Adam Ayers

Decoding Digital Marketing: What Is the Difference Between SEO and Digital Marketing?

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Many people in the business world use SEO and digital marketing synonymously.

Let’s get down to business and make some sense of these buzzwords.

Hint: They are NOT the same.

“It’s a common misconception,” says Jess Holmes, founder and CEO of Wildish Digital, “SEO is a part of digital marketing. Digital marketing is comprised of a variety of marketing branches with SEO being one of those branches.” To better understand where SEO lies within the field of digital marketing, we are going to first explore SEO.

What is SEO?

“The abbreviation SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization,” explains Rob Smith, founder and director of Web Design City. “It is systematically increasing the quality and quantity of traffic to a website.” This traffic is from search engines, and is referred to as “natural, organic, or algorithmic” traffic, according to Smith.

In other words, “SEO is one specific way to drive organic traffic in an affordable and scalable way from search engines,” explains Adam Ayers, CEO of Number 5.

The key here is that SEO is targeting improvements in organic traffic, not traffic that you have to pay or advertise for.

How does SEO work?

SEO is a multifaceted field in and of itself, whose goal is “To increase the overall (organic) traffic of potential customers to the company’s website” says Hamna Amjad, Content Marketing Executive at SIA Enterprises. To help dig in, Tom Buchok, Founder of Mailcharts explains, “SEO is all about optimizing the content on your website so that you can hang out with the cool kids on Google’s Page 1. An agency that focuses on SEO will work with keywords, links, meta information and images so that your keywords and pages will rank higher in searches.”

SEO is about working with search engines. “Search engine algorithms rank a website on the search result based on various parameters,” explains Smith. “Websites that rank higher on the first page for a search receive almost 95 percent more clicks. Research also shows that websites that rank higher on the search page have a better click-through rate (CTR) and traffic.”

When you search for something on Google, the organic search results are those that appear “directly below the paid search or pay-per-click advertisements,” says Smith.

Types of SEO

“While SEO is not marketing,” says Amjad, “it is a strategy to optimize your site so that it can rank higher in search engines such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo among others. It includes both on-page SEO and off-page SEO methods.”

While SEO is just one component of internet marketing, it is still a multifaceted discipline with several specific ingredients. Let’s explore the different facets of SEO.

On-site SEO vs. off-site SEO

“Onsite, as the name indicates are the activities that you perform on the website to improve organic visibility,” explains Smith. “This involves improving the content and optimizing the website to provide value to the customers and to enhance their experience when on the site.”

Onsite SEO strategies include keyword research, technical auditing, on-site optimization, and user experience (UX) optimization for loading speed and navigation.

Off-site SEO factors are also crucial. “When we talk of offsite SEO,” says Smith, “we are referring to activities that increase the organic visibility of a website through actions carried outside the website. Offsite SEO is also called ‘link building,’ which aims to increase the number of reputable inbound links to a website. As Google uses reputable websites linking to your website as an indicator of reputation and popularity, link building is a major SEO technique.”

While link building is important, it’s not the only off-site SEO tactic. Marcus Miller is an SEO and Digital Marketing Strategist at BowlerHat and a SearchEngineLand columnist. He says, “Something else to consider is visibility on third-party sites that themselves rank well on search engines. So, any true SEO strategy should aim to not only promote your site but to promote your business on sites that also rank well — maximizing your overall visibility.” He suggests that reputation signals are also important to SEO. These signals come from consumer “reviews on Google My Business and other relevant portals.”

Other off-site SEO tactics include content marketing and collaboration, digital PR, promotion, and outreach.

National SEO v. local SEO

In addition to both on-site and off-site SEO practices, experts also point out the difference between tactics for national SEO and local SEO.

Karthik Subramanian, a content marketer for Paperflite explains the distinction: “If you are a business that caters to your local community or city or town, you can hire an SEO agency. They will help you optimize your website for the local communities or specific regions. For example, a keyword such as ‘Tennis shoes’ is very generic and will give you millions of options on Google. However, ‘Tennis shoes in Brooklyn’ helps you cater to your local audience.”

SEO and digital marketing are not synonymous

“The distinction between the two is that SEO is a tool within digital marketing,” says Brock Murray, COO of seoplus+. “SEO is designed to properly optimize your website for search engines — a critical feature for your business.” While SEO’s focus on organic traffic is mission-critical for sustainable growth, digital marketing adds a myriad of other helpful tools to the toolbox.

Digital marketing basics

Now that we have heard about how SEO is just one piece of the digital marketing pie, let’s branch out. What exactly is this all-encompassing field of digital marketing?

Let’s hear from the experts:

“Digital marketing is a blanket term for all the various ways you can drive traffic to your digital funnel.” — Adam Ayers, CEO of Number 5

“Digital marketing is just using the internet to market. For me, this includes email, pay per click, SEO, email, display/retargeting, affiliate, and social media at least. Really anything you do online or that shows up online would fall under digital marketing for me.” — Dave Rohrer, Founder of NorthSide Metricsand co-host of The Business of Digital Podcast

“Digital marketing encompasses the manner in which you can connect and network with new or existing customers. You can expect strategies like email marketing, content marketing, direct marketing, and more.” — Tom Buchok, Founder, Mailcharts

How does digital marketing differ from SEO?

“SEO is a kind of digital marketing — one part of a much larger puzzle,” says Miller, “SEO is a tactic that focuses only on getting your business to the top of the natural results on the major search engines (Google and Bing).

While being visible on search engines is important, it is only part of a larger marketing strategy. You still need to get users to click through to your site and then to get in touch. There are also many other ways to market a business online or digitally — social networks being the big and obvious example here. But there is a whole suite of platforms and tactics that fall under the umbrella term of digital marketing.”

“The key difference,” he adds, “is that SEO only focuses on getting exposure in the natural search engine results, while digital marketing is a broader approach that will typically involve more platforms, channels, and the entire customer journey.”

To better understand how SEO fits into digital marketing, let’s look a little more in-depth at factors influencing a consumer’s experience.

A user’s journey

“All good marketing starts with the customer,” says Miller.

“How do they find out about your business? Is this something they need right now, like an emergency plumber? Is your business something that the end-user would research? What is the competition like?”

“At Bowler Hat (my agency) we focus on helping smaller businesses. People like plumbers, roofers, financial advisors — traditional business categories. In most cases, a potential customer for these businesses will start on a search engine, so being visible when a user conducts that search is hugely important.” Organic search engine visibility is SEO-centric, but its not the only way to get noticed.

“Of course,” continues Miller, “you can also run ads at the top of the search engine result pages which is most certainly not SEO but rather SEM (Search Engine Marketing),” which is also referred to as PPC, or pay-per-click advertising. “While there are no exact figures here, studies tend to show that organic results tend to get around 20 times the number of clicks that the paid ads receive — so, in an ideal world, good organic and paid search engine marketing is the best combo. Certainly, SEO and PPC work well together, combining SEO and another digital marketing tactic.”

SEO + ? = digital marketing

SEO is one pillar of digital marketing. One pillar is cool, but it won’t hold up much on its own.

So, how exactly does this pillar fit in with the rest of the broader digital marketing field?

“You’ll often find that great digital marketing agencies are built on a foundation of great technical SEO, on-page SEO, and off-page SEO, while simultaneously offering a variety of paid media, multimedia, and web design services,” explains Venta Marketing CEO Max Prokell.

Here some of the services or tasks that digital marketing encompasses:

  • SEO
  • Content marketing
  • Social media marketing and management
  • Influencer marketing
  • PPC and digital advertising
  • Website analytics 
  • Online reputation management

Many digital marketing agencies even combine SEO with the following creative marketing services, offering websites a fuller slate of options and turnkey solutions:

  • Email marketing
  • Conversion rate optimization
  • Website or app development and design
  • Lead generation
  • Logo design
  • Branding
  • Display banners and ads
  • Web hosting
  • Site maintenance
  • Ecommerce development
  • Remarketing
  • Marketing automation

To better understand how the fields of digital marketing and SEO are similar, yet different, we asked experts to help point out the biggest differences. Here’s what they said:

1. Driving organic traffic vs. increasing online presence

“The biggest difference between SEO and digital marketing is its purpose,” says Greg Heilers, a partner at Jolly Content. “The job of an SEO Specialist is to drive more traffic to the company’s website, along with revenue. The job of a digital marketer is to use any medium to increase the company’s online presence. These two often work together to maximize their impact.”

2. Technical appeal vs. human appeal

“SEO is designed to appeal to the search rngines. Digital marketing is designed to appeal to consumers/customers, i.e. real people,” explains Jann Mirchandani, Founder and Principal of Westchester Marketing Cafe. “SEO is where you tweak a myriad of different elements on your webpage so that search engines will recognize the page as relevant for a given search query. At times, this means writing copy in a way that may seem stilted.

Digital marketing includes website content, email campaigns, social media engagement and, depending upon who you talk you, may also include paid advertising. It is written and designed to appeal to the human reader. As such, copy is generally more natural-sounding or conversational.”

Kaddie Fancher, Founder and Owner of KC Media, Inc agrees that SEO and digital marketing differ in their approach. Of the latter, she says, “It’s also strategic, but it’s more human. Digital marketing encompasses various strategies, sometimes including SEO, and also advertising, digital media placements, and social media. As a whole, digital marketing is really establishing your digital presence and continuing to serve your target audience where they are through a variety of mediums. Digital marketers will often work directly with an SEO expert to be sure their content is optimized.”

3. Short term vs. long-term strategy

“SEO is a longer-term specific strategy to gain organic rankings in Google and the other search engines for website pages and other online properties,” points out V. Michael Santoro, Co-Founder of Vaetas. “Digital Marketing is the holistic term and encompasses all online marketing services including SEO, social media, content marketing and paid advertising (PPC and social ads).

SEO also includes using content marketing to rank in the search engines for more than your website pages. For example, images, YouTube videos, and articles can be optimized to rank for desired keyword phrases simultaneously with your web pages. However, SEO is blending with the other digital marketing areas to achieve results. For example, obtaining social signals, e.g. your visitors sharing your content is an SEO signal that helps with rankings. However, obtaining quality backlinks is still the number one SEO priority.”

Santoro wasn’t joking about the longer-term strategy. Marilyn Heywood Paige, Chief Marketing Officer at Paige Black elaborates: “SEO takes six to twelve months of investment to begin to see results, that’s the biggest difference.

SEO is a long-term play. It is an investment that will reap dividends in earning more credibility in the marketplace. It also is a strategy that builds on itself and builds momentum over time, while digital marketing does not build momentum. If you stop paying for advertising, you stop getting leads.

Digital marketing garners faster leads. Digital marketing, (AdWords or PPC advertising) is more of an immediate lead generator. You place ads and people click on them and go to your landing page or website. The success of this tactic relies on how well you have optimized the campaign with keywords and how good the landing page is that the person lands on when they click your ad.

Neither solution is easy. Both require strategic know-how, attention to detail, and consistent effort.”

4. Technical skills vs. soft skills

“The biggest difference between the two disciplines is that SEO marketing involves a lot of technical skills besides soft skills,” says Carsten Schaefer, founder and CEO of SaaS tool “In other words, besides content writing, link building, outreach and other ‘softer’ skills, it also requires you to have the technical knowledge of how websites work. You need to know a lot about site structure, schemas, website speed, scripts, and things of that nature.

On the other hand, digital marketing encompasses a wide variety of skills, most of which are soft skills: PR, content marketing, social media marketing, email marketing. Tthese are all disciplines that require creativity primarily, and technical skills are nice to have.”

5. Narrow vs. broad scope

“The biggest difference between SEO and digital marketing is the scope of what they cover,” suggests Alex Membrillo, CEO of Cardinal Digital Marketing. “SEO is very specific and only applies to ranking a website in the search engine results. As the name suggests, you’re optimizing for the search engines. This includes Google, Bing, and Yahoo. It also expanded to include voice search results in the search engines. If you ask ‘Siri, what’s the best pizza place near me?’ the results you receive will be based on search engine optimization.

Digital marketing is very encompassing. In fact, most digital marketers consider SEO an important component of digital marketing. However, it’s not the only component.”

6. Offense vs. defense

“The main difference between the two is that SEO is more defense and digital marketing is more offense,” advises Mikaela Delia owner of Mikaela Delia Creative Marketing Agency. “SEO is very internally focused between keyword strategy, web development, etc., while digital marketing focuses more on external strategies that funnel traffic to a brand’s digital properties.

An SEO agency will focus solely on helping to improve your search rank, while a digital marketing agency will help you reach other main objectives such as increasing organic impressions, conversions, assist in online advertising, etc.”

7. Marathon vs. sprint

“We like to compare SEO to a marathon, and paid media to a sprint,” states Matt Erickson, Marketing Director, National Positions. “SEO is going to focus on getting you valuable organic traffic with content, technical improvements, linking profiles, etc. Your budget on SEO will usually stay fairly consistent. A digital marketing agency, on the other hand, may do everything from video production to Facebook Ads to PPC and Amazon advertising. So you will often find agencies that do everything and some that only focus on social media or Google. So at the end of the day, each will be striving for different goals when it comes to your overall marketing.”

“While there is some crossover,” he adds, “SEO’s key focuses are to drive traffic, get your site higher in the rankings, and improve your site’s domain authority or DA. SEO is usually a longer play for results — a slower and steady climb will net more month-over-month organic traffic that you can turn into opportunities.

Digital marketing, whether it is social media, Google Ads, YouTube ads, etc., is more direct and aimed at driving opportunities faster. Basically, you are paying for eyeballs and attention.”

Hiring decisions

So, here is the big question:

Should my company hire an SEO agency or a digital marketing agency?

What to expect from an SEO agency

“Hiring an SEO agency means you are employing an agency that will solely focus on getting your website ranked in the search engine listings,” explains Patricia Walterick, CEO of Open Space Digital.

“To some degree,” Rohrer notes, “an SEO agency may have some competency in other aspects of digital marketing, but most of their team and expertise will be wrapped up in just SEO. This means that when hiring an SEO agency you shouldn’t expect them to be running your paid search, email, and affiliate channels.

If that is what you need help with, then you should look at something more like a full-service digital marketing agency. These are agencies that might not be experts on EVERYTHING but most certainly have a good understanding and are well versed in multiple aspects of digital marketing.”

With an SEO agency, says Walterick, “Typically you will pay a monthly retainer for as long as you require their services. Most companies will keep SEO agencies on retainer even after they have achieved the desired rankings for their keywords so that they can track and maintain those rankings.”

What to expect from a digital marketing agency

“A digital marketing firm offers services for all online marketing services including social media, content marketing, online advertising, and SEO,” describes Santoro. “They may even provide a service to help a client build their online brand.”

“The difference between hiring an SEO agency and a digital marketing agency is that the latter will have specialists working on all aspects of your digital marketing,” says Murray. “SEO agencies naturally have much narrower views on the overall process of growing a client’s business since their only focus is on SEO. A digital marketing agency will have specialists in all areas of the industry, including social media, content, public relations, web development, as well as SEO.”

Additionally, adds Walterick, “A digital marketing agency will assess your current situation and listen to your business goals then offer a number of options for you to consider.

You and the agency may adjust your budget and various ad campaigns throughout the year as they determine what works best for your niche and clientele. The digital marketing agency is focused on acquiring leads for your business and increasing sales.”

Hiring a digital marketing agency doesn’t automatically mean that all of your services will be handled in-house. As Santoro says, “many digital marketing firms outsource to more technical SEO firms or white label these SEO services as their own. With SEO becoming more complex, using technical SEO firms can help to produce better results for search engine rankings.”

Hiring advice for subcontracting and white label SEO

Why would a digital marketing agency contract an SEO agency to work on your account?

“We see many digital agencies subcontracting SEO to specialty companies because of how difficult SEO can be, advises Alexander De Ridder, co-founder of INK, a content optimization platform for writers.

De Ridder continues, “SEO is an extreme specialization in an area of constant, immediate change. SEO specialization falls under four general centers of excellence: management, strategy, technical, and content.

SEO agencies need to know everything about new technologies such as AMP and PWA, and how it impacts organic search, click-through rates, on-site user satisfaction. They need to know how to rank for local search, international search, multi-language search. They need to be JavaScript and code experts to optimize slow sites. They need to be browser experts and know the latest updates. They need to be Google algorithm experts, experimenting and tinkering to find out what works now that didn’t work yesterday. They need to be site structure experts, content experts so that the content can be optimized for semantic intent. And not at all finally, be great at SEO research such as content gap analysis and keyword research, be site migration experts, and so on.”

So, how do you choose which service provider is right for your situation? Should you go with a one-stop-shop with more general knowledge in a variety of digital applications? Or should you go to an SEO expert to focus on the basics, then add on a full-service agency later? Do you have in-house marketing handling some tasks, but need help from an outsider for others?

Don’t worry. We asked marketing experts for advice on how and why to hire either an SEO or a digital marketing firm. Here are the six questions you should be asking:

1.  What are your needs?

“Really it all depends upon your requirements and strategy,” says Miller. “If you know that the only part of your marketing you need to address is improved visibility in organic search then an SEO agency is what you need.

If you really want to look at strategy and the best tactics or know that your customers or product or service would be better promoted on social media or via some other means, then you need a digital marketing agency.

Certainly, if you want an agency that will look at building awareness, engagement, conversions, retention, upsell and just generally working through the customer lifecycle, then you need an agency that can handle more than just SEO.

It is worth noting as well that digital marketing is such a broad subject that no two agencies are exactly the same and some may be stronger in some areas than others.

What really matters here is understanding what you need and then finding the agency that is the best fit for your unique requirements.”

Your company is unique. Hiring an agency to help isn’t a one-size-fits-all decision. Quincy Smith, Head of SEO and Content at Ampjar gives this advice: “I firmly believe you should hire for your needs, so I’d advise against hiring a digital marketing agency if you only need help with your SEO. However, if you need help with your entire marketing strategy, then an agency is a good solution but you might lose a bit in individual expertise.

That tradeoff is the biggest difference. Every agency will tell you that they can do SEO, but they likely aren’t as skilled in it as a company where that’s their only focus.”

2. Is your current focus on niche keywords or a big-picture goal?

“If your objective is to increase revenue or leads via organic search, the best bet is to hire a firm that specializes in SEO,” advises Kent Lewis, President and Founder of Anvil Media. However, he adds, “If you’re looking for SEO as part of a larger service mix, consider a digital marketing agency. Although I started my SEO career in 1996, I’ve always been a proponent of a multi-disciplinary/multi-channel approach to digital, including paid advertising, PR and email, among other disciplines. At Anvil, we’re 40 percent SEO, 50 percent paid media, and 10 percent other digital disciplines, to provide our clients with the optimal mix. The benefit of going with a digital agency is seeing the bigger picture and integrating digital efforts across channels.”

Walterick agrees. She says,”if you are looking only to have a company assist you with getting your website to rank for your niche-specific keywords, hire an SEO agency. If you want a company to assess your big-picture marketing plans and campaigns by handling your email lists and marketing, paid advertising, and other online promotions, as well as work on ranking your website, hire a digital marketing agency.”

3. What would you like to achieve?

“When choosing between hiring an SEO agency or a digital marketing agency, think about what you’d like to achieve, suggests Mark Pratt, Marketing Manager at ClickSend. “Do you want one agency to be able to handle all aspects of digital marketing? If so, a digital marketing agency is the better call. If you want specialized technical SEO know-how, you may choose an agency where their main focus is SEO.

A good SEO agency should be able to assist with more advanced technical SEO, like structured data, canonicalization, hreflangs (for international SEO), site structure, redirects, page speed, etc. They should be able to help set up correct reporting and analytics, as poor implementation of analytics can cause huge headaches later down the track. They also might have good relationships established with website owners to assist with your backlink strategy. Furthermore, any SEO agency worth their salt will be up to date on all the major search engine algorithm changes.”

4. How much of a commitment are you looking for?

Marcus Clarke, Founder of shares this perspective: “If your focus is solely on increasing organic traffic (perhaps you handle social media in-house), then an SEO agency might well be your best option and offer the best value for money and expertise. Ask for case studies in your niche to see what they might do for you.

Hiring a digital marketing agency is generally a larger commitment as they will be across more parts of your business, and you should be prepared to work in a more integrated way with them, giving them more access and sharing more information with them to allow the to promote you in various ways.”

5. Are quick results your focus?

If you want to hire an agency that can give you faster results due to the available departments within their business, a digital marketing agency is your best bet,” says Garret Seevers, VP of Marketing for Azuga. “They can also offer you additional services depending on the agency (e.g. email marketing and social media marketing).”

6. Are you hiring with a budget in mind?

“[W]hether you need an SEO agency or a digital marketing agency, majorly depends on your requirements and budget,” advises Amjad. “An SEO agency can help you with improving your site’s rankings. And you can hire a digital marketing agency if you want to enhance your company’s overall exposure using digital media. It can be quite costly if you are using paid ads in your strategy.”

A caution about hiring

We will leave you with this helpful advice from Calloway Cook, Founder of Illuminate Labs, a dietary supplements company:

“As a company looking to hire, it’s more challenging to analyze the effectiveness of an SEO agency than a digital marketing agency. Because Google rankings tend to increase with time regardless (due primarily to increased backlinks to the website), an SEO firm may attribute increases in a client’s Google rankings solely to their efforts, but this may not be accurate. This is a nuanced point, but it’s impossible to objectively parse out how much the SEO firm’s work contributed to rankings improvements and how much would have happened anyway.

Hiring a digital marketing company, on the other hand, is easier because you can measure exactly the ROI of their efforts. Whether it’s a Google Campaign, PPC Campaign, or a social campaign, it’s easy to determine whether the efforts of the potential hire are generating a positive ROI for their clients.”

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