What is the Difference between SEO and SEM?

seo vs sem

As technology evolves, the world of marketing moves along with it. Nowadays, digital marketing is a crucial medium for businesses all over the world. Business can now thrive globally because of digital marketing. But how does one end up on top of searches in search engines such as Google, Bing, Yahoo and the likes? How can a business stand out from the rest in terms of products and service endorsements?

Here enters the digital arm of the digital marketing world: SEO and SEM. These two are not in competition with each other, rather, they work hand in hand.

What is SEO?

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. SEO’s strategic role is to make your website rank #1 in search engines whether through on-page (on-site) or off-page (off-site).

SEO is based on the traffic from organic sources, natural or free results from searches wherein content such as videos, local listings, etc., are ranked based on what search engines calculate as relevant. SEO does not require ongoing payment once implemented, although an ongoing SEO strategy such as content creation or link building, is recommended.

What is SEM?

On the other hand, SEM, which stands for Search Engine Marketing, can help you boost your website/business and skip the time waiting for results to happen. This strategy uses paid searches like PPC (Pay Per Click) system listings and advertisements.

As per Wikipedia, “Search engine marketing is a form of Internet marketing that involved the promotion of websites by increasing their visibility in search engine results pages (SERPs) through optimization and advertising.”

What are the Differences Between SEO and SEM

There are a couple of things that differentiate SEO from SEM. However, it does not necessarily mean that one cannot benefit from the other. Let’s break it down for further understanding

SEO strategy

SEO should be implemented both off-page and on-page. So how do we go about this?

On-page (On-site) must consist of:

  • An optimized and well-written page that incorporates relevant keywords according to topics
  • Page speed must be optimized
  • Optimized metadata which includes the pages meta description, heading, image ALT tags and title tags which is incorporated along with target keywords
  • Social sharing assimilated into the content
  • Well-formatted yet simple page URLs that include particular keywords

Off-page (Off-site) must consist of:

  • Social signals. This is to increase traffic through social media sharing of the website.
  • Grabbing attention through the use of social bookmarking sites such as Stumbleupon, Reddit and/or Digg
  • Link building makes up the majority of off-site SEO. It is to attract and to attain quality backlinks (inbound links)

High-quality and valuable content such as blogs and articles play a big part of SEO. This helps you find your target audience, by providing them with the content that they are searching for. An increase in organic traffic allows for further opportunities for backlinks; meaning more conversions.

Give attention to these on-site and off-site strategies. This will ensure the website’s blog articles, landing pages and web copy, are optimized for searches.

SEM strategy

SEM approach is much different from SEO. Although, SEO is also part of SEM strategy. These are the key activities that contributes to an effective SEM approach:

  • Creation of Ad groups which complies of variety in target keywords
  • Providing a projected ad budget
  • Monitoring methods such as impressions, clicks, the average cost per click and click-through rates
  • Launch of Ad campaigns having a specific demographic in mind
  • Writing pertinent ad copy using a group of selective keywords

Google AdWords is, of course, the most widely used platform for ad hosting. There is more that needs to be done in commencing and maintaining an effective SEM strategy, but these mentioned activities are most important to be mastered by a beginner in the world of digital marketing.


A lot of digital marketing experts may argue about which is better and efficient in case of strategy, however, both have it’s good points when used tactically. High-value SEO can be a necessity for a high-value SEM. SEO can lay a valuable foundation for SEM by means of well-optimized content which online users will find helpful.

Without the use of blog posts, landing and web pages optimized for the use of search, all SEM efforts can be a failure because of poor quality. Visibility in the SERPs will also be almost impossible to achieve.

Organic SEO, on the contrary, is cost-effective in the long run during the time websites / online businesses are in the phase of establishing its relevance and credibility in the digital world. Maintaining it with continuous social media use and creation of high-quality content is another key element in terms of online relevance.

In Conclusion

Simply put, SEM and SEO go hand in hand especially when a website is in its initial phase. Having a deliberate PPC campaign is crucial for immediate visibility in searches until such time that an organic credibility is already established. Having a well-thought-out PPC campaign is crucial to achieving this

However, relying heavily just on SEM will not really be beneficial. It will always be better to use an SEO strategy to maintain relevance for a long-term success. No matter how big the business is, if it fails to use SEO and SEM strategically, it will still fail to obtain its relevance in the digital world. Having the knowledge of how to balance the use of SEO and SEM is always vital for any business that wishes to take part in digital marketing.

Author: Usman Raza is a freelance writer, marketing specialist at snoringaids.com and co-founder of UsmanDigitalMedia.com. When not working, he’s probably spending time with his family. Follow him on Facebook @usmanraza40 and Twitter @usmanintrotech.