SE Optimization Search Engine Marketing (SEM) Social Media Marketing

The Difference Between SEO, SEM, and SMM

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If you’ve spent more than five minutes studying digital marketing, there’s a good chance you’ve run across a whole host of acronyms. SEO? SEM? SMM? SERP? While it can sometimes feel like learning a new language, these terms play a unique role in the online advertising process.

But which ones do you really need to understand and what do they all mean? The truth is that each set of three letters has a specific list of associated tasks that are vital for your success, and you’ll want to pay attention to them. Here’s what you need to know about the difference between SEO, SEM, and SMM.

What is Search Engine Optimization?

Search engine optimization (SEO) is essentially a set of best practices designed to help your website rank better on search engines such as Google or Bing—a critical factor in improving traffic and increasing overall conversions. A website’s particular rank is referred to as its SERP or search engine ranking position.

These steps include everything from using appropriate H1 through H4 tags when writing content to making sure to add alt tags on images and other various steps. We won’t go into all of them here. But, essentially, SEO is simply making sure you’re doing everything you can possibly do to cater to the requirements of search engine bots—i.e., software tools that come to your site on behalf of a particular search engine and decide where you should be placed in the search ranking.

Furthermore, there are also two key types of SEO to understand—on-page and off-page. On-page means the steps you actually take while on your website, such as adding new content or updating meta descriptions to include a particularly important keyword. Off-page refers to the actions you take off your website to help improve your search engine ranking. Examples include backlinking to your website on an article that’s posted on another related website.

In most cases, every digital marketer should pay attention to these steps and incorporate them throughout the entire website. These efforts are sometimes also referred to as organic traffic because the person searching the internet finds your website organically without clicking on a paid advertisement. The biggest downside to this marketing method? It can sometimes take a few weeks or months to increase SERP and see an improvement in traffic.

What is Search Engine Marketing?

Search engine marketing (SEM) is a process of driving traffic to your website through paid means, such as pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. Essentially, this is like jumping to the head of the line by paying a search engine like Google or Bing to show up at the top of the results page instead of waiting for your organic SEO efforts to take hold. In some cases, it can be wildly effective—but only if done right.

The most popular platform to use for SEM is Google AdWords. However, in recent years saturation of the market has caused advertising prices to skyrocket and made this method less desirable for those who are just starting out. These ads are also starting to become less trusted and acknowledged by those searching the internet for information on a particular topic, making your efforts less stellar than they once might have been for certain niches.

Instead, many digital marketing experts are turning their spend dollars to paid social media advertising. This is essentially a subset of SEM but involves the use of a specific social media platform to obtain views by a particular audience instead of trying to increase immediate ranking on a search engine.

What is Social Media Marketing?

Now that we’ve covered SEM, let’s take a look further into social media advertising. Social media marketing (SMM) is the process of utilizing social media channels to increase brand awareness and link building. In some cases, this can mean using paid marketing means, as we mentioned before, such as Facebook Ads.

Which platforms are considered part of SMM? While new ones are popping up all of the time, the most commonly used social media sites include:

  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • YouTube
  • LinkedIn
  • Snapchat
  • Pinterest
  • Houzz

SMM is only successful if you take a couple of key steps. First, you have to make sure you’re on the right platform to find your audience. For example, a clothing brand might not have any success on Houzz, but a custom kitchen remodeler would. Second, consistency is critical. Try to post on a weekly or another semi-regular basis to help stay relevant and keep your brand at top-of-mind awareness.

The main perks to SMM include building a brand culture, giving your target audience a place to learn about your offerings, and interacting directly with customers. Simply put, this type of marketing is a great way to consistently stay in touch with your audience without having to go to a lot of effort. Plus, just about everybody and their elected official are on some sort of social media site, so it can be an excellent way to gain a loyal audience.

Best of all? You can even improve organic traffic with social media marketing. If you’ve typed your business or brand name into Google lately, there’s a good chance your profile on Facebook or Twitter has probably come up in the list of results. And, if you’re doing things right, you’ve already linked your website through posts or your general profile. This is an example of off-page SEO and SMM working hand-in-hand.

Key Takeaways

Now, that’s a lot of terms to try to understand. The biggest takeaway from all of this is that these various digital marketing steps are all important. You cannot have a comprehensive marketing plan without SEO, SEM, and SMM. Each plays a vital role, and it is critical to your success to understand where they happen in terms of your particular website and goals. Incorporating them all into your online marketing efforts is essential to increasing SERP, traffic, and conversions. In some cases, this might require working with an outside provider or marketing firm to ensure your success.

About the author


Alyssa Anderson

Alyssa Anderson is the Content Manager at Zero Gravity Marketing (ZGM), a digital marketing agency in Madison, CT. ZGM is known for developing overarching marketing strategies and specializes in pay-per-click, SEO, content marketing, social media, development, design, and eCommerce services.