What’s the difference between SEO and SEM?

As marketing has developed over time, so has the technical language marketers use. Even marketers themselves are probably confused about what some phrases and acronyms mean half the time, too! Search Optimization is a fundamental marketing strategy for businesses that want to draw attention, drive website traffic, and improve their industry. But it can be a difficult strategy to manage if you don’t know how to compare SEM and SEO.

Search Engine Optimization and Search Engine Marketing can be a puzzling concept to apprehend. Both processes’ target is to increase visibility in search engines. The tactics may seem identical, but they are two very different paths to search optimization. Both terms are usually interchanged, which makes understanding them even harder. Also, if you don’t know how to contrast the two, you can’t communicate in a clear and efficient strategy for earning high rankings in the search results in different search engines.

The Core Difference between SEO and SEM

Search Engine Optimization is about optimizing your website to get higher rankings in the search results while Search Engine Marketing goes beyond SEO. It involves other methods that can get you more search engine visitors like PPC advertising. Traditionally, SEO has been thought of as an element of SEM, including both paid and organic tactics.

Nonetheless, today the definitions changed. SEM is now applied to refer solely to paid search results while SEO is exclusively for getting traffic from free, organic, editorial or natural search results.

In short words:

SEO is an organic search strategy.

SEM is a paid search strategy.

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Let’s expand our understanding of the difference between the two by breaking down their definitions and of the other terms related.

Search Marketing

Before you can truly understand a certain topic, you need to start at the very root of it; in this case, Search Marketing. Search Marketing is associated with any strategy that helps a brand gain attention by appearing on Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). It involves efforts to get at the top of the rankings and boost search visibility so you can make more traffic to a website or particular webpages.

SEO and SEM are the major classes in Search Marketing.

Search Engine Marketing

In a paid SEM strategy, both the activities involved with setting up and optimizing ads as well as setting a budget that pays for the placement of ads are involved. This strategy is widely known as pay-per-click (PPC) marketing. The most commonly known search provider for PPC is GoogleAds. This tactic helps brands carry keyword research and build campaigns that aim for the best keywords for their industry, products, or services. If any of those keywords are used by a searcher, they see the custom ads at the top or bottom of the search results. Through PPC advertising, you can target potential buyers with relevant ad copy and keywords that suit their searches. Your business is given an opportunity to enhance the visibility of its web pages, landing pages, blog articles, and more.

There are also terms like cost-per-click (CPC) ads, paid search ads, and paid search advertising used for SEM activities.

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Here are some SEM strategies that are proven to be worth your bucks:

  • Build ad groups that are comprised of target keyword modifications
  • Monitor metrics like clicks, impressions, click-through rates and average cost-per-click
  • Drive ad campaigns with a target audience in mind
  • Write important ad copy using those selective keywords
  • Establish an ad budget

These five approaches are very important for anyone new to SEM strategies.

Search Engine Optimization

An optimized web site has more chances of being understood by Search engine crawlers and this increases the chances of ranking higher in SERPS. That is why many online marketers make use of SEO. Search Engine Optimization is the method of optimizing your web site for the goal of producing free traffic from different search engines. Due to the frequent changes in Google’s algorithms, the SEO industry needs to evolve. However, one thing can’t be changed: On-Page and Off-Page SEO activities.

On-Page SEO

On-page SEO is about optimizing your own website for the high rankings in the search results.

This includes:

  • Combining selective keyword directly into title tags, meta descriptions, heading tags, alt text, etc.
  • Posting blogs with quality content that easily ranked in the search engines
  • Neat and formatting page URLS
  • Optimizing the site so it loads swiftly on any devices
  • Google authorship incorporated
  • Social sharing integration in your content
  • Using schema.org markup to give the crawlers more info about your web pages
  • Making sure that robots.txt doesn’t hinder the search bots
  • Putting a sitemap that makes it easier for crawlers to crawl your website
  • Making internal links so that your website backlinks to itself
  • Using the HTTPS secure protocol so that your site can a get a little boost in the SERPs
  • And many more
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Off-Page SEO

Off-page SEO is about obtaining organic backlinks from other websites.

This includes:

  • Building a natural backlink profile from quality websites
  • Content sharing on social media
  • Getting attention from prominent people in your domain
  • Guest posting
  • Involving in influencer marketing


Online marketers and advocates on either side could have a debate as to which one is more effective. However, you can see high-quality SEO as a foundation for high-quality SEM. Both have an undeniable advantage and could work hand in hand for your marketing strategy.

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About the Author: Adam