SEM vs. SEO: What’s The Difference?

CSS. HTTP. URL. programming language.

It is possible that the only field that uses more acronyms and formatting than internet marketing is the military field.

The military uses them to save time.

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

It is not uncommon for even experienced professionals to confuse them.

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

Once upon a time, in the early halcyon days of the Internet (i.e. around 2001), SEO referred to as part of search engine marketing.

But, as the language and nuances of internet marketing shifted, search engine marketing came to refer to a specific type of digital marketing. So what’s the difference?

Sometimes also referred to as organic search (SEO) and inorganic search (SEM), both focus on using Google (and to a lesser extent other search engines) to drive traffic to a specific website.

From a high-level point of view (and don’t worry, we’ll dive into the details later), SEO is the process of optimizing your website to generate traffic, while SEM uses paid methods to show up in searches.

Don’t feel bad if you confuse these terms. It happens all the time.

To help you avoid any embarrassing mishaps when speaking with other digital marketers, we’ve put together this handy guide to give you an overview of these concepts.

shy? Don’t be, everything will become clear in the end. Let’s start now.

PPC, another variable in the mix

When we get started, just to make everything more confusing, let’s add another configuration into the mix: PPC, or Pay Per Click.

Well, it’s not really fair because PPC is just another term for SEM – or at least part of it.

PPC is likely a term that developed during the Wild West days of early search engine strategies when different people used different terms to refer to the same thing.

In the end, PPC marketing and search engine marketing have come to mean the same thing: paid digital marketing ads on search platforms.

Pay Per Click, regardless of whether it is called PPC or CPC (i.e. cost per click), paid search or search advertising refers to paid search marketing, usually through search engines such as Google and Bing.

Other terms and tactics used in digital marketing initiatives—particularly those associated with search marketing methods (both paid and organic)—may not be so simple and obvious.

What is the difference between SEO and SEM/PPC?

We know that SEO is search engine optimization.

However, marketers do not do SEO. We improve content and websites for search engines (and humans too), so they can better understand, reach, and direct searchers to our website.

Again, principled doesn’t always make sense. So, naturally, this is a bit illogical.

Just like other things in life that don’t always add up, there are some acronyms that won’t make sense either.

Like Humvee, which doesn’t mean any words beginning with a U or E in it. (It actually stands for High-Mobility, Multi-Purpose Wheeled Vehicle, and it originated from the original acronym, HMMWV.)

We’ve also determined that PPC marketing (at least for now) is the same or a very big part of search engine marketing. Here is where they overlap:

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

But, while Wikipedia Determines 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,” isn’t easy to call it the exact same thing.

In fact, PPC marketing has its own characteristics Wikipedia page Separate from search engine marketing (although there are a lot of inconsistencies and confusion throughout the page).

The bottom line is:

SEO is not a component of search engine marketing.

And while pay-per-click is typically the largest and most demanding component of search engine marketing, both PPC and SEM are paid initiatives that provide real-time data, ROI, and data that is not protected. It can only be accessed by advertisers on certain platforms.

why does it matter

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

Too many novice marketers or marketers who are not specialists in maximizing value through research have embraced these industry definitions and sidestepped them, merging them, confusing them, or using them in a way that only dilutes their true meaning.

And even seasoned marketers who simply didn’t agree or perhaps fully understand the terms themselves help contribute to turning the tide, too.

Conferences have created entire segments of their educational presentations on search engine marketing naming convention when referring to marketing efforts that are strictly paid, but those efforts are not performed strictly by search engines.

SEM, at least from this perspective, includes PPC advertising on search engines but also 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 social media advertising opportunity continues to grow, it is often used to refer to paid advertising on those networks as well.

Here at Search Engine Journal, we’re doing our part. Keeping definitions and their uses consistent will be the best way to keep information organized in a way that makes sense to marketers.

It also helps us, as marketers, to communicate our thoughts and ideas to customers and stakeholders, peers, or a friend who is curious about exactly what we do for a living.

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

Be brief, explain exactly what you’re talking about, and make sure everyone agrees on the definitions of the terms.

Before we go any further, let’s recap:

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

Now that we’re out of the way, let’s move on.

Should I use SEO or SEM?

Now that you hope you have an understanding of the differences between SEO and SEM, you are undoubtedly asking yourself a question: Which one should I use?

Ideally, both.

But if you don’t have the bandwidth and can only choose one, here are some things to keep in mind:

What are your goals?

If you want to quickly increase traffic, whether to promote a sale, try out a new offer, or give your website more exposure, SEM is the right option for you.

On the other hand, SEO is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes more time to show results but is beneficial for long term growth and compound value.

What is your budget?

Obviously, search engine marketing campaigns will cost you money. After all, there is a reason called pay-per-click.

If your budgets are tight or you have low product margins, it may not make sense to run search engine marketing.

On the other hand, SEO is more of an investment of time than money. And you can probably enlist the people who are already on your payroll like writers, IT staff, and marketers to help.

How is your site currently doing?

If your website is already ranking highly for your keywords, your SEO needs will be primarily driven by changes to Google’s algorithm and competition.

In this case, SEM is a significant increase. Conversely, if you’re not getting a lot of organic traffic, you’ll probably want to rank up your SEO before you start spending money on paid advertising.

How much data do you have or need about visitors?

Search engine marketing allows you to capture a lot more visitor data than organic search.

You can run your PPC campaigns through dashboards like Google Analytics, where you can see Clicks, Impressions, CTR, Sessions, Conversions, etc.

You can then use this data to track trends and attract new customers.

How is your online reputation?

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a great way to control the narrative around your brand.

By using the same techniques you use to climb to the top of the search rankings, you can control the way your organization appears online.

In one famous (though not so successful) example, UC-Davis paid a consulting firm $175,000 Internet scrub of negative posts.

Of course, if you can change 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 to it.

The combination of both processes also allows you to create remarketing campaigns.

If your SEO work is driving visitors, but you’re not seeing the conversions you want, you can use search engine marketing to actively reach those goals and drive them back to your website.

The combination of SEO and SEM can also allow you to completely control your search engine results pages (SERPs).

If you have higher rankings on the first page of results, plus paid listings on the same page, you’ve just claimed a lot of real estate.

However, the downside to this is that your paid listings may cannibalize your organic traffic, costing you unnecessary money.


Hopefully, at this point, we’ve succeeded in swaying you with the difference between search engine optimization and search engine marketing. But in case that wasn’t clear, here it is again for the people in the back:

SEO It uses unpaid tactics to drive traffic to your website naturally. It is a slower process (usually three to six months) but can pay dividends in the long term.

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

Many people see these as the same thing or entirely separate initiatives and miss out on the benefits of using them together.

For best results, both should be part of your digital marketing strategy.

They each have different strengths and weaknesses, but when combined properly, they can give you a real competitive advantage.

More resources:

  • SEO vs PPC: Some Forgotten Facts
  • What does “do search engine optimization” mean?
  • PPC 101: A Complete Guide to the Basics of PPC Marketing

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