Stephen Sumner

Stephen Sumner

The Differences Between SEM And SMM

Almost everyone is online these days, which is why the worldwide web has become an integral channel for business owners trying to market their goods or services. This is also why when it comes to digital marketing for online businesses, these two are among the most popular methods: Search Engine Marketing (SEM) and Social Media Marketing (SMM).


Businesses utilise SEM strategies in the hopes of achieving higher ranks in search engine result pages. This is done through the use of various complex strategies, some of which include the use of relevant keywords. On the other hand, businesses use SMM tactics to attract attention to their brand. This is usually done by publishing engaging content on various social media networks.


To better understand the differences between SEM and SMM, let’s take a closer look at how they work.


What is SEM? 


SEM is a type of internet marketing strategy that uses paid advertisements on search engines. It’s often confused with search engine optimization (SEO), the more popular type of SEM strategy that can be done organically. But while SEO can help improve your presence in results pages, it would usually take months or years to see results. So, the fastest way to be on top of search results pages is through paid ads, the most common of which is the pay-per-click (PPC) method.


When someone uses search engines, like Google or Bing, and enters a term or phrase related to your brand or business, you want that person to find your website. By paying for ads at the top or the sides of search results pages, you’re increasing the visibility of your business and the likelihood that people will see and click your website instead of someone else’s. The downside, however, is that SEM could be very costly. So, it’s not an ideal marketing technique for small businesses and companies that are on a tight budget.


What is SMM?


SMM is a more interactive type of internet marketing where businesses create engaging content around their brand that is then shared on various social media networks. Social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram are widely used by many brands as an avenue to share messages, photos, and videos to attract potential customers. SMM is the most common form of internet marketing for small businesses since it allows them to gain exposure at a lower cost.


Social media marketing, or SMM, is a buzzword that has been mentioned thousands of times in the past few years. But what exactly does this term mean? While some people may not know the definition, they have most likely heard it before or seen examples of SMM in action. By contrast, search engine marketing, or SEM, is a concept that fewer people are familiar with. And some people may even interchange the two, or confuse the one with the other.


To help you understand the distinct differences between these two marketing strategies, let’s go over each one individually and look at how they work differently.


Key Differences Between SEM And SMM


Because SEM and SMM are sometimes confused with each other, it’s important to distinguish them. While both can be considered digital marketing strategies, their methods and targets are not the same. Here is a list of their key differences:


  • Goals

SEM typically focuses on achieving high-quantity results with goals that are easier to measure. For example, SEM experts may work to increase a business’s revenue by increasing website traffic. On the other hand, SMM aims for higher-quality traffic by targeting specific demographics that match the profiles of the business’s consumers. While it may sometimes aim to link back to a website, its main goal is to increase brand awareness and engagement with potential leads.


  • Tools Used

The tools required for an effective SEM campaign are different from those needed for an effective SMM effort. AdWords and other pay-per-click platforms make up an SEM strategy but these are not useful in SMM campaigns. Instead, social advertising through Facebook Ads and brand partnerships are more prevalent in SMM.


  • Main Purpose

SMM is based on building a social media following, usually for increasing brand awareness or generating leads. Social media monetization can happen in various ways—advertising, affiliate marketing, and even direct sales. But SMM isn’t suited to be a long-term strategy, as you’ll always need to look for new fans and engage with followers due to the constantly changing nature and trends in social media platforms.


SEM is not just about raising online presence—it also focuses on attracting customers directly through paid ads that target individuals who are in need of the products and services you offer. This way, you’re giving customers exactly what they want when they want it, making them much more likely to buy from you. Of course, this won’t just happen overnight and will require a lot of time and effort to see substantial results.


  • Level Of Control 

The biggest issue with SMM is that you have very little control over where and how potential customers are finding out about your business or page. Even if the ad is persuasive, there’s no telling how effective it will be on each platform. Users from each platform have varying preferences and respond differently to promotions. Meaning, some social platforms may work better than others for your business.


SEM gives you much more control over how potential customers can find out about your company. Ads that have been targeted specifically for certain keywords and search results mean that only users who are actively searching for that keyword or topic will see your ads, and this means a much higher chance of a sale! You’ll also have full access to the performance of each ad throughout the campaign. This means that you can find out which ones are performing better and are gaining more returns.


  • Duration Of Campaigns

SMM campaigns tend to last longer than SEM campaigns do. This is because SMM isn’t based on direct sales but rather on building brand awareness and authority through visibility. Achieving these goals requires time, especially if your brand is relatively new. It takes time for people to remember or even recognize your brand. Meaning, SMM campaigns have to run for at least several months before major results can be observed.


On the other hand, SEM campaigns can be adjusted to run only for a few days or weeks. This is because SEM counts on actual conversions and specific keywords can be used to attract prospects. So, if the number of clicks is not gaining enough sales or revenues for some time, it’s safe to say that the campaign is not that effective.


In SEM, keywords are grouped into clusters that provide similar information whenever a user types in such words on the search box. This group of words is known as ‘keyword sets.’ These are a number of words or phrases that are most likely going to be used by people who are trying to look for more information about a product, topic, or any other matter. For example, if you are selling wedding dresses, your keyword set could be:


  • Keyword 1: wedding dresses
  • Keyword 2: bridal gowns
  • Keyword 3: bridal dresses


In contrast, SMM cannot really target and optimise a set of keywords to become more visible on the platform. To increase visibility, brands can utilise hashtags instead. Businesses can choose whatever hashtag they want to use but to gain more mileage, social media users must also use or share the same hashtags. Therefore, businesses must also know how to mobilise their hashtags and convince partners and followers to use the same to widen their reach.


The disadvantage with hashtags, however, is that the hype can die down too quickly. On social media platforms, you cannot expect a hashtag to trend for more than a day. On the other hand, websites or blogs with optimised keywords can remain on the first page of search results for months or even years! But in the context of SEM, which is not heavily reliant on organic keyword searches, this advantage cannot be utilised either.


  • Cost

Since SEM and SMM are entirely different strategies that use different platforms, costs can also vary. But although SEM offers instantaneous results, it usually gets more expensive as the costs also depend on the competition you’re up against.


On the other hand, SMM is usually more cost-efficient since competition isn’t a factor in ad pricing. While business owners have the option to pay for more exposure, it offers more value for money. This is because SMM ads may also help drive organic results even after the campaign ends. In other words, businesses can bank on both paid and organic shares, likes, and comments to gain more views and leads.



As you can see, there are many differences between search engine marketing and social media marketing. However, it is important to note that you can use them in conjunction with one another to produce the best possible results for your brand. But by understanding what each strategy entails, marketers can better understand how these different techniques work and maximise them to suit the company’s goals and resources.

Author Profile

Stephen has been working with SEO and Digital Marketing since 1999 and has held a variety of senior roles in a wide range of companies both in the UK and Internationally.

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