Brenda Peterson
Brenda Peterson
What is the Fundamental Difference Between SEO and SEM?
1 (20%) 1 vote

If you deal with internet marketing, the terms SEO and SEM should be household names for you. But if you are new to the industry, these two may cause confusion. Some people don’t differentiate SEO and SEM at all, using the terms interchangeably, others treat them as two completely unrelated concepts. Both are quite typical misconceptions. And as always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

In short, SEM is an umbrella term that incorporates SEO. Both SEO and SEM exist to drive more traffic to websites. But why is “SEO” such a buzzword these days, while the term “SEM” seems to be used only occasionally? Let’s start with breaking down each term.


What is SEO?

It is widely known that SEO is an abbreviation that stands for “Search Engine Optimization”, a technique that allows your website to rank higher on search engine result pages (SERPs).

It’s no secret that search engines like Google check various parameters of websites before indexing them. Indexing is a process in which search engine robots crawl a website and add it to the search base. Depending on the quality of your website (structure, content, references from other sources, update frequency, etc.), it will be ranked among other similar websites by specific keywords. Thus, if one of your website pages matches the search query entered by a user, it will be shown in the search results (higher or lower on the list depending on your ranking).

In plain terms, SEO offers a set of methods aimed at improving your website quality and making it more “search engine friendly”. It increases your chances to rank higher in search results and get seen by considerably more people. The more publicity you acquire, the more traffic your site will generate.

It is important to point out that SEO allows you to drive natural traffic (called “organic”) which helps your website to progress further to the top results as more users find you naturally by entering their queries in the search bar. This will eventually grant you better online visibility for a much more extended period of time.

SEO includes a wide array of activities capable of improving your website ranking. These are divided into on-page SEO and off-page SEO.


On-page SEO activities:

  • Researching and implementing target keywords into content;
  • Editing meta-tags: titles, descriptions, headings, alt text;
  • Enhancing content quality: writing well-structured texts, introducing multiple headings and subheadings, avoiding duplicate text and plagiarism, etc.;
  • Optimizing a page URL;
  • Minimizing a page’s load speed;
  • Submitting a page directly to search engines;
  • Improving website navigation;
  • Optimizing a website for mobile browsing;
  • Building internal links between website pages;
  • Updating content frequently, etc.


Off-page SEO activities:

  • Link-building: acquiring authoritative backlinks, optimizing anchor text, etc.;
  • Social media marketing;
  • Getting on social bookmarking websites like Reddit, Stumbleupon, Digg, Pocket, Dribble, etc.
  • Guest posting;
  • Influencer marketing, etc.


What is SEM?

SEM is an abbreviation for “Search Engine Marketing” which is an array of activities aimed at promoting a website and increasing its visibility on search engines through both optimization (which is SEO) and advertising. Thus, as said before, SEO appears to be just a part of SEM.

Both SEO and SEM can help you advance your positions on SERPs. Unlike SEO, however, SEM also includes search engine advertising (SEA). In this sense, SEO can be viewed as a free marketing solution (for the most part), while SEM encompasses paid means as well.

Search engine advertising is basically buying ad space on SERPs. You can pay for the advertisement of your website, and every time users will type specific keywords in the search bar, your site will appear at the top of a search results page with an “Ad” label. This means your website can get immediate exposure as long as you are willing to pay.

This kind of advertising is also called Pay Per Click (PPC) because advertisers usually pay a fixed rate every time a user clicks on a promoted search result. PPC advertisements can be configured for every search engine. Currently, the indisputable market leader is Google’s AdWords.


Summarizing the differences between SEO and SEM


Meaning: Search Engine Optimization

Description: A set of methods applied to improve a website position in SERPs by optimizing its content and searchability.

Cost: Free or relatively inexpensive

Traffic received: Organic

Meaning: Search Engine Marketing

Description: A marketing technique aimed at improving a website position in SERPs by means of SEO and search engine advertising (SEO + SEA = SEM).

Cost: Expensive

Traffic received: Organic + Paid


Which is better: SEM or SEO?

SEM is not better than SEO and vice versa simply because one includes the other. SEO is focused predominantly on the cultivation of search engine friendly content and optimizing technical parameters of a website to facilitate the search. SEM, while doing the same as SEO, also addresses online advertisement. The ultimate purpose of both is to improve website ranking and online visibility.

Ideally, SEO and search engine advertising should go hand in hand. Although a successful PPC campaign can bring you lots of exposure and result in a significant traffic surge, its effect is temporary. As soon as you stop paying for the ads, your website will be removed from top search results.

However, if your site is backed up with solid SEO, your visibility will still be on a reasonable level. Taking an SEO approach provides you with long-term possibilities to advance to the top of SERPs. Advertising, on the other hand, is nothing but a quick fix unless you don’t put any efforts in SEO.

Nevertheless, online advertising could be a real lifesaver if your website has just been created. Making your website visible by means of SEO will take a lot of time, while a consistent PPC campaign can get you in front of your audience in the blink of an eye.

Therefore, to achieve the ultimate visibility on search engines, it makes sense to start the promotion with online advertising and gradually improve SEO as you go along until your website is optimized enough for the organic search.


Brenda Peterson

Brenda is Technical Specialist at Ning