SEO and SEM – Digital Marketing 101

Want to keep updated about the blog? Sign up for the newsletter!

Niche Digital Marketing 101

Part of the 101 series, an introduction to various topics for enrollment marketers.

What are SEO and SEM?

SEO (search engine optimization) and SEM (search engine marketing) are crucial pieces to optimizing and driving traffic to your website. While they are often confused and sometimes referred to as the same thing, there are key differences between SEO and SEM that should be clarified before creating a digital marketing strategy. Both options, when done correctly, can be incredibly effective in driving new parents or students to your site. 

Understanding the goals that you have for your school or organization will help you decide whether you need SEO or both SEO and SEM. Yes, you read that correctly, the biggest difference to know about the two is that you can have SEO without SEM, but you cannot have SEM without SEO. Today, we’ll dive into distinctions between the two and help you better understand the world of search.

How SEO and SEM Work


Search engine optimization is the process of  developing a website to get traffic from organic search results. The stronger your web pages are, the higher it will rank in organic SERPS (search engine result pages). Pages can be strengthened in a variety of ways that are both visible and invisible to the users.  

When focusing on building on-page SEO, including keywords in your web tags and descriptions is one of the first steps. This alerts search engines of what you are offering and helps to better serve the students and/or families you are trying to target. Alongside keywords, providing valuable, high-quality content that parents or students will find relevant and useful is also important.  Good content keeps people engaged on your site longer, is more likely to be shared (sending even more traffic to your site), and shows the search engine that you can be trusted as a reputable source. 

Off-page SEO considers more of the backend of your website. Can a search engine easily crawl all of your pages? Do your pages load quickly? Have other sites linked to your site (this is called a backlink, which also proves reputability)? The stronger these pieces, the more likely it is that your page will end up on the first or second result page.


Search engine marketing is the process of acquiring traffic and visibility from paid advertising. SEM is driven by various bidding options and quality scores.

Bidding, similar to any other auction model, is how much you are willing to pay to make your ad appear and hopefully be clicked on by your target audience once it is served. You have the ability to control how much or how little you spend on each of your ads and campaigns. Like most auctions, the higher you spend the more likely you are to win. 

On top of bidding, SEM also takes into account a quality score. This ranking system driven by the engine analyzes the quality of your landing page, average CTR (click through rate), ad copy, and overall account quality to determine if your ad is worth showing. As the account manager, you have the ability to optimize your account through different levers like audience selection, geographic targeting, ad schedules, device choices…the possibilities are almost endless. When making these decisions, it is important to keep your target user in mind.

The more targeted your advertising becomes, the more likely it is to be effective. Ad copy that is relevant to what the user is searching for generally leads to higher engagement. Your highly targeted  and relevant ad becomes even more effective when a user is brought to a custom landing page focused on the subject matter of the ad. When a user’s journey is cohesive from the ad to the landing page they normally are more engaged spending more time on your site and eventually travel further down your funnel. Tweaking your campaign(s) to match the demographics of your target families and students can increase your SEM performance because it enables you to present yourself to those you understand best. 

Paid v. Organic 

One of the easiest ways to differentiate between the two methods of digital marketing is how traffic is driven. At a very high level, SEO is “free” while SEM runs on a cost per click basis. The quotations around SEO being free are simply because it takes time, effort, copy writing, and page management/organization to see results. There are no direct costs, but it is not a tool that will magically create traction on its own. SEM very clearly outlines how much it costs with every click and impression that is served. 

Is One Better?

There is an answer, both are important to a digital brand strategy. It depends on what you and your organization/school are looking to accomplish. SEO, as mentioned, is normally better for cost savings, but can take quite a bit of time before seeing real results. On the flip side, SEM can provide almost instant traffic based on the targeting and spend allotted to campaigns. Keeping that in mind, SEO never goes away and generally builds over time while SEM stops as soon as a budget hits its max or is turned off. One key thing to remember in all of this is that SEM cannot happen without SEO. As mentioned, the quality score has a huge impact on how ads perform which is derived from the quality of the website. 

Reflecting on the needs of your school/organization will help you answer the question of whether one or both is better for your current plans and goals. 

SEO with Niche

Partnering with Niche, along with many other advantages, can help grow your SEO efforts. With the ability to tailor your school’s profile to feature designated webpages, we help strengthen your backlink score. The links not only generate more traffic, but high intent traffic. That means it is likely they will visit multiple pages and interact with what you have to offer. As you read, with a large and active audience, your pages will frequently appear as top search results. 

SEM with Niche

At Niche, we have an entire team dedicated to creating, running, and optimizing digital marketing campaigns across various platforms using our powerful remarketing audience. With various packages available, our team can do everything from remarketing plans, to highlighting events, to fully taking over your digital marketing efforts. The ability to choose from many of our options allows you to access our high intent audience and knowledge of the industry regardless of the size of your school or organization. If you’re interested in learning more you can request a demo of our products.

Why is Niche Remarketing So Powerful?

We are able to ensure your ads are targeted to prospects that have signaled interest in your school, similar schools, or performed relevant searches on our site. We also make sure to serve your ads at the right time. Our ads are targeted to prospects while they’re actively engaged in the school search process, introducing your school during this critical period.

Courtney Camp

Courtney Camp

Courtney Camp is a Digital Marketing Strategist at Niche. She works with College partners monitoring performance, optimizing digital campaigns, and leveraging industry knowledge to provide high value insight.

Want to Hear more from Niche?