SEO, SEM, and SEA – Explanations for the Entrepreneur

SEO, SEM, and SEA – Explanations for the Entrepreneur

As an entrepreneur, you come across many acronyms of which you should know the meaning. More importantly, you should know what to do with them. In this blog, I am talking about the difference between SEO, SEM, and SEA. Most entrepreneurs know SEO. However, do you know what SEM and SEA are? Should we work even harder in that field? Are there more actions that require time and effort, or can we still focus on our core business?

Fortunately, the latter is true. The difference is not that big in practice, and I will explain that in this blog. In my research, I have also found a difference in how marketers view SEO and SEA. One says SEA is better than SEO, and one says you should invest in both. I will summarize their views, so you can get a better perspective and decide for yourself.

SEO, SEM and SEA – Explanations for the Entrepreneur. In this blog, I explain the difference between search engine optimization, search engine marketing and search engine advertising. I also offer two perspectives on whether you should invest in SEO, in SEA or in both. Read more on basic ways of showing up in search engines

In order to understand the concepts, you must remember that there are two basic ways to show up in search results.Danny Sullivan explains them:

  1. Editorial/Organic/Natural Listings: Any good search engine has “editorial” or “organic” or “natural” listings, which are listings that appear without anyone paying for them. They are provided as a core product of that search engine, in the same way that a newspaper has a core product of writing stories about topics it believes are of interest to its readers, rather than to its advertisers.
  2. Paid Search/CPC/PPC Listings: Search engines also have paid search ads, sometimes referred to as “CPC” or “PPC” listings. Those acronyms come from the way advertisers are charged for these ads, on a Cost-Per-Click or Pay-Per-Click basis. If you pay, you are listed. When you stop paying, your listing goes away. Similar to newspapers, these ads typically appear alongside — but separate from — editorial content. They are also not supposed to influence the editorial coverage.

SEO, SEM, and SEA – What do they mean?

Here, I explain the terms SEO, SEM, and SEA using Danny Sullivan’s blog and a blog by SEO Reloaded.

SEO (search engine optimization)

SEO has been the term used for gaining natural listings as well as for people or companies who do such work. SEO is an acceptable practice that search engines actively encourage. In the search world, SEO is equal to PR in the “real” world. Good SEO cannot guarantee good search engine “coverage,” any more than good PR can guarantee a favorable newspaper article. Nevertheless, it can increase the odds, if done within acceptable boundaries.

SEA (search engine advertising)

SEA is a technique of gaining traffic to a website through paid advertising like Google Adwords or PPC (Pay-per-Click advertising).

SEM (search engine marketing)

SEM is a powerful advertising channel. It is a technique of diverting more traffic towards the website by increasing the rank of the website on popular search engines like Google, Bing, Yahoo etc. SEM is also called Search Marketing. It can be done in two ways; by getting traffic to the website with the help of SEO and by getting traffic with the help of SEA.

Please note that in his blog, Sullivan uses the term ‘paid search’ instead of SEA. In fact, many marketers do so. Even worse, some marketers use the term SEM when they, in fact, mean SEA. This is all very confusing, I admit. All you have to remember is SEM includes both SEO and SEA. In the two perspectives described below, I have substituted their use of SEM with SEA, as the authors were, in fact, discussing paid search results versus organic search results.

Perspective 1: Invest in both SEA and SEO

According to Julien Rio, you should invest in both SEA and SEO. SEA has three major characteristics: it is paid, quickly efficient, and short term.

  1. Paid, because the concept is always to get people to give you visibility and traffic against payment.
  2. Quickly efficient, because you do not need to build up a strategy: in exchange for your payment, your partner will provide you with immediate visibility that shall quickly translate into extra traffic and conversions*.
  3. Short term, because unfortunately, your SEM efforts will have an impact as long as your budget lasts. When stopping your campaign, its effect will almost instantly vanish.

*Be careful: quickly efficient does not mean “instant miracle”. Even though you should see an increase in traffic within a few hours, it might take longer to get extra conversions. SEA is all about optimization, trial, and error: you will need to optimize your campaigns and reassign your budget based on results. You will need to reconsider the platforms you use for advertising, the message you send and the audience you reach. Do not expect overnight success simply because you paid for it!

SEO has three major characteristics

Rio then explains that SEO has three major characteristics: time-consuming, slow to show results, and long-term.

  1. Time-consuming, because even though the first audit and round of improvements should be fairly easy, it will take a lot of efforts to start building backlinks and effective partnerships that will bring you the traffic you need.
  2. Slow to show results, because it takes time for Google to revise your website, notice the improvements and act accordingly. It might take up to 6 months to see the results of your efforts. Just make sure you do not fall for “easy quick fixes” that usually only get you blacklisted!
  3. Long term, because all you do today will have an impact in the long term. If you improve your website, create backlinks and generate content, Google will notice it and give you a better organic ranking, even long after you stopped improving your site.


Therefore, according to Rio, you should have a continuous SEO strategy running in the background. Never stop it. You might want to invest more or less time in it based on your resources but keep running it: it will always be beneficial in the end. Do not get discouraged if you see no immediate results.

SEA should be more of an “on-need” strategy. You could constantly run it to improve your results but ultimately it is more an “on-demand” strategy to help you boost your results when needed. However, keep in mind that SEA is also about campaign optimization. Do not completely cut it or change your budget entirely from one day to the other: that biases your results and makes the analysis less reliable.

Perspective 2: Four reasons why SEA is better than SEO

David T. Scott, however, argues that search engines have become too complex and that you should, therefore, focus more on SEA: “What SEO is justifiably famous for is its ability to convince the search engines that your webpage is the most relevant one for the keywords being searched. For years, strong SEO has been every marketer’s go-to tactic. However, even while you have grown more adept, search engines have grown increasingly complex. These days, you cannot just optimize and sit back. SEA should already be in your bag of tricks. It is more accountable because sites like Google offer in-depth data about the performance of your ads. “

Four reasons why SEA should be a part of your future marketing campaigns

Scott offers four reasons why SEA should be a part of your future marketing campaigns:

SEO is unpredictable.

The reason SEO is not ideal for lead generation is that its primary function is to increase your website’s ranking in “natural search” results. That means it is unreliable—the placement of your website is largely out of your control. You can work on SEO for months, and your site may still not get the “natural search” traffic you want. Search engines one-up you by constantly changing their algorithms to ensure that search results aren’t being fixed or manipulated by savvy marketers, which makes SEO a bit of a cat-and-mouse game. SEA, on the other hand, is firmly within your control as you choose the keywords and pay for the ads.

Leads via SEO are not so clear-cut.

It is difficult to quantify SEO as a lead-generation tool because you cannot be sure how many leads actually came from your SEO efforts. For example, suppose someone visits your website and signs up as a lead. How do you tell whether that person found you cold on a search engine, or if he or she searched for your site after hearing about your company from a friend? Perhaps a combination of these factors led the person to visit your site. Measuring the number of leads you get from SEA, on the other hand, is much more straightforward.

Finishing second place is fine with SEA.

SEA is one of the few areas where finishing second place or even third place can be just as beneficial as finishing first. For example, say you have an ad on Google. After a week, your ad is consistently showing up in search results in the second or third position when using the keywords you have chosen. If so, you may be compelled to bid extra money just to gain that top spot. The fact is, search engine users will often consider clicking on the second- or third-position ads in search results just as seriously as they would consider the first-position ads.

With SEA, the best ad wins.

An SEA ad hinges, more or less, on how well it is written. Other factors include how good the offer or call-to-action is to the customer looking for that product or service. You can tweak all of those things to fit the customer you want, and then vary it up depending on the leads you get. You get more control, and more options, than you do with SEO.

Not convinced

Even though Scott has some good points, I have to say I am not convinced by his reasons for focusing more or only on SEA. Below, I give my counterargument per number of his reasons:

  1. Indeed, nobody knows for sure, but we do know much about it. Moreover, I find it fun to keep learning. I find I lean more towards the long-term results mentioned by Rio.
  2. As a small business owner, I do not care too much about where the leads come from as long as there are leads. In my opinion, I would like to invest in both options rather than just one and cover more ground. This way, the leads can come in one way or the other. For more tips, read my blog called Tips and resources for improving your online lead generation.
  3. I am not sure this argument only applies to SEA.
  4. With both ads and meta tags, you will have to tweak and tweak until everything is perfect.

What can I do for you regarding Search Engine Marketing?

As you can see in this blog, SEM is all about getting your content in a good place on Google and its competitors. If your content is in a language your audience does not understand, it raises an unnecessary barrier. In addition, if your content in a foreign language contains errors, it is going to affect your rankings. Professional translations help you improve your search engine rankings. Let me take care of that! I am the owner of Dutch translation agency BudgetVertalingOnline, which offers affordable translations English <> Dutch. Want to get in touch? Send me an email (, send me a Tweet (@GdenHolder) or fill out the quotation form.

It would be really nice if you shared my blog on your social media! Please use the buttons below.