What Is the Difference Between SEO and SEM?

Photo of author
Written By Robert Dunford
I am a Marketing Consulting in the Great Toronto Area with over 25 years experience in building and implementing marketing plans for small business.

SEO and SEM are two terms that you often encounter in regards to internet marketing. People tend to confuse them and use them interchangeably without understanding the difference.

Search engine marketing, SEM, is a type of digital marketing that includes several different marketing subsets. These are content marketing, social media marketing, and, perhaps most importantly, paid advertising (pay-per-click or PPC ads). The goal of SEM is to increase website visibility in search engine results pages (SERPs) by using a combination of organic SEO and paid search advertising.

Through this definition, it is obvious that search engine optimization, SEO, is just one part of SEM. SEO is a set of rules or guidelines you should follow to create content that will naturally rank high in search rankings without any financial investment on your part. (Except maybe investing in an SEO expert to optimize the content for you.)

Both SEM and SEO have the purpose of driving traffic to your website and helping you evolve your business by ranking high in search results, but in slightly different ways. 

The Principles of SEM

  • Paid Advertising

One of the main aspects of SEM is paid searches. When advertisers want their ads to appear in search results, for specific keywords, they have to bid on those keywords to ensure they appear at the top of results. This is why this part of search engine marketing is called keyword marketing.

The three main platforms used for paid advertising are Google Adwords, Bing Ads, and Yahoo Search Ads. If you wish to invest in a PPC advertisement, you should look into these first. (Google Ads is the most popular choice across the board.)

The benefit of having a paid ad is that the effect is relatively quick. If you are just launching your brand and would like immediate visibility, PPC campaigns will help you get to the top of search results pages. However, this is also the more costly option and doesn’t work long-term if your site doesn’t undergo search optimization at the same time.

Unlike paid search ads, search engine optimization is a longer and more delicate process. It consists of on-page SEO and off-page SEO, and you need to do both to get optimal results.

On-page SEO includes keyword research, link building, technical SEO (site architecture, loading speeds, the responsiveness of the design, a proper meta description, etc.). Off-page SEO is related to backlinks, social media shares, and other actions that happen away from your website.

To optimize your content effectively, you need to be familiar with at least the basics of SEO. SEO audits should be performed before you start with the optimization, and you should consider what type of SEO best suits your business (local SEO, enterprise SEO, e-commerce SEO, or similar).

The benefits of SEO are that it drives organic (unpaid) traffic to your website, increases your ranking in organic search results, improves the overall user experience of your site, and lasts much longer than PPC, not to mention that it is relatively less expensive. The downside is that it takes some time before your SEO efforts start showing results in your analytics.

The Difference Between SEM and PPC

SEM, search engine marketing, is used as an umbrella term that encompasses both SEO and PPC, as well as other forms of marketing.

Even though SEO and SEM are different, over the years, some search marketers have come to equate SEM and PPC. They define SEM as a marketing plan used to draw the target audience to your website solely through the use of paid listings or paid ads.

By this definition, SEM uses paid tactics to help a site appear in search results, while SEO uses organic tactics for this.

The lack of a unified definition of SEM poses some problems and some confusion, as you may understand. However, the majority of the industry still views SEM as a broad marketing strategy that employs both SEO and PPC for increasing website traffic.

Which is Better: SEO or PPC?

Both of these SEM features have their pros and cons.

PPC requires you to invest in an ad campaign to get more user clicks. Your site will automatically be shown at the top in SERPs, and it will have an ‘ad’ label next to it. It will also be shown only to the targeted audience. Every time a user clicks on the link to your site, you have to pay. (Hence the name ‘pay-per-click’ name)

In the short-term, especially if you need to increase your website’s traffic quickly, PPC is a great option. If you don’t have an unlimited budget, however, it’s a difficult strategy to maintain since this is a highly competitive market. You would need to set aside quite a bit of your finances to keep investing in PPC campaigns.

Any inbound marketer would say that going down the PPC route without applying SEO to your site is just a waste of time and financial resources. If you want to see stable, long-term traffic and keep your site ranking high in organic searches, you need to look into SEO strategies. These won’t be as costly, and over time, they will yield better results.

With good SEO, your site will rank high in SERPs without the ‘ad’ label. You don’t have to pay anything when a user clicks on the link to your site, and the link will be shown to anyone, not only to the target audience.

The best tactic would be to go for both. Use PPC to draw in more users while your business is still new, and then impress them with high-quality SEO content that will keep them on your site and slowly build your site’s authority.

Monitoring the Results

No matter what search strategy you decide to use, you need to monitor how it affects your business. Use analytics tools to watch the conversion rates, bounce rates, and the amount of time users spend on your site, then adjust accordingly.

Users may find your site through a paid search ad, through organic Google searches, or even through social media advertising (like Facebook advertising). However, if they don’t buy your product or sign up for your service – or if they bounce back (leave) quickly from your site – it won’t make much of a difference how your pages appear in search results.

So, keep an eye on the metrics and consider developing different SEM strategies if the current one isn’t working for you.

Final Thoughts: SEO vs SEM

People often ask whether they need to use SEO or SEM when they’re launching a site. Presumably, SEM in this context is considered to be just paid advertising.

The truth is, if you want to be successful, grow your business, and increase your profits, you will benefit from an extensive SEM strategy that includes elements of PPC, SEO, and other types of advertising (such as social media advertising). This requires thorough research beforehand, analyzing the site you have now (if you have one), analyzing the market you want to access, and your target users.

If you don’t have the means to flesh out an SEM plan, then the definite recommendation would be to focus on SEO.

The very basis of having a strong online presence is engaging, useful content. SEO helps with that, offering you the tools to format your content to make it appealing to users and help you climb that search engine results ladder to the top.


SEO is focused on driving organic traffic, while a wider SEM campaign includes PPC advertising as well, which brings in paid search traffic. The main difference between SEO and SEM is that just SEO efforts take a longer time to take effect (though with more stable results over time), while an SEM campaign also includes PPC which shows instant results but ones that only last as long as you pay for your ad campaigns.

If you’re just starting out in the world of digital marketing, all of this may seem overwhelming. So many similar terms, so many confusing phrases – bounce rates, paid searches, organic traffic, different types of advertising – so it’s natural to have questions.

Feel free to contact me if you wish to learn more on the subject of SEO and SEM. I’d be happy to nudge your company in the right direction when it comes to driving search traffic and evaluating paid and organic efforts.

Rob Dunford is a Marketing Consultant in the Great Toronto Area with over 25 years of experience in implementing marketing plans for small businesses.

Pin It on Pinterest