The Difference Between SEM and SEO

Just as the English language has evolved over time with slang words, marketing terms and phrases have changed in recent years, most notably search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM). While they look similar and are often used interchangeably, they represent two different components of a successful legal content marketing strategy, much like earned media and paid media. SEM is the process of bidding on keywords to rank higher in search engine results, while SEO is defined as the process of getting traffic from free, organic, editorial or natural search results. They work hand-in-hand and can provide real results for your law firm when leveraged to their full potential, so it’s important to remember the differences between SEM and SEO. 

Elements of On-Page SEO

At its core, the purpose of SEO is to make your firm’s website easy to find to improve your rank in results pages on Google, Bing and other popular search engines. A broad term that includes a variety of different practices, SEO is typically broken down into on-page and off-page. Both play a role in refining your website to achieve optimal results and while you have some control over off-page SEO, on-page SEO rests completely in your hands and there are a variety of ways to optimize your page and ensure success. 

  • Content – In addition to its power to create expertise and generate leads, your firm’s content plays a significant role in determining your search result position. For SEO purposes, good content supplies a demand and is linkable. Before moving on to more specific practices, consider a content audit to ensure any blog posts or case studies are checking off those boxes. 
  • Metadata – SEO metadata refers to the information given when a website is included on search engine results pages, including the title, description, heading tags and image ALT tags. These descriptions can be customized to include the purpose of that page in the optimum length (60 characters for title, 160 characters for description) and keywords. Keep in mind that keywords are only beneficial when they are relevant and included in a page’s content. 
  • URL – Believe it or not, even the URL for your firm’s website is considered when determining your rank. Your firm’s URL is essentially your introduction to a search engine, so keep it short (like saying hello rather than telling your entire life story) and include keywords that outline what that page is about. 
  • Page speed – There are few things in life as frustrating as clicking on a result from a Google search only to be stuck in limbo as the page fails to load. Search engines know this, and pages will see their rank fall if it loads slowly. Reducing image sizes and taking out unnecessary HTML is an easy way to improve speed and optimize user experience.
  • Mobile friendly – As more and more people surf the web from their phone rather than a computer, Google now takes into consideration whether a website is mobile friendly and optimized in its ranking algorithm. Focus on the user experience by ensuring you have a  responsive design allowing visitors to get the best experience regardless of the device they are using. Also, consider adding local keywords to your content as mobile users are more likely to search for a business or service “near me.” 

Elements of Off-Page SEO

After ensuring that all of your firm’s on-page tactics are optimized, there is still work to be done outside of the website to secure the highest possible ranking. Anything done outside of your website to improve its rankings is referred to as off-page SEO. While you lack the same control you have with on-page SEO, there are still steps your firm can take to improve your off-page SEO. Generating linkbacks is one of the most important off-page SEO techniques, but there are a few factors that determine the value for your firm. 

  • Relevance – While there’s nothing detrimental about being linked on an unrelated page, it’s much more valuable to have that link from a business or individual connected to your industry. 
  • Domain authority – The quality of a linking page also plays a role in determining its value for off-page SEO. Google and other search engines recognize the authority of prominent sites with a large following, and links from those sources will have a greater impact on your rank than links from smaller organizations. 
  • “Nofollow” vs. “dofollow” – Done by some publishers in an effort to reduce spam, a “nofollow” tag on your link will eliminate any potential SEO value for your firm. While it might still generate website traffic, it won’t do anything to improve your rank in search engine results pages. 

Social signals are another component of off-page SEO. Any time a Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or other social media post from your firm is shared by someone else, you are reaching a new audience and driving traffic to your website. Even if it doesn’t provide an immediate boost to your ranking, it will still promote your content to a wave of new visitors, increasing the likelihood of a more direct benefit such as a linkback, social mention or even a new business opportunity. 

Elements of SEM

Even after you’ve exhausted all your efforts into SEO, moving to the top of a results page can be a difficult task. SEM allows you to optimize and advertise your firm’s website to increase its visibility in search engine results pages. Pay-per-click is one of the key components of SEM, utilizing keywords to target prospective clients. When a user searches one of those keywords, a custom ad for your firm will appear at the top of the results page, increasing the likelihood that they will visit your site. Keep in mind that these keywords are only valuable when they are actually used, so include them in the ad copy and any related content. 

SEM can have an immediate impact on your firm because it puts complete control in your hands. While you can’t directly impact the bidding algorithm, you can set your own budget cap and a maximum cost per click. You can also get specific and target members of your audience based on location, industry, age, income and other factors. Perhaps the greatest benefit of SEM is that every aspect of it is trackable. From clicks and impressions to click-through rates and website traffic, your firm can follow the results of your SEM practices from start to finish, allowing you to make any necessary adjustments before starting a new campaign. 


Marketers can debate whether SEO or SEM is more valuable until the end of time, but the honest answer is both. They can each provide a variety of new business opportunities for your firm and are most effective when utilized together. Think of it as the relationship between the rushing attack and passing game for a football team’s offense. Of course, teams will lean on one or the other depending on their personnel, but the best offense is one that features a balanced attack. 

Like any other new strategy, mastering SEO and SEM practices take time. Don’t get discouraged if your initial efforts don’t immediately put your firm at the top of every Google search. Assess the results, make any necessary changes and get back on the horse. If you’re interested in learning more about the differences between SEM and SEO and the benefits they can provide, give us a call. Let’s have a conversation about how we can create results for your firm.

Mitchell Williams Law

Legal Content Marketing

We helped this growing mid-size law firm better position its attorneys as experts in key practice areas by delivering curated content.

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