What is the Difference Between SEO and SEM?


 25 Feb, 2019

Marketing has significantly evolved over the last decade. There has been a huge rise in a number of options available to the businesses for marketing their products and services. However, the rise in options has also led to growing complexity in the marketing jargon. Many terms have been introduced which can be very confusing for young businesses. It has been seen that many marketers are also confused about the correct meaning and usage of the terms. One such example of terms is SEO and SEM.

What is SEO?

Search Engine Optimization is basically a part of the SEM or Search Engine Marketing. SEO basically refers to the process by which a website or an online business maximizes the number of visitors by making sure that the rank of the site is high in the list of results which are returned by the search engine. A huge part of SEO of your website will also involve creating superior, high-quality content which will be very useful for your target audience. Thus, gradually the organic traffic of your website is increased. The Google Algorithm is changing very frequently, which has also pushed the SEO industry to keep pace with it. Despite these changes, one aspect of SEO remains the same that it is made up of on-page and off-page SEO activities. It is these tactics which confirm that your landing pages, blogs, and even web copies are properly optimized for search.

On-Page SEO Activities:

  • Addition of selective keywords into title tags, alt text, meta descriptions etc.
  • Quality optimization of blog posts and page copy.
  • Page URL formatting and cleaning.
  • Optimization of loading speed of pages.
  • Google Authorship.
  • Integration of social sharing with the content.

Off-Page SEO Activities:

  • Creation of a superior quality and backlink (inbound) profile.
  • Signals for social sharing like an increase in website traffic due to sharing on social media.
  • Social bookmarks like Digg, Reddit etc.

What is SEM?

Search Engine Marketing is a type of marketing undertaken on the internet which involves promoting websites by making an apparent increase in their visibility in SERPs or Search Engine Result Pages by optimization and advertising. SEM incorporates various tactics of SEO and many other search marketing tactics. SEM also comprises usage of paid search like pay per click (PPC) advertisements. Many other terms are also employed for a paid search like cost per click, paid search advertising.  The advertisements under PPC are usually reflected on SERPs next to various organic listings thereby increasing the visibility of the web pages of your online business. SEM, thus particularly includes PPC campaigns and activities. Some examples of SEM activities include:

  • Starting advertisement campaign keeping in mind a particular audience.
  • Creation of ad groups with target variations of keywords.
  • Creating an ad budget.
  • Monitoring of metrics like clicks, impressions, average cost per click, click through rates etc.

The most important feature of the traffic generated by SEM is that it is targeted. It is a known fact that search engines are used by people when they look for solutions to various problems or are looking for answers to some specific questions. It has been noticed over time that when searches end up in clicking a particular site from the search results in they’re a probability of conversion rises. It is the degree of relevancy of various search results and advertisements which enhances the usability of SEM traffic in comparison to other sources. Giants like Facebook and Twitter are also constantly pushing hard for optimization of their advertising platforms for utilizing the targeted traffic but it is already proven that the traffic which is generated from search engines has much more ROI.

Basic Differences Between SEO and SEM

The basic difference between SEO and SEM is that search engine optimization is a part of the search engine marketing. SEM also includes many parts of paid search like PPC and SMM or social media marketing. It thus means that although the basic purpose remains the same, these terms cannot be used interchangeably as they have a fundamental difference which cannot be ignored. SEM is an umbrella term and is usually used for paid search while SEO is used for the organic search.

  • Search Placements: Search results which show up as a result of SEM are usually identified as ads while the ones which occur after SEO are not marked like that. In the former case, an icon is also often seen by the placement. Thus, there is a difference in the way the results of SEM and SEO appear as shown below.
    • SEO:Difference Between SEO and SEM
    • SEM:Difference Between SEO and SEM
  • The Appearance of Search Results: It has been seen that there is a difference noted in the appearance of search results in both cases. In SEM, ad extensions like phone numbers, callouts, other links etc. are often included in the search results while in case of SEO, featured snippets are seen in to appear with the search results.Difference Between SEO and SEM
  • Target Audience Selection: Specification of the target audience is only possible in case of SEM although most often both the platforms come with plans for connecting with the select audience. However, in the case of SEM, you can also select your audience more specifically by using various filters like age, location, habits, income etc. Thus, you have control of who will exactly be able to see your search results. SEO is not endowed with any such feature.
  • Impact Time: SEM strategy works on paid ads so the results can be put before your target audience in a few clicks which means that as and when your campaign is launched, your ads start to figure in SERPs. Their visibility is also in your hands as you can turn them on for increasing the visibility or even turn them off to put an end to showing them any further. SEO, on the other hand, takes time to build up and show the desired results.
  • Testing: SEM offers a better strategy for testing. It is because the paid ads by SEM can be turned off or on at any time of your choice. SEM allows you to revise the copy of your ads, targeting new audiences, etc. to measure the effectiveness of your campaign. This cannot be done with the help of SEO due to the time factor.
  • Adding Value: SEO in contrast to SEM, adds value to the strategy and your online business gradually over time. This thus leads to lasting results. This is not possible in the case of SEM. SEO also has a better click-through rate than SEM. This is typically true for the first few organic results of the SEO.


Thus, after going through the above you can make a more informed decision about the choice of your marketing strategy. You need to know in depth what is the extent of competition in your industry and how far are you prepared to dive in terms of marketing considering the budgetary limits. You may also want to see the strategies which are being used by your competitors, like what kind of search terms are they getting them their organic ranks, or what terms are they using to get traffic. You need to weigh your long-term goals and underlying vision when making the final decision. You may select both SEO and SEM for better and lasting results which will directly place you above your competitors who are only using only one of these.

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Anirban Pathak Recent comment authors
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Anirban Pathak

This is a Great Post. First of all, Both SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) & SEM (Search Engine Marketing) are the major types of Digital Marketing. • Both SEO & SEM help to generate traffic to the website. • Both helps to increase visibility of your site. • But the main difference between them is , SEO is free and responsible for organic traffic/ranking. Where as SEM refers to paid campaign. Appears in the top Google paid ad column.

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