Alex Jenkins
IT Consultant

Explained: What is the Difference Between SEO and SEM?


Explained: What is the Difference Between SEO and SEM?

Search marketing enables businesses to improve their website rankings, increase site traffic and increase visibility in search engines. It is comprised of two respective categories known as SEO and SEM, which essentially accomplish the same goal but through different strategies. If you’re new to the topic of search marketing and not yet familiar with the various practices and tactics used, it’s not uncommon to wonder what is the difference between SEO and SEM. The following guide will provide you with a brief overview of the key points to keep in mind as you develop your next search marketing plan.

Definitions of SEO and SEM

To effectively understand what is the difference between SEO and SEM, you need to understand how they both function respectively. As mentioned, both are used to achieve the same outcome for your business, but they rely on different methods; SEO is dependent on organic strategies whereas SEM relies on paid strategies.


Search engine optimization, otherwise known as SEO, uses organic methods to display a business or branded content at the top of search engine result pages or SERPs. These methods can include keyword research and optimization as well as content creation that is curated around the use of specific keywords. SEO can be categorized into three respective categories known as on-page SEO, off-page SEO, and technical SEO.

Although on-page SEO focuses on keywords and content, off-page SEO directs focus to improve a business or brand’s online reputation and establishing it as an authority within a niche; this can include being listed in directories, local listings, or developing backlinks through link building practices. Technical SEO implements tactics that improve site indexing, security, speed, and many other elements that impact site experience when a potential lead or crawler visits your website. Each of these smaller factors in SEO ultimately works together to naturally influence your site’s rankings based on trustworthiness, content, and countless other factors.


In contrast, search engine marketing (SEM) achieves a similar outcome through methods that require payment to increase visibility. As a result, it is sometimes referred to with alternative terminologies such as pay-per-click (PPC) marketing or paid search. Similar to SEO, keyword research is important in SEM, but these keywords are used for developing ad campaigns that will target users on search engines and other sites. The pay-per-click concept emerges as a result of how the strategy itself functions; anytime a user clicks on a targeted ad from the campaign, you will be charged a small fee for that unique visit.

If They Achieve the Same Outcome, What is the Difference Between SEO and SEM?

When faced with the decision of whether to implement SEM or SEO for your business, you should be aware of the differences. Although there are many areas where these practices will overlap, there are several factors that significantly define the difference between SEM and SEO. Generally speaking, SEO is typically very cost-effective because it doesn’t require an investment to achieve results, whereas SEM can quickly become expensive if you don’t set a proper budget for your ad campaign.

SEM and SEO also present your business or brand through entirely different approaches. When you utilize SEO, your business and content will appear organically in search results and this can seem much more natural to a user that’s browsing online. Using SEM often means that your brand or business will be presented as an ad, which may not always capture the attention of potential users or leads. This is important to consider because people are typically more likely to click-through to a website they believe they’ve discovered naturally during a search in comparison to clicking through on an ad.

SEO is more of a long-term practice and its value may not be immediately apparent if you are seeking to see results sooner than later. Although you can increase site traffic and potential leads rather quickly with SEM, it can take many months of effort before you’ll achieve similar results organically through SEO. It can take time to build high-quality backlinks and to secure optimal visibility; therefore, SEM may be a better choice if you’re seeking an option that will provide immediate results.

Final Thoughts

Now that you have a general understanding of what is the difference between SEO and SEM, it’s time to put your knowledge to use. Regardless of whether you choose SEO or SEM, you cannot implement either effectively without understanding your audience. Knowing your audience and understanding what attracts them to your business is crucial because it ultimately influences the keywords, content, and ads that you’ll present to them in the future. When you understand the thought process of your potential lead, you’ll also understand how to connect popular search terms with their interests and drive them to your site using SEO or SEM.

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