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SEO vs SEM | What Is The Difference Between SEO and SEM?

Marketing has evolved so as the language we express as online marketers. SEO and SEM is one of those misunderstood terms in digital marketing.

Both terms are often used interchangeably, which makes matters even worse.

It is important to understand the difference between the two terms and that they are different.

And that’s is why I will be clearing all misconceptions and helping you to better understand the difference between Search Engine Optimization and  Search Engine Marketing.

We have a course that teaches SEM and SEO for beginners, you can click here to learn more about our digital marketing course and how you can grow your business using the various digital tools.

The difference between SEO and SEM is simply that Search Engine Optimization is part of Search engine marketing or Search marketing as it is widely known.

Both processes aim at enhancing visibility in search engines.

SEO is about optimising your website to get better rankings in the search results while SEM goes beyond SEO.

It involves other methods that can get you more search engine visitors like PPC (Pay Per Click) advertising.

Let’s look at these two search engine terms in more details.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)


For the goal of doing a comparison between SEO and SEM, it is important to start with the meaning of SEO so that it is clear for everyone what the difference between the two is.

What is SEO?

SEO is the process of optimising your website for the purpose of getting free quality traffic from search engines.

An optimised website is more easily recognised by Search engine crawlers and this improves the chances of ranking higher for relevant keywords in SERPS.

The world of SEO is ever-changing and evolving to keep up with Google’s algorithms, but one thing remains constant: SEO is made up of 3 major factors which determine your SEO efforts.

Technical, on-page and off-page activities as its three main pillars.

Technical SEO consists of:

Technical SEO Factor Definition

This aspect of SEO is focused on how well search engine spiders can crawl your site and index your content.

  • Optimised page speed to ensure your pages are loading pretty fast on both PC and mobile device.
  • Proper URL permalink structure.
  • Free of spam.
  • Fixed broken links on your website to avoid 404 error pages.
  • Have a working XML sitemap to notify Google of website new updates.
  • Mobile responsive isn’t an option anymore.
  • Add your site to webmasters or search console, this is one of the foundational steps to getting on any search engine.

On-page SEO consists of:

On-page SEO Factor Definition

This aspect of SEO is concerned primarily with the content of the site and how well it is optimised for the relevant keyword. And how well it provides a good user experience for visitors.

  • Optimized metadata, including the page title tag, meta description, heading tags, and image ALT tag, which incorporates target keywords
  • Well-written and optimised page copy that incorporates target keywords
  • Simple and well-formatted page URLs with selective keywords
  • Social sharing integration within your content

Off-page SEO consists of:

This aspect of SEO is concerned primarily with inbound links from other websites to your site. Natural links from authoritative and relevant websites act as an independent “vote of confidence” which helps search engines trust your website more.

  • Link building to attract and obtain quality inbound links (aka “backlinks“)
    • This makes up the majority of off-page SEO
  • Social signals (e.g., increasing traffic to a website from social media sharing)
  • Attracting attention from social bookmarking sites like Reddit, Digg and Stumbleupon (although, not so effective anymore)

Benefits of SEO

Increased Traffic: Top positions on the search engine result pages receive a majority of the impressions and clicks, so ranking in these top positions can result in significant traffic increases for your website.

SEO also focuses on creating informative and keyword relevant title tags and meta descriptions, which show up in the result pages.

Having optimized tags and descriptions helps to increase click-through rate, which also promotes increases in qualified web traffic.

READ: How to Drive Traffic To Your Website Through Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

ROI: SEO provides trackable and quantifiable results, regardless of whether you are an e-commerce or non-eCommerce site so there are no qualms when it comes to ROI.

SEO agencies are able to track nearly every aspect of their strategy, like increases in rankings, traffic and conversions.

Comprehensive analytics also provide the ability to drill down at a granular level and see demographic information and other engagement metrics for individuals who have interacted with your website.

For E-commerce sites, SEO agencies can see which paths users take in order to complete a sale, all the way down to which keyword they used to search for you prior to purchasing.

For non-eCommerce sites, you can attribute values to your lead conversions, like a ‘contact us’ form fill-out, and calculate the value of your SEO strategy that way.

Cost-effectiveness: SEO is one of the most cost-effective marketing strategies because it targets users who are actively looking for your products and services online. SEO’s inbound nature helps businesses save money as opposed to outbound strategies like cold-calling.

SEO is one of the most cost-effective marketing strategies because it targets users who are actively looking for your products and services online. SEO's inbound nature helps businesses save money as opposed to outbound strategies… Click To Tweet

While cold-calling can still be an effective strategy, the leads generated cost 61% more than leads generated by an inbound strategy like SEO.

And since SEO also targets users who are actively searching for products and services like yours, the traffic resulting from SEO is more qualified than many other marketing strategies, resulting in cost-savings for companies.

Increased site usability: In an effort to make your website easier to navigate for the search engines, SEO simultaneously helps to make your website more navigable for users as well.

SEO consists of rearranging the site’s architecture and links to make pages within the website easier to find and navigate.

This not only makes it easier for search engines to crawl your site and find pages but also makes it easier for users to find information on your website as well.

Brand Awareness: Since top position rankings result in significant impressions, having your website in these top positions on the result pages translates to more exposure for your website.

Plus, being on the first page for your targeted keywords not only helps users to associate your brand with those keywords, but it instils trust since companies on the first page are generally perceived to be more trustworthy.

The more your pages and content rank in high positions in the search engines, the more chances you have for users to see your content and associate with your brand.

In essence, a large part of SEO is creating valuable, high-quality content (e.g., blog articles and web page copy) that your target audience will find helpful.

Over time, this results in increased quality organic traffic to your website, more opportunities for inbound links and, most importantly, more conversions and sales.

Be sure to pay attention to these technical, on-page and off-page tactics to ensure your landing pages, web copy and blog articles are optimized for search.

In one of my previous post, I explained what is SEO and why is it important. I have also outlined the most important SEO tips and SEO tools you will need.

Search Engine Marketing (SEM)


According to Wikipedia, Search engine marketing (SEM) is a form of Internet marketing that involves the promotion of websites by increasing their visibility in search engine results pages (SERPs) primarily through paid advertising.

SEM may incorporate search engine optimisation (SEO), which adjusts or rewrites website content and site architecture to achieve a higher ranking in search engine results pages to enhance pay per click (PPC) listings.

Most search engines have an ad platform for search engine marketing.

The most well-known (and effective) platform to use is Google AdWords. Bing Ads and Yahoo Search Ads are also both SEM platforms that you can use.

It’s important to note that—while all SEM platforms utilize a pay-per-click (PPC) advertising model—not all PPC is SEM.

Facebook Ads and other social media ad platforms, for example, are pay-per-click platforms that do not fall under the SEM category.

Instead of showing your ads to people who are searching for similar content like search ads do, social media sites introduce your product to people who happen to be just browsing through their feeds.

These are two very, very different types of online advertising.


Since we are focusing on Search Engine Marketing (Advertising through search), then here are some of SEM features and benefits.

Benefits of Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

Geotargeting: Whether you want to reach potential clients in your own backyard or halfway across the world, you can target searchers down to their city-level location (although that level of pay per click targeting works better in North America than other parts of the world). Choose to target a radius around a zip code, metro area, state, country, or add in regions of interest.

Control: The levels of control over paid search with platforms like Google AdWords and Bing Ads are truly astonishing, giving you control over:

  • What keyword searches trigger your ad
  • Physical location of the searcher (geo-targeting mentioned above)
  • Time of day
  • Day of week/season
  • Device type (e.g. computer vs. phone – and which type of phone)
  • Network (e.g. Google only or its Search or Display Networks)
  • Ad position
  • & more

Pay Per Action: Paid search is commonly referred to as pay per click advertising because the most common form of ad buy with paid search is that you only pay when someone clicks on your ad.

We like to refer to traffic from paid search as “doubly targeted” because the person has to:

Type in something related to what you sell, and Look at all the information on the screen before deciding to click on your ad because she or he expects it to provide the information she or he seeks.

Free Exposure: The corollary of only paying when someone clicks on your ad in the pay per click model is that you get all the additional views of your ad and company name for free. This is just one reason that makes paid search particularly valuable for branding campaigns.

Other benefits are: 

  • Increase brand awareness and brand equity of product.
  • Increase Visibility – Increase in web site traffic.
  • Advertise to an audience that’s already interested in you.
  • Increase in targeted leads.
  • Target your ads to users based on languages and locations.
  • Competition advantage – Marketers can enable users to select their product over their competitors.
  • Greater ROI — Compared to other advertising media, paid search strategies are more efficient.

For all the reasons listed above and more, the single most important benefit of paid search engine marketing is just that it works.

That’s why U.S. advertisers spend more than $12 billion per year on paid search, including top advertisers spending more than $8 million per month on Google AdWords alone.

 SEO vs SEM (Difference explained in the screenshot)


What is the main difference between SEO and SEM?

What is the main difference between SEO and SEM_

The main difference between these two digital marketing terms is that search engine optimisation is simply a component of search engine marketing.

As mentioned above, SEM includes components of paid search, such as PPC and also SMM (social media marketing).

It is important to note that you should never use the terms SEO and SEM interchangeably because although they work hand in hand, they are not the same term.

In essence;

According to the screenshots shared above…

You would deduce that SEM (Search Engine Marketing) is ranking for relevant keywords by paying (CPC bids).

Meanwhile, the SEO is just a component of SEM that allows you to rank your content/website for the same keyword (FREE)!

Meanwhile, the SEO is just a component of SEM that allows you to rank your content/website for the same keyword (FREE)! Click To Tweet

In conclusion:

With all the above explanation, I hope it gives you a clearer understanding of SEO and SEM.

So, it is not to be confused anymore.


SEM offers a set of marketing methods that increase the visibility of your website in search engine results pages (SERPs).

As mentioned, Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Pay Per Click (PPC) advertising among others help in this process of making your business (website) visible and easily accessible on the Internet.

We offer a digital marketing training course that helps you to grasp the essential Search Engine Marketing skill you need to excel in the digital sphere.

You can click here to attend our digital marketing training course today.

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