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What’s the Real Difference Between SEO and SEM?

Over 50% of all website traffic starts from an organic search. With search engine marketing (SEM) and search engine optimization (SEO), you can reach customers online. When they search for your product or service, your digital ads or web pages could appear.

What is the difference between SEO and SEM, exactly? What are the different benefits of SEO vs SEM? Keep reading to find out!

Learning the difference between SEO vs SEM can help you make a more informed decision when developing your marketing strategy. You can determine which of the two will help you maximize your reach online.

Boosting your brand’s visibility can help you generate more leads and sales. You can dedicate more of your budget to the strategy that will help your business grow. 

Read on to learn everything you need to know about SEO vs SEM.

What is SEO?

Before we discuss the difference between SEO and SEM, let’s look at each strategy separately. What exactly is search engine optimization?

SEO is an organic search engine marketing strategy. You can use SEO to rank higher on search engines like Google. Your website content will appear based on the keywords someone uses during a search.

You can develop an SEO strategy to rank for specific keywords. Then, you’ll have an easier time reaching your ideal customers.

SEO is an inbound marketing strategy. You won’t have to use intrusive techniques to engage with your audience. Instead, your content will appear in front of consumers who already want and need your offerings.

You could have an easier time turning those customers into leads and sales as a result.


An effective SEO strategy involves:

  • Audience research
  • Keyword research
  • Content creation
  • Web design and development
  • On-page SEO
  • Off-page SEO
  • Link-building

Your audience research will ensure you’re creating content with the right audience in mind. Otherwise, your posts won’t appeal to your audience. Your content won’t appear for relevant searches as a result.

Instead, you need to make sure you’re appealing to the user’s search intent by showing them the content they want to find.

Keyword research will help you focus on words and phrases that have a high search volume. Then, you’ll create content based on your keyword research. Content can include videos, blog posts, infographics, eBooks, and polls.

Your website’s design and development can have a major impact on your SEO rankings. You’ll need to make sure your site is fast, mobile-optimized, and secure. Google also looks for sites that offer a positive user experience. 

In addition to optimizing your web content (on-page SEO), you’ll also need to use tactics beyond your site (off-page SEO). Link-building is an important off-page SEO tactic.

In fact, backlinks are one of the top ranking factors. Generating more backlinks will help you generate more organic traffic. 

Gaining high-quality backlinks from other websites can help boost your rankings. As your rankings improve, more people will find your brand online. 

The Benefits

Consumers are already online, searching for businesses like yours. SEO will help you reach those customers to generate leads and sales. 

Other benefits of SEO include:

  • Generating traffic to your website
  • Boosting your credibility
  • Ranking ahead of competitors
  • Establishing yourself as a thought leader
  • Increasing brand visibility 
  • Building brand trust
  • Generating leads
  • Improving your ROI

SEO is also cost-effective. You won’t need to pay each time someone clicks on a link to your website. Instead, you can use this organic marketing strategy to build your business.

What is SEM?

Search engine marketing involves a mix of different marketing tactics, including SEO. A few other tactics you can use include:

  • Display advertising
  • Remarketing
  • Geotargeting
  • Video ads
  • Shopping advertising
  • Pay-per-click (PPC) advertising

With pay-per-click advertising, you’ll pay each time someone clicks on one of your ads. How much you pay can vary based on the keywords you’re targeting. 

Your ads can appear based on demographics (location, age, household income) or specific keywords. Precise targeting can give you more control over your advertising efforts. You can focus on consumers most likely to become paying customers. 

PPC ads can appear as both text or visual ads. With display ads, you can choose to pay each time someone views your ads. 

Display ads can appear in different formats, including HTML-5 ads, videos, and animations.


You could blow through your entire search engine marketing budget if you lack experience. It’s important to strategize before creating your ads.

An effective SEM strategy includes:

  • Audience research
  • Keyword research
  • Campaign creation
  • Ad creation
  • Landing page creation
  • Data analyzing

Analyzing the results from your campaigns will help you make improvements. You can improve your cost-per-acquisition and ROI over time. 

The Benefits

SEM is a great way to reach consumers online. You can appear while they’re in the mood to shop, increasing the chances of a lead. Precise targeting will ensure you make the most of your budget, too.

Other SEM benefits include:

  • Immediate results
  • Complete control over ad spend
  • The ability to make fast changes to your ads

You can also choose to work with different platforms, including Google Ads and Facebook Ads.

What’s the Difference?

What exactly is the difference between SEO and SEM, then?

The key difference is SEO is an organic strategy while SEM involves paid advertising tactics.

With SEO, it can also take time before your rankings improve. With SEM, you can start displaying ads right away. You could generate immediate conversions and sales once your ads are live. 

With SEO, you’ll also need to keep track of algorithm changes that can affect your rankings. 

You’re not limited to one strategy, though. In fact, one strategy can benefit the other.

Google will improve your organic rankings when you start generating traffic. You can use SEM to direct more people to your website. Then, your SEO rankings will improve.

Using both strategies can help you reach more customers, generate website traffic, and gain leads.

Search Engine Strategies: Unlocking the Difference Between SEO and SEM

To recap, what’s the difference between SEO and SEM? The former is an organic strategy while the latter involves paid advertising. You’re not limited to using one over the other, though.

Instead, you can use both marketing strategies to expand your reach and boost your business. 

Ready to start marketing? 

Get in touch today to see how we can help. 

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