Search engine optimization and social media marketing both have their place in your marketing strategy. But it can be tough to know how and when to leverage each.

Here, you’ll find:

  • Key differences and similarities between SEO and SMM
  • When to use search engine optimization
  • Common social media marketing goals
  • Best practices for both marketing types

Digital marketing is all about connecting with people by going to where they spend time online via their computers, tablets, and smartphones.

Two of the most popular online spaces? No surprise here: Search engines and social media platforms.

That’s why both social media marketing (SMM) and search engine optimization (SEO) are integral to most modern-day online marketing strategies. 

They allow you to reach as many people as possible while collecting valuable information for further lead generation, conversion, and retention efforts.

Let’s take a closer look at the differences and similarities between SEO and SMM – and which one is better for you.

man looking at smartphone

Your website is your digital first impression and online HQ. (Image: Unsplash)

Which is better: SEO or SMM?

Here’s our take: The best approach is often a combination of both SEO and SMM. 

Audience reach: You can use both SEO and social media marketing tactics to reach your audience. SEO efforts will target more specific inquiries, while SMM will cast a wider net. When used together, you can use social media engagement and click-through-rate (CTR) data to determine target audience and demographics for your SEO content.

Content: Linking content on your social media accounts will in turn drive more traffic to your website when folks ultimately click those links.

Measuring success: The goal posts are different for social media than they are for SEO. And those juicy social media links on your TikToks or LinkedIn posts do have an impact on your search engine rankings. After all, people are more likely to find you by scrolling through their feeds than they are likely to browse through your content library. 

However, when you snag someone’s interest and they spend more time on your site, they’re more likely to actively search for the keywords and phrases you’re targeting in your SEO marketing efforts.

It’s almost a trick question.

Depending on your goals as a brand or a business owner, the brand awareness and reach of social media marketing campaigns might take top priority. On the other hand, if you’re looking to consistently sit at the top of the search engine results page (SERP), SEO might be the better bet. 

At the end of the day, it might not be a question of “which one,” but rather, “how do I use them together?” For instance, SEO and SMM can work hand-in-hand to increase traffic to a website.

Integrating these strategies allows you to create a comprehensive digital marketing plan that addresses different aspects of your business. For instance, you can use SEO to attract users who are searching for your products and use SMM to engage with them, build brand loyalty, and expand your reach.

Ultimately, the decision should be based on your business’s specific needs and goals. Evaluating your target audience, resources, and the unique attributes of your products or services will help you determine the optimal mix of these digital marketing strategies for your business.

What’s the difference between SEO and SMM?

Search engine optimization is often included under the search engine marketing (SEM) umbrella along with paid search or pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns. Key components of SEO include optimizing content marketing, website structure, link building, and technical assets in order to improve organic search rankings.

Social media marketing can refer to both organic (free) and paid social efforts, such as promoted social media posts or ads.

While different tactics, search engine optimization and social media marketing have plenty in common.

SEO and SMM similarities include:

  • Content quality – Both SEO and SMM rely on the creation of high-quality, engaging, and valuable pieces of content. This enhances user experience, encourages engagement, and contributes to better search rankings and social media interactions
  • Reach – They give you an opportunity to reach a wide target audience (4.3 billion people use Google worldwide, while 4.59 billion people use social media)
  • Brand buildingSEO helps establish a brand’s authority and expertise in its field through informative content. SMM allows brands to showcase their personality, values, and interact directly with their audience
  • Efforts – Both can bring about seriously impressive ROI and website traffic if leveraged properly

Differences between SMM and SEO include:

  • Personalization – Social media marketing provides more opportunities to interact directly with the audience, which can help foster loyalty and trust
  • Costs – Social ads usually cost less than paid search ads, but SEO costs even less in the long run.
  • Goals – social media is more often about awareness building, while SEO is generally aimed at organic traffic and conversions
  • Choices – Different audience segments have different social media app preferences, while most people leverage Google or Bing as their search engine (though there are others, of course).
  • Results – SMM can boost traffic and visibility quickly, while SEO will take a little longer.

When to use search engine optimization

Your website is your digital first impression and online HQ. 

It’s where you want people to land, regardless of how they found you. So it’s imperative to keep it in tip-top shape, regardless of the marketing techniques you use. 

Paid ads and SEO go hand-in-hand. The latter helps get you more visibility in organic results, helps more people find you, and adds legitimacy to your online persona.

The higher your website ranks, the more credibility you achieve, both from your audience and in the eyes of the search engine algorithm.

SEO takes time to build, and it alone may not be able to get you to the top of the first page, but it’s a necessary part of a well-rounded digital marketing plan.

Overall, SEO best practices include:

  • Create high-quality content based on your audience’s pain points.
  • Do your keyword research. Identify the search terms and phrases that your target audience uses and integrate them naturally into your headers, content, and metadata.
  • Optimize both site structure and user experience. Make it easy for both search engines and users to understand the hierarchy of your webpages.
  • Ensure your pages have speedy load times. This may seem silly, but website load speed is actually a critical ranking factor for SEO.

Bottom line: Use SEO when you need to drive traffic, increase exposure, and gain credibility.

person looking at paid social on a tablet

Creating business profiles gets you access to metrics and helpful info about your posts and followers. (Image: Pexels)

When to leverage social media marketing

While it’s possible to achieve results without social media marketing, these popular apps can help you reach a wider audience without blowing your budget.

Unlike a search engine, social media ads usually reach people who aren’t seeking something out. Rather, they’re probably just scrolling through their feeds.

That’s why social media ads are perfect for companies looking to build their brand, grow their following, and increase awareness.

Another reason to use SMM is to get to know your audience. Creating business profiles gets you access to metrics and helpful info about your posts and followers. In turn, this data can improve your understanding of your buyer persona.

What’s more, social media ads provide stellar targeting options. Since platform users share information about themselves willingly, they’re much easier to segment. 

The best practices for SMM include:

  • Choose the best platform for your efforts (aka the ones your audience is most active on)
  • Prioritize the visual element, whether it’s an image or video
  • Ensure your profiles are fully filled out, accurate, and consistent
  • Post content regularly
  • Conduct A/B tests with your social ads

Bottom line: Social media marketing is a great tactic for building brand awareness, refining your buyer personas, and letting your brand’s personality shine.

A quick word on social SEO

Not surprisingly, social SEO strategy is a whole other beast – and one that’s gained a lot of traction in recent years.

In fact, according to a 2023 study by TINT on the state of social and user-generated content (UGC), more than three-fourths of consumers “have used social media to search for or discover new products and brands.”

With numbers like that, social SEO is certainly a tactic worth looking into.

Fellow Hawk and social media expert Nicole Goodnough defines it as follows: “Social SEO is the practice of maintaining your social media profiles and posting relevant, high-quality content to make it easier for users to find you.”

While this may sound like a shortcut to both SEO and SMM success, there are plenty of other factors to consider before foregoing these strategies entirely. 

Check out our perspective on social SEO and see for yourself if this is a tactic that might fit your brand.

The takeaway

We’ve said before that SEO and PPC go together like peanut butter and jelly. When it comes to audience reach and gaining traction in the SERPs, the same rings true for SEO and SMM.

To beat the competition, it’s wise to take advantage of all the resources and methods at your disposal — that includes search engines and social media marketing.

Struggling to get your digital marketing plan in shape? We can help.

This article has been updated and was originally published in June 2022.

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