SEO vs SEM: What’s the difference and Which Should Your Business Focus On?

seo vs sem

SEO vs SEM: What’s the difference and Which Should Your Business Focus On?

SEO, PPC, SERP…at times it seems like internet marketing lingo has turned into a huge cauldron of alphabet soup. Yet each of these terms means something important, and it’s helpful to get them straight.

Two acronyms that can be confusing because of their similarities in name and function are SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and SEM (Search Engine Marketing).

The two are related, but not synonymous. Although both SEO and SEM are related to the use of search engines to grow traffic, SEO is unpaid and more specific, while SEM includes other paid factors and is broader in scope than SEO.

In other words, SEM is a type of internet marketing that works by increasing a website’s visibility via search engine results and paid advertising, while SEO refers to the specific technique of increasing a website’s visibility in a search engine list of results.

Another way to understand SEO and SEM is to think about golden retrievers and dogs. Golden retrievers are a subtype of a larger category, dogs. But not all dogs are golden retrievers. Similarly, SEO is part of SEM, but not all SEM strategies are SEO.

Starting to understand, but still a bit confused? Let’s get into the nitty gritty:


What is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?


Search engine optimization, or SEO, is a search marketing tactic that involves optimizing content on a website so that the site will show up more prominently during organic searches. The goal of SEO is to maximize the number of visitors to the website through on-page and off-page techniques.

The most well-known search engine is, of course, Google, so most SEO tactics evolve as Google’s algorithm evolves.

Some well-known SEO techniques include:

On-page SEO techniques (which shows site visitors what your site is all about)

  • Naturally incorporating searchable keywords into well-written site content.
  • Optimizing metadata such as the page title tag, meta descriptions, and more.
  • Using the right words in page URLs.
  • Optimizing page speed.
  • Integrating social sharing within your content.

Off-page SEO techniques (which shows internet surfers that your site is valuable)

  • Having authoritative sites backlink to your site naturally.
  • Use of social signals, such as increased traffic from social media sharing.
  • Attracting information from social bookmarking sites such as Reddit, Stumbleupon, and Digg.

What is Search Engine Marketing (SEM)?


In contrast to SEO, SEM is a broader term. It is a form of internet marketing that includes SEO tactics, among other techniques. SEM involves paid advertising. Some of these techniques include:

  • SMM (Social media marketing)
  • PPC (pay per click) listings and ads where you pay each time an internet visitor clicks on the ad.
  • CPM (cost per impression): paying the search engine for every 1,000 times your ad appears
  • sponsored listings
  • …and more

Today, however, the term “SEM” has morphed to refer more often to exclusive paid search techniques. Many marketers use it to refer to gaining traffic by purchasing ads on search engines.


SEO vs SEM: Summary


In general, the big difference between SEO and SEM is:

  • SEM is traditionally broader than SEO
  • SEM includes paid advertising, but SEO is organic and unpaid
  • SEM cannot really succeed without the help of organic SEO
  • Nowadays, many people use SEM to refer to paid advertising on search engines and SEO to refer to free traffic coming from natural search results

That said, it is helpful to use non-SEO elements of SEM, such as PPC in certain circumstances, for instance, when you are launching a brand-new website. PPC can create a large audience much faster than waiting for organic SEO.


Your best marketing strategy: SEO or SEM or both?


Both paid and unpaid traffic growth strategies have their benefits and drawbacks.

If you are short on cash, or have the time and patience to slowly build up the value and authority of your site, then relying more on SEO might be the best strategy for you.

If you are a business with money to invest and a product to launch within a short time frame, then paid advertising is the way to get that critical mass of visitors to convert into paying customers for a quick ROI.

The best strategy, though, is to nurture a mix of paid and organic traffic. Use both SEO and SEM, and you your website will not only reach more clients but build more respectability, trust, and staying power in the long run.

If you want more information about the intricacies of SEO or SEM, or advice about how to design the perfect search engine strategy for your business, contact us today or use our free analysis tool to see where you currently stand.

  • Reginald
    Posted at 14:21h, 26 October

    Very good article and thanks for sharing! *P.S. Came across this article when I was doing research on this topic. Have a great day ahead!

  • Angelita Vivanco
    Posted at 21:02h, 27 October

    Does Google Prefer Big Brands In Organic SERPs?

    • brian
      Posted at 23:37h, 30 December

      Bigger brands usually have more trust and authority in their niche, so yes, they do, but only because the big brands have earned their spot. Smaller businesses, especially local, can out rank a big brand or authority website if they put in the work and quality SEO practices.