SEM vs. SEO: What’s the Difference?



Maybe it’s the only field that uses more abbreviations and initialization as online marketing is military.

The military uses them to save time.

Sometimes it seems that our industry only uses them to confuse newcomers.

And it is not uncommon for them to be confused even by experienced professionals.

Some of the most common mistakes happen when it comes to similar and related but distinctly different concepts of search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM).

Once upon a time, in the quiet days of the early internet (that’s around 2001), SEO referred to a part of SEM.

However, as the language and nuance of online marketing changed, search engine marketing began to refer to a specific type of digital marketing. So what’s the difference?

It is also sometimes called organic (SEO) and inorganic (SEM) search, and both focus on using Google (and to a lesser extent other search engines) to drive traffic to a particular site.

From a high-level perspective (and no worries, we’ll delve into the details a bit later) it’s SEO the process of improving your website to generate traffic while SEM using paid methods to appear in the search.

Don’t be sick if you mix up these terms. This happens all the time.

To help you avoid unpleasant accidents when talking to other digital marketers, we’ve put together this handy guide to give you an overview of these concepts.

confused? Don’t be, in the end everything will be clear. Now let’s get started.

PPC, another variable in the mix

When we start to make things even more confusing, let’s add another initialization to the mix: PPC or pay per click.

Okay, this one isn’t really fair, because PPC is just another term for SEM – or at least part of it.

PPC is most likely a term that developed during the early search engine strategies in the Wild West, when different people used different terms for the same thing.

Over time, pay per click and search engine marketing meant the same thing: paid digital marketing ads on search platforms.

Pay-per-click, whether called PPC, CPC (cost-per-click), paid search, or search ads, refers to paid search marketing, usually through search engines like Google and Bing.

Other terms and tactics used in digital marketing initiatives – especially those related to search marketing tactics (both paid and organic) – may not be as simple and clearly defined.

What is the difference between SEO and SEM / PPC?

We know that SEO is search engine optimization.

However, marketers do not optimize for search engines. We optimize content and websites for search engines (and also people) so that they can better understand, access and direct our site.

Again, initialization doesn’t always make sense. So, of course, this is a bit illogical.

Like other things in life that don’t always match, there are some acronyms that will never make sense.

Like a Humvee that doesn’t mean any word that starts with U or E. (It actually means a highly mobile multi-purpose wheeled vehicle and originated from the original acronym HMMWV.)

We also found that PPC marketing (at least now) equals or is a very large part of SEM. Here they overlap:

  • Both are paid initiatives.
  • They both need a budget.
  • Both give a lot of money to search engines like Google and other advertising platforms.

But while Wikipedia defines SEM as “a form of internet marketing that involves promoting websites by increasing their visibility on search engine results pages (SERPs) primarily through paid advertising” is not so quick to call them exactly the same.

In fact, pay per click marketing has its own Wikipedia page separate from search engine marketing (although there is a lot of inconsistency and confusion on the site).

The bottom line is this:

SEO is not an integral part of SEM.

While PPC is usually the largest and most demanding component of SEM, both PPC and SEM are paid initiatives that offer real-time data, ROI, and protected data that can only be accessed by advertisers on certain platforms.

Why it matters

Consistency is the main reason why it is important to clarify these terms.

Too many novice marketers or non-search value marketers have adopted these industry definitions and crossed them out, merged them, replaced them, or used them in a way that only further diminished their true meaning.

And even well-experienced marketers who simply disagreed or perhaps even fully understood the terms themselves are helping to contribute to the turnaround.

Conferences have set up full segments of their educational offerings under the SEM Naming Convention when it comes to strictly paid market efforts, but these efforts are not conducted exclusively through search engines.

SEM, at least in this regard, includes PPC ads in search engines, as well as on third-party platforms such as Amazon and YouTube, as well as industry-focused platforms such as Houzz, Thumbtack or Yelp. It also includes display ads and remarketing efforts.

And as the opportunity for social media advertising continues to increase, it is also commonly used for paid advertising on these networks.

Here in the Search Engine Journal we do our part. Maintaining consistency of definitions and their use will be the best way to organize information in a way that makes sense to marketers.

It also helps us as marketers to pass on our thoughts and ideas to customers and stakeholders, peers or friends who are interested in what exactly we make a living from.

However, you should never assume that someone else knows what you are referring to when using these terms.

Be concise and explain exactly what you are talking about, and make sure everyone agrees on the definitions of the terms.

Before we continue, we summarize:

  • SEO is an organic effort that goes into search engine marketing.
  • SEM and PPC initiatives are paid for through search and other platforms.

Now that we’ve fixed that, let’s move on.

Should I use SEO or SEM?

Now that we hope you understand the differences between SEO and SEM, you are no doubt asking yourself: Which one should I use?

Ideally both.

However, if you don’t have bandwidth and can only choose one, a few things to keep in mind:

What are your goals?

If you want to drive traffic quickly, whether you want to drive sales, try a new offer, or just give your site more exposure, SEM is the choice for you.

SEO, on the other hand, is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes more time to see results, but it’s good for long-term growth and component values.

What is your budget?

Obviously, SEM campaigns will cost you. After all, there is a reason to call it pay per click.

If your budgets are small or you have low product margins, it may not make sense to implement SEM.

SEO, on the other hand, is more of a time investment than a financial one. And you can probably attract people who are already on your payroll to help, such as writers, IT staff, and marketers.

How successful is your site right now?

If your site is already ranked high by your keywords, your SEO needs will be driven primarily by changes in Google’s algorithm and competition.

In this situation, SEM is a great addition. Conversely, if you don’t receive a lot of organic traffic, you’ll probably need to edit your SEO before you start spending money on paid ads.

How much visitor data do you have or need?

SEM allows you to capture much more visitor data than organic search.

You can run your PPC campaigns through dashboards like Google Analytics, where you can view clicks, impressions, CTRs, sessions, conversions, and more.

You can then use this information for monitor trends and attract new customers.

What is your online reputation?

SEO is a great way to control the story of your brand.

With the same techniques you use to climb to the top of search rankings, you can control how your organization looks online.

In one well-known (though unsuccessful) case, UC-Davis paid the consulting firm $ 175,000. wipe the internet negative posts.

Of course, if you can swing it, you should combine SEO and SEM as complementary search strategies.

This way, you can use the data you collect from your PPC campaigns to improve your SEO campaigns. This will give you a better idea of ​​what exactly your audience is looking for when they click on your links so you can tailor your content accordingly.

The combination of both practices also allows you to create remarketing.

If your SEO work encourages visitors but you don’t see the conversions you want, you can use SEM to actively achieve these goals and bring them back to your site.

Combining SEO and SEM can also give you complete dominance on search engine results pages (SERP).

If you have the highest ranking on the first page of results and paid ads on the same page, you just requested a lot of real estate.

The downside of this, though, is that your paid ads can ruin your organic traffic, costing you unnecessary money.


Hopefully, by this point, we’ve already successfully presented to you the difference between SEO and SEM. But if it wasn’t clear, here it is again for the people behind:

SEO uses unpaid tactics to organically drive traffic to your site. This is a slower process (usually three to six months), but can pay long-term dividends.

SEM, including PPC, is the use of paid search platforms to drive targeted traffic to your site. It requires a budget, but it can bring results very quickly.

Too many people see them as the same thing or as completely separate initiatives and miss the benefits of sharing them.

To achieve the best results, both must be part of your digital marketing strategy.

Each of them has different advantages and disadvantages, but if properly combined, they can provide you with a truly competitive advantage.

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