Skip to main content

SEM and SEO: What’s the Difference?

As a business owner, you’ve likely heard the terms Search Engine Marketing (SEM) or Search Engine Optimization (SEO). However, you need to have a strong marketing team around you or have time to research to ensure you understand what these terms mean and how to apply them to your business best.

Search Engine Marketing and Search Engine Optimization

Two Different Marketing Channels

SEM and SEO are two different marketing channels. Generally, SEM refers to paid search tactics, and SEO refers to organic search tactics. These terms have similarities and differences, but both are important to every business to gain online visibility and attract your target market. This post will define each term and provide similarities and differences to understand why both are important.

What is Search Engine Marketing (SEM)?

Search Engine Marketing is not just a broad umbrella term covering SEO. The marketing industry has accepted SEM to refer to paid tactics to gain visibility online (source). SEM uses PPC (pay-per-click) advertising platforms like Google, Bing, and YouTube to reach your target audience. It begins with keyword research and competitor insights to create targeted campaigns to place products and services in front of a target audience. Recent statistics show that 88% of the global search market belongs to Google.

SEM Ad Formats

  • Shopping Ads include product, image, price, and merchant information. Consumers can make a purchase decision directly from the ad.
  • Display Ads can be placed across a network of 2 million sites in the Google Display Network, including social media, in the form of banner, image, and video ads. This is considered “push” advertising that appears based on various targeting parameters. These ads aren’t limited to location parameters like search ads. The ad shows to both relevant consumers and irrelevant consumers. People see display ads while actively consuming content, like skimming their favorite blogs or scrolling through social media. 
  • Search Ads are text ads that include site links, phone numbers, and callouts. This is considered “pull” advertising for those already searching for your product or service. Search ads (like the one below) mimic organic search results. When users search for a specific term, they see a custom ad at the top of the Search Engine Results Page (SERP). In other words, your business pays to have your product or service shown highest in the rankings when people search for various keywords. Every time the ad is clicked, your company pays. These ads have high conversion rates because advertisers are showing these ads to consumers searching for these products or services with high intent.


What is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?

Search Engine Optimization is a marketing strategy that uses organic methods to appear in search results. The means creating content that appeals to your target market. There are four primary areas of SEO.

  • Content that is customized to your target audience with relevant keywords.
  • Technical SEO improves the structure of a website, including site speed, crawlability, security, and indexing.
  • On-page SEO optimizes factors on the web page like title, meta tag optimization, and image alt tags. 
  • Off-page SEO includes link building, social media, and other tactics to improve a site’s trustworthiness and authority. 

A successful SEO strategy needs all four of the above components. Remember, the goal is to understand your audience and their search intent and then form an SEO strategy so consumers see your information. 

“SEO isn’t about ‘how do I get keywords into Google,’ it’s about understanding how many people search for information and finding a way to get in front of them.”

-Danny Sullivan, Co-Founder of Search Engine Land & Advisor to Third Door Media

Similarities in SEM and SEO

There are similarities between SEM and SEO channels, both of which can return positive results.

  • Online visibility gives better visibility on SERPs (search engine results pages like Google and Bing).
  • Quality traffic that increases relevant, quality traffic driving it to your website.
  • Keyword research that improves optimization and helps you understand your competition.
  • Insight into understanding your target audience and campaign performance.
  • Monitoring with ongoing tracking is key and conveniently displayed through Google Analytics and on your website dashboard. 

Differences in SEM and SEO

There are three key differences between SEM (paid) and SEO (organic), so using both as part of your marketing strategy becomes important. 

  • Placement. SEM shows your results at the top of the page. With SEO, your organic rankings may fall well below the top.
  • Timing of Results. SEM has short-term, almost immediate, measurable results. On the other hand, SEO has long-term value over time, delivering cumulative results. It may take months to see results.
  • Cost. With SEM, you pay when someone clicks on your ad. But with SEO, there is no cost when a user clicks on your organic listing. 


In conclusion, SEM and SEO are often confused as being the same thing. The key takeaway is that both SEM (pay-per-click) and SEO (organic) are different but important. These approaches should be used together to increase online visibility and reach your target audience. SEM requires spending advertising to increase your visibility. SEO is the organic approach to creating content and structuring your website appropriately. Especially if your website is new or if you need a strong web presence, you can use SEM to get you started while also implementing a long-term SEO plan. There are similarities and differences but use them together to maximize your ROI.

If you need help with SEM or SEO for your business, we’d love to help. Please contact us here.