What’s the Difference Between SEO and SEM?

In the digital world, things can get confusing quickly. Especially, if you’re not working in this field every day. Topics like search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) can easily get confused. The fact that these terms are often used interchangeably, doesn’t help either. However, it’s important to understand the differences between the two.

To help you understand the difference, we’ll answer the question; what is SEO and SEM? Then we’ll get into the nitty-gritty, and talk about the differences between SEO and SEM. So let’s get started!

seo vs sem

What is SEO?

First off, let’s demystify what SEO stands for. SEO is short for search engine optimization. According to the balance SEO’s definition is,“the art and science of making web pages attractive to the search engines.” SEO is the practice of generating more quantity and quality of traffic to your website by using organic search tactics. Overall, SEO tactics help your web page’s rank position on the search engines when relevant search quiries. Top positioning is important because various studies have proven that the most clicks come to those sites at the top of the first page of the result's page.

To get these top spots on a result page, your content needs to be indexed by the search engines to identify the relevant keywords within your site. This will allow the search engine to link your site to a user who uses the same or similar keywords in the search box. Each search engine has bots that will crawl your website looking for certain elements like meta tags, headers, content keywords, etcr. All search engines have their different algorithms they use to looking for specific page attributes as well as how to link the page to each search quaries. For more information about how search engines rank pages, check out this moz article.

SEO is a complex marketing technique. Here’s an example of how we apply SEO best practices at 46Mile. For one, we have an SEO specialist, who first starts with, you guessed it, research. Our SEO specialist will use the latests tools and methods to uncover the best keywords that we as an agency need to rank well on. From there he can suggest the webpage titles; including blog articles, like this one, the best article-length needed to be competitive, and what combination of keywords to use. Our goal for each piece of content to have the potential to rank based on the target keywords we’ve selected. To check on our success, we look at multiple factors such as position compared to our competitors, the number of pageviews, backlink traffic, keyword rankings, etc.

SEO is a long-term strategy. It takes time to see big results, but in the end, using these organic search tactics will save your company money.

To help your SEO improve there are two ways you can go about doing so by using on-page and off-page SEO techniques.

On-page SEO

Because SEO is the practice of making web pages more attractive to search engines, search specialists have found that optimizing individual pages can help your SEO. 

On-page SEO can be defined as the process of optimizing individual web pages to rank higher and earn more relevant traffic in search engines. It considers all of the aspects of a webpage that will affect your rankings and search results.

Here are a couple of page characteristics you can change to help optimize your pages:

• Meta tags

• Title tags

• Meta descriptions

• Heading tags

All of these elements can help search engines and users determine whether your content is relevant to their specific search needs. The better your pages can convey the topic of the content, the better chance to increase rankings, generate more traffic and user engagement.

Off-page SEO

Off-page SEO is almost the opposite of on-page SEO. Off-page SEO is the actions that are taken outside of your own website, but still, impact your search engine result pages (SERPs).

In order to improve your off-page SEO, you need to improve the search engine's and user's perception of the site’s relevance, popularity, trustworthiness, and authority. One way to improve your off-page SEO is to get backlinks or inbound links.

A backlink is when another web page or website links back to your website. The link is basically a way of sending traffic to your site and promoting your website. However, backlinks do more than that - they act as a vote of confidence that your content is credible.

To help your off-page SEO here are some ideas you can use to get backlinks:

• Connect your website to your social media pages.

• Submit guest blogs to industry related websites.

• Reach out to influencers and bloggers.

Both on-page and off-page SEO work together to help your business have good SEO. A website with bad on-page SEO and perfect off-page SEO still won’t rank well due to search engines’ algorithms that looks at both. This is why it’s important to use both techniques together.

subscribe to our monthly newsletter

What is SEM?

To start, SEM stands for search engine marketing. According to Wikipedia, SEM can be defined as, “a form of Internet marketing that involves the promotion of websites by increasing their visibility in search engine results pages (SERPs) through optimization and advertising.” Confusingly, SEM includes SEO tactics such as keyword research, obtaining backlinks, and proper page setup (think meta tags etc.). SEM also includes paid tactics like:

• Paid search ads

• Pay-per-click (PPC)

• Cost-per-click (CPC)

• Cost-per-thousand impressions (CPM)

The most popular platform for paid search is Google, but Bing and Yahoo also offer SEM capabilities. If your business needs fast results, using SEM is probably the right tactic to use rather than SEO. However, SEM works best when it’s combined with search engine optimization techniques as well.


So, now that we’ve gone over both -- let's talk about the difference between the two tactics. Is one of these really better than the other?



SEO is about increasing your website traffic by getting your site to have higher SERPs. SEM in comparison, is considered internet marketing that helps increase your website’s visibility -- this can be through organic search results and paid advertising. It’s important to remember that SEM includes SEO as well as other search tactics.

A big difference between SEO and SEM, is that SEO is simply an element of SEM. SEM is very broad tactic it even includes social media marketing (SMM). SEO and SEM work together but they aren’t the same term.

SEO is an organic (non-paid) marketing tactic; which means the SEO efforts are earned rather than paid for. SEO helps by strategically working with search engines and the search landscape to create content that has all of the compontents needed to preform well.

On the other hand, SEM includes paid advertising. SEM tactics focus on using paid ads to help generate traffic and leads for your business. SEM is great for businesses that need immediate visibility, whereas SEO is a long-term strategy. However, SEM needs SEO to work well -- Google uses the principles of SEO to determine how good a campaign is structured (this impacts the bids, quality scores, and overall performance of the campaign). These two technique really work hand-in-hand.

SEO Advantages

Both SEO and SEM have their advantages. Let’s take a look at some of the advantages of doing SEO for your business.

Low cost: SEO uses organic tactics, which means this can be done with time and expertise. Unlike, SEM it doesn’t require an advertising budget.

• Link building: SEO can help with your off-page SEO and work to get your website backlinks. Backlinks build up your business’ credibility because they act like a vote of confidence for your content.

• Search credibility: When your company is able to rank as well as show up multiple times for a search result users are 50% more likely to click on one of your pages. SEO help to grow your SERPs.

• Gain market share: With better page rankings, your business is more likely to grab customers over lower-ranking competitors.

• Mobile search: With new technologies emerging and becoming more popular it’s important to cater your SEO for different types of usage. For example, mobile searches and the increasingly popular voice search.

For even more SEO advantages, check out our other blog, The Top 8 Reasons Why Businesses Need SEO.

SEM Advantages

Now that you’ve seen some of the advantages of SEO, it’s time to take a look at some of SEM’s advantages. SEM can help your business with the following:

• Super targeted: With paid search, there are multiple settings and target options that will allow your advertising campaign to only reach specific people.

• Quick results: SEM can get fast results. If you know what you’re doing, your business’ website can increase in rankings almost immediately.

• Increase name recognition: If your pages rank on the first page, people are more likely to see it over lower ranked pages; ultimately build up your name recognition.

• Budget control: With pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns you only pay when someone clicks, and you can set your daily and monthly budgets. This makes SEM flexible for any budget.

• Clear ROI: Your campaigns make it easy to track when visitors convert into leads or make online purchases. This makes it easy for marketers to attribute ROI to SEM campaigns.

Which one is right for you? SEO or SEM?

This is a debate that marketers will continue to argue about for ages. In reality, the answer it depends on what your business needs. Think about what your goals are for doing either SEO or SEM. However, one point that I think is important and irrefutable is SEM cannot succeed without the help of organic SEO.

If your business is first launching your site and needs immediate visibility or needs fast results, SEM is probably going to be the best course of action for quick traffic. Running a PPC campaign will be faster and easier to set-up than starting an SEO strategy. However, it wouldn’t be a smart use of your money to do a PPC campaign and not do any search engine optimization. 

SEO is a long-term strategy. Keep in mind that it’ll take longer to see results, so be patient and continuously optimize your SEO. However, in the end, it will be less costly for your business. In addition, you will have built search credibility that you might not establish with PPC.

When it comes to picking a tactic, you really have to think about your company’s specific needs. However, knowing the differences between SEO and SEM and their unique advantages will help you make a decision.

On-Demand Webinar on SEO

By Nina Foo | March 01, 2018 |