SEO vs. SEM: Understanding the Differences & Similarities

by Alex Denisiuk / Sep 12, 2021 / in News and Views

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If you ever speak to a digital marketer or read something about internet marketing, you will be bombarded with acronyms and jargon that can be confusing to understand. However, when it comes to boosting the online presence of your website, it is important to first understand the basic digital marketing terms. Some people believe that digital or internet marketing is all about SEO.

But as you start reading about it, you will come across another similar term- SEM. Now, you may get confused what is the difference between the two. The terms SEO and SEM are often mistakenly used interchangeably. But in reality, these are two different digital marketing methods. Now you may ask, what is the basic difference between the two or if SEO is a part of SEM. You might also want to know which one is best for your website’s growth.

So, to clear all your doubts, let’s find out what are SEO and SEM, and how they differ from each other.

What is SEO?

The search results on Google are of two types- the organic (unpaid) search results and the paid search results. SEO is a digital marketing method that helps to rank your website in organic search results. In other words, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) involves optimizing the website to be discovered in the search engine’s organic results. For ranking websites on the search engine result pages (SERPs), the search engines “crawl” websites and assess several things such as keywords, meta tags, URLs, and more. Based on these factors, Google and other search engines rank a website for queries to attract organic traffic.

SEO helps in increasing your website’s visibility and rankings in organic search results that lead to more traffic and increased conversions. SEO is a method of improving organic traffic with the help of three core components: On-Page SEO, Off-Page SEO, and Technical SEO.

On-Page SEO

This SEO tactic involves optimizing each page of the website to help the search engine easily understand the content and rank pages for relevant queries. On-Page SEO includes adding relevant keywords in title, H1, URL, meta tags, image alt tags, and more. Besides keywords, other tactics include using short and descriptive URLs, writing high-quality content, and more.

Off-Page SEO

Off-Page SEO involves off-site actions that are performed to increase website ranking. It includes getting quality backlinks, earning backlinks, creating a Google My Business listing, and more for improving the authority of a website.

Technical SEO

This SEO tactic is used to improve the technical structure of a website to makes it easier for search engines to crawl, index, and rank a website. Technical SEO includes optimizing the site speed, mobile-friendliness, structured data, robot.txt, using canonical tags, and more.

What is SEM?

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is also used to increase site ranking in the SERPs but this process involves using paid advertising tactics such as pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. Unlike SEO that helps a website rank organically, SEM uses platforms like Google Ads and Bing Ads to reach your target audience, drive traffic, and increase conversions. You may find some different explanations of SEM. Some digital marketers refer to SEM as an umbrella term that consists of both organic SEO and organic tactics. However, SEM typically includes setting up and optimizing paid ads to reach the target audience. It is a paid strategy used to increase conversions and returns.

This strategy involves performing keyword research and gaining competitor insights to create targeted campaigns. As compared to SEO, SEM provides quick results and allows site owners to take full control over when and to whom ads show. Paid ads usually appear at the top of the SERPs when a user searches for those specific terms for which the advertiser is running ads. However, unlike free organic clicks, the website owner needs to pay every time a user clicks on the advertisement. For running an SEM advertisement, you need to set up and run targeted (paid) ad campaigns. Perform keyword research and write copy using those words. SEM includes:

  • Search Ads
  • YouTube Ads
  • Shopping Ads
  • Display Ads
  • Gmail Ads
  • And More!


Now that you know the meaning of SEO and SEM, let’s move to discuss the differences and similarities between the two. This will help you understand which one is best for your website. When it comes to the similarities between these two channels, the purpose of both these techniques is to improve the visibility and traffic of the website.

However, SEO focus on driving organic (unpaid) traffic while SEM is about increasing targeted traffic via paid ads.  Both methods heavily rely on keywords to drive traffic but SEM gives the result soon after the campaign is live. SEO takes time but boosts your visibility in the long term.

When it comes to choosing between SEO and SEM, you need to consider your specific goals. For instance, if you want to promote an event or discount offer, you need quick results before the event date or offer expires. In this case, you should start an SEM campaign.

On the other hand, if you’re looking to drive long-term growth and need a cost-effective solution, then consider SEO. For a new website, a PPC campaign can help to kick start things but SEO is crucial for long-term goals.  Ideally, you should use both SEO and SEM to develop a robust digital marketing plan. Most business websites integrate both SEO and SEM to achieve visibility in both organic results and paid ads space.

By Samia Tauseef

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