The Differences Between SEO and SEM for Colleges and Universities

Irene Test Oct 06, 2022 Irene Test Senior SEO Specialist Persona The Adventurous and Eclectic Artisan

When it comes to digital marketing for your college or university, a single channel is never enough. You need to be where your prospects are, whether that’s a result they find on search engines or an ad they view as they’re using YouTube or social media.

In terms of search engine visibility, you’ll run across two acronyms: SEO and SEM. While there’s some overlap, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) pertains to ranking organically and the growing and increasingly diverse signals Google factors into its decisions. On the other hand, Search Engine Marketing (SEM) encompasses SEO, PPC, and other paid digital marketing efforts to build brand and program awareness through a channel that directs 75% of prospective students’ searches.

As you develop your institution’s digital marketing campaigns to attract prospects, it’s important to understand the differences and similarities between SEO and SEM.

What is SEO?

Despite SEO’s growth, many associate the discipline with keywords: researching the strongest terms, incorporating them throughout the page, and tracking their performance.

While this is partially accurate, it’s just one portion of a far larger picture. As a digital marketing technique, SEO involves assessing and optimizing a website based on Google’s myriad of ranking signals. Keyword specificity and relevance are one. In 2022, this core was joined by content quality and authoritativeness, user experience, site structure, technical SEO, and off-page ranking factors. More simply, SEO starts with broad, behind-the-scenes techniques that influence the content and experience presented to the user and consequently how a page and site as a whole will rank in organic search.

In the present, Google’s always-changing algorithm assesses and ranks content based on over 200 signals. In more recent years, these vast and elusive factors have gone by “EAT” for “Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness.” In terms of developing an SEO strategy, these signals are broken down into the following groups:

On-page SEO

This is generally what many associate with SEO: adding relevant keywords to body copy as well as header tags and metadata. On-page SEO also overlaps with content marketing to develop more engaging on-page copy that stands apart from what competitors offer, shapes or reflects a college or university’s voice, and fuels the user experience. Essentially, this is what users see when they land on a page.

Google also compares the scope and purpose of the content in relation to queries and intent, be it to explore, learn, or perform a specific action like filling out a request for information form or starting an application. As such, content and pages are increasingly optimized for more detailed, intent-driven long-tail phrases instead of broad keywords. A page that better aligns with a user’s intent also tends to convert better and has a lower bounce rate.

Reflected by Carnegie’s Web Copywriting and Optimization service, this SEO discipline includes:

  • Keyword research
  • Copywriting and content marketing
  • Thought leadership
  • Structuring a page with header tags
  • Metadata optimization
  • URL structure
  • Tracking the keyword and traffic performance of optimized pages

Off-page SEO

You’ve likely heard the phrase “Content is king.” While original, authoritative, and regularly updated content is the heart of an SEO strategy, tertiary elements influence its performance—particularly, off-page and technical SEO.

While we’ll touch on technical elements shortly, off-page SEO practices influence a page or site’s authoritativeness and trustworthiness and frequently revolve around link-building and visibility campaigns.

Generally, quality, relevant links from off-site sources serve as endorsements of your content’s worthiness as a source of information. To Google, they send a signal that ultimately says, “Read this—it’s important.” When thinking about your marketing strategy as a whole, efforts like public relations, social media, influencer campaigns, internal linking, and, indirectly, Pay Per Click (PPC) all help build visibility, authoritativeness, and trust. Google notices these signals and has a higher likelihood of ranking respected, original, and trustworthy content.

It also means that new pages won’t rank well initially and will take months—if not a couple of years based on targeted keywords—to gain visibility and meaningful organic traffic. As such, paid methods tend to spark initial authoritativeness and visibility, and on-page SEO supports a school or program’s long-term performance.

Technical SEO

Perhaps the most behind-the-scenes aspect of SEO campaigns, technical SEO intersects with off-page and user experience strategies. It also signals to Google a site’s structure and how well it’s maintained.

Technical SEO covers a vast array of factors, including:

  • Code and scripts
  • How quickly a page loads
  • The content management system (CMS)
  • Interior and exterior links
  • Interior and exterior error signals (4xx and 5xx errors)
  • URL structure
  • Redirects
  • Site architecture
  • The sitemap.xml and robots.txt files
  • Images
  • Structured data

Considering how a page or site ranks in organic search, Google tends to give preference to content that loads sooner (in 2.5 or fewer seconds), that’s free of errors, and that’s easily found by crawling the site.

Other SEO aspects

Additional aspects influencing ranking and visibility within organic search include:

  • User experience: Although page speed has been the driving factor of SEO’s intersection with user experience (UX), last year’s Page Experience update added additional elements into the picture, including site responsiveness and how interactive a page is. Based on these signals, Google tends to associate a poor user experience with shifting or nonresponsive elements or a long load time (over three seconds).
  • Local SEO: “Keyword” plus “location” used to form the backbone of a local SEO strategy. These days, Google looks for relevance and originality in relation to a location. Plus, optimized content and a Google Business Profile can get your college or university placed within the local pack or another SERP feature.
  • SERP features: Real estate in organic search goes beyond the top 10 listing—there are several special SERP feature positions that higher education institutions can appear in. Through optimization, your site can increase its visibility through the Knowledge Graph, local pack, map listing, image carousel, video listing, Discover listing, and featured snippets.

In addition to these factors, understand that SEO is never a one-and-done service. Whether you’re fixing 404 errors or updating evergreen content, presenting a relevant, helpful user experience requires strategic routine maintenance encompassing on-page, off-page, and technical SEO methods.

What is SEM?

The definition of SEM has evolved over time. Early on, it applied to all methods—paid and organic—for improving search engine visibility. That has shifted with time toward paid methods only, like PPC, which involves bidding on keyword terms based on competitiveness. An “Ad” designation distinguishes PPC from organic listings on the search results page, and you’ll be charged every time a user clicks on the paid link.

As PPC and SEO develop a more symbiotic relationship and form the backbone of your digital marketing campaign, the phrase touches on all techniques and methods for establishing your presence on search engines.

Outside of PPC, other paid strategies in this direction, based on your goals, include paid Google shopping and product listings as well as advertising on platforms that function like search engines, including Amazon and YouTube.

Focusing on search engines like Google and Bing, an SEM campaign aims to give your website immediate visibility in search results in the ad positions, which can appear at the top or bottom of the SERP.

Realize that while SEO and PPC help lift each other up, PPC involves a separate set of techniques and objectives:

  • Keyword research: Keyword research for PPC starts from the same place as SEO: You want to know what prospects are interested in. While competition and variety are important, paid search professionals additionally factor in how much terms will cost.
  • Bidding: Building off keyword research, paid search professionals bid on relevant terms. Ads will appear in search results for these phrases; generally, the more you pay, the higher the ad will be. Yet, as implied by the medium’s name, you’ll pay every time a user clicks on your ad. Pricing may be based on cost per click (CPC) or cost-per-thousand impressions (CPM).
  • Copywriting: Based on the campaign, copywriting comes into play for creating short, attention-grabbing ad copy and for developing landing pages that succinctly and distinctively describe a college or university or a specific program offered. These aspects will likely be adjusted based on ad performance and the length of an SEM campaign.
  • Quality Score: Although various SEO tools attempt to assess site and page quality for both on- and off-page efforts, no uniform system exists. Professionals, in turn, debate the results and scores from Moz, SEMRush, and even Google’s older PageRank recommendations. For PPC, however, Google assesses ads based on its Quality Score factors, taking click-through rate and landing page copy into account. In turn, copy that reflects what users are looking for and ads more frequently clicked on result in a higher Quality Score.

Developing a digital marketing campaign around SEM

Digital marketing professionals are asked this question at some point or another: Will SEO or paid search marketing yield better results? The answer, in so many words, is that both strategies aren’t comparable and instead complement each other. Campaign longevity needs to be considered as well; PPC and other paid strategies add an immediate boost, be it for brand visibility or developing an audience for a program, and SEO helps solidify a college or university’s place in organic search.

Rather than view these SEM strategies as an either/or proposition, you should think about:

  • Brand building: Are you looking to expand your audience? Although SEO and PPC can both assist in this regard, paid search methods can target geographic regions and specific queries with more immediacy. SEO requires some waiting, especially for new programs, but can help build your school’s long-term reputation in organic search.
  • Results: Especially in the present, SEO updates rarely yield immediate results; new content can take months to index, and even beyond that point, organic traffic appears modest as the page is building its own authority. Paid campaigns frequently deliver more meaningful traffic up front, but these results only last as long as you bid on keywords. Once you stop, so does your traffic. In response, think of paid as the side of SEM that starts to build momentum and SEO as the factor that generates long-term authority and organic traffic.
  • Cost misconceptions: You’ve probably heard someone say that “SEO is free” because no one’s bidding on keywords. This mindset can mean that clients attempt to move SEO in-house, believing they just have to add a few keywords to reach page one of organic search. Rather, especially as you’re thinking of SEO as a long-term strategy, understand that this approach takes effort, expertise, and subsequent costs, from strategically researching keywords to writing authoritative content to technical SEO and making periodic adjustments. PPC might come with a direct cost, but pricing wise, it’s often a service that has an end or gets adjusted with time.
  • Trust and authoritativeness: Think from the user’s perspective for a moment: Are you more likely to click on a paid ad if you don’t see the site also listed in organic search? Investing in both sides of SEM builds authority and visibility for both organic and paid search marketing campaigns, showing users they can trust your brand rather than wonder, “Who are you and why should I click?”
  • Keyword focus: Reflecting all points discussed thus far, paid and organic search campaigns tend to have separate and specific focuses, even in terms of keywords. Paid tends to be ideal for brand-related and intent-heavy terms, be it “apply” or “buy.” Due to a campaign’s slower pace, SEO is ideal for informational, more specific terms centered around users wanting to learn more. On this last point, you may want to examine all keyword phrases related to a program and structure long-tail terms as subjects for subpages, blog posts, guides, and other informational resources. Together, these sides of SEM address every stage in the funnel.
  • Remarketing: Data from both PPC clicks and SEO traffic can fuel remarketing efforts in terms of interest, resulting in ads that users are more likely to click and content served toward a specific inquiry or interest. Plus, with third-party cookies set to phase out next year, attracting users to your website to collect first-party data will be key.

Work with Carnegie to develop your institution’s search engine presence

We encourage a multichannel approach for all SEM campaigns, from on-page and technical SEO to improved user experience to PPC to boost your college or university’s visibility in a particular market. Contact us today to learn how we can elevate your search engine presence.

Never miss an update.


Carnegie announces the acquisition of Fire Engine RED's Student Search service.

X