SEO vs SEM: What's the Difference?

SEO vs SEM: What's the Difference?

Trying to decide how to market your business online? Wondering what the difference is between SEO and SEM?

If you're new to digital marketing, it can be difficult to learn all the important terms that are out there and to understand what they all mean. SEO and SEM are two of the most common acronyms you may have heard about if you've recently started learning about digital marketing techniques.

Unfortunately, however, many people have difficulty understanding the difference between the two. Newbies to digital marketing often mistakenly believe that SEO and SEM are the same when they're actually very different.

Luckily, we're here to help. In this guide, we'll tell you about the important differences between SEO vs SEM.

How SEO and SEM Techniques Work

Search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) both relate to getting a website more traffic with the help of search engines. However, both are used in very different ways to reach this end goal.

The biggest difference between the two is that with SEO you'll be making changes and tweaks that encourage Google to naturally favor your site, while with SEM you'll pay directly in order to have paid ads shown to search engine users.

There are other differences as well, however. Here are a few of the most important things you should know about SEO and SEM.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

When using SEO techniques, you'll need to tweak many things on and off your site. At its most basic, SEO consists of two parts: on-page SEO and off-page SEO.

On-page SEO consists of taking actions to improve your site's indexing and performance. This may include optimizing site metadata, improving page speed, and improving site copy. It may also include building a well-optimized blog and adding valuable content to it on a regular basis.

Off-page SEO techniques, on the other hand, include ensuring that there are positive signals that point to your own site from elsewhere on the web. This may include getting backlinks and social media mentions as well as making use of social bookmarking on sites such as Reddit.

Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

SEM refers to paid search advertising and the term is often synonymous with pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. With SEM marketing, you'll be paying for ads using ad platforms such as Google AdWords and Bing Ads.

With SEM marketing, the bulk of your tasks will include creating ad campaigns and tweaking them to maximize results and return on investment (ROI). This will include extensive testing. It will also include optimizing ad copy, choosing the right keywords to target, choosing which users to target, and working to get your cost-per-click (CPC) down as much as possible.

In addition to tweaking the ads themselves, using SEM will also include creating and testing the landing pages that search engine users are directed to.

What Can These Techniques Do For a Business?

While you may be getting an idea by now of how these two terms differ, you may not understand what their benefits are. Here are a few more things you should know about SEO and SEM

Benefits of SEO

SEO functions as a more "organic" way of getting new visitors to a website. This is because you'll only be optimizing your site as well as off-site indicators to get more traffic. Unlike with SEM, you won't be paying directly for your website to be shown to search engine users.

One of the biggest benefits of building search engine traffic organically is that it will enable your site to start getting more traffic on an ongoing basis. With SEM and PPC on the other hand, the traffic will stop coming as soon as you stop paying for your ads to be shown.

Because SEO will help your site continue to get traffic over time, performing SEO is extremely cost-effective and is great for cultivating long-term growth. As a result of using SEO techniques, you'll also build brand credibility and will provide more value to potential customers as well.

Benefits of SEM

While SEO is great for long-term growth, few things beat the use of SEM in the short-term. While you'll need to pay directly to get your ads shown, it can be well worth it if done right.

If you have a new site that isn't getting any traction in organic search results yet, then SEM can be a great solution that will allow you to get visitors anyway. PPC can also help your site get traction from keywords that are competitive and hard to rank for organically.

Another great thing about SEM and PPC ads is that you'll be able to optimize, target, and test your ad campaigns extensively. If you discover that you can get a lead or a sale for a lower amount of relative ad spend, you'll be able to scale your results and get a lot of new business in a cost-effective, repeatable way.

SEO vs SEM: When to Use Each

There's no rule that says that you can't use both SEO and SEM together, and in fact, it can be helpful to use both to some extent. However, they each have different benefits and uses.

Here are a few tips for determining which of these you should spend your focus on.


If you're focused on long-term growth online and want to build authority in your industry, then using SEO is usually the best choice.

SEO technique works well because they encourage website owners to improve their sites and make them more useful for visitors and potential customers. Google takes notice of this.

Additionally, SEO will typically work best for sites that are already somewhat established and are getting some search traffic already. For faster results, businesses may want to turn to SEM instead.


While SEO is great for the long-term, it does take time to see the full benefits. Because of this, websites that aren't ranking in search engines yet may need a bit of an extra boost. This can be done through the use of paid advertising.

Paid delivering can be a great solution for new businesses that need results in the short-term but can also be helpful for businesses that have special limited time promotions going on as well.

Additionally, paid advertising is also a great way to learn about customers and to test out new ideas, products, and ad copy to see what resonates with consumers. The data you get on click-through rates and conversions can provide a lot of insights for your business.

Final Thoughts

If you're looking for the answer to the SEO vs SEM debate, you'll find that SEO tends to be the better option for the majority of businesses out there. SEO simply provides the best solution for creating long-term.

On the other hand, SEM definitely has its place as well and a combination of both should be used if you want to have the best time marketing your business online.

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