication on pages of other websites (affiliated with the Google Adsense circuit) of text ads or advertising banners. The peculiarity of this campaign lies in the possibility of selecting the end user to whom to show one’s creativity based on the interests they have expressed, the topics they are reading or their demographic characteristics. In this way it is possible to profile your audience in an advanced way by communicating only with users potentially interested in our proposal.

display network campaigns
  • Video Network Campaigns: allow you to communicate through video ads on the YouTube network and Google partner sites, selecting the target audience for Display.

These three channels allow those who want to do online activities to communicate with their target users at different times of their browsing.


video network

Learn to use the main SEM Tools

Why is SEM good for business

Search engines are the main gateway to all information on the Internet. We all use search engines to find websites whose addresses we don’t remember, information, reviews, products, etc.

SEM advertising onlineSearch engine marketing remains today the preferred way to gain visibility on search engines. The why is rather trivial to understand.

According to what Google declared in 2016, at least 2 billion searches are carried out every year all over the world. If you want your website to be immediately reached by a large number of users, you should probably launch an ADS campaign.

In fact, organic results are ranked below Google’s sponsored results. To get a good organic ranking in relation to certain search queries, you have to spend a lot of time and resources. Sponsored ads, on the other hand, allow you to have great visibility in a very short time.

Not only are online advertising tools the only ones that allow 360° communication in all or almost all moments of a user’s online browsing.

These advanced systems allow SEM specialists to intercept potential customers at various key moments in their decision-making process, influencing them. For this reason, within effective digital marketing strategies, search engine marketing plays an increasingly prominent role.

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SEM Specialist Job

The SEM Specialist is a professional figure who deals with managing advertising campaigns on search engines in the digital field.

digital jobsThere are numerous advantages and opportunities to relying as a company on a trained SEM specialist. It goes without saying that this is one of the most requested digital tasks. Here are the main factors behind it:

  1. The management platforms and supporting tools are quite articulated and numerous with frequent updates;
  2. The complexity of planning, formulation, management, and analysis activities and continuous adaptation of campaigns. Moreover, paid ads, in addition to the economic factor linked to the offer for individual keywords, are influenced by various ranking factors, including the relevance of the ad, which is constantly evolving. This requires continuous monitoring.
  3. Physiological increase in the search for this figure in web agencies, large companies, and e-commerce.

Consult the most recent SEM Specialist job offers in the dedicated section.

SEM Courses

As you will have understood, the range of knowledge and best practices that await you to become a good SEM specialist is quite wide. One of the first steps will certainly be to become familiar with the most used platform, namely, Google Ads, and with the best-known tools, such as SEMRush, for example.


SEM interviews

Read the experiences and advice of SEM professionals who work as freelance consultants, or in established companies.

become a google ads specialist

Interview with Luigi Sciolti

discover the biddable media manager

Real Time Bidding Manager

Interview with Simonetta Azzarito


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