SEO vs SEM: similarities and differences

SEO stands for “search engine optimization” while SEM stands for “search engine marketing.” Most times, these two phrases are used interchangeably due to their similarities. However, SEO and SEM are two different strategies.

SEO refers to techniques that are used to increase traffic to a website from organic search results of major search engines such as Google, Yahoo, and Bing. Organic traffic is the traffic that you receive for free from search engines. SEM refers to the type of online marketing where you pay to get traffic from search engines. The marketer analyzes the search engine queries to determine the most effective keywords that the company should use for the promotional campaign.


What is Search Engine Optimization?


SEO focuses on improving a website’s rank so that a searcher can easily find it; this is as a result of increasing the website’s ranking in SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages). When you optimize a website, its visibility increases; it is easily understood and recognized by search engine crawlers.

The rank is based on the relevance of your content and how well it answers the users’ queries. A high-ranking website appears among the top results that are returned by a search engine. The higher the website ranks, the higher the chance that it will be visited by the user.


A large part of SEO has evolved to keep up with the ever-changing Google algorithms. Ultimately, SEO is aimed at increasing the conversions.

Some of the best SEO practices that will help achieve a better ranking include:

  • Focusing on creating great content that your target audience will find helpful.
  • Making use of keywords and conducting keyword analysis/research.
  • Improving link popularity through link building.
  • Optimizing your website’s pages to minimize the load time. This will decrease the bounce rate.
  • Sharing your content on social media.
  • Ensuring that your website’s interface is user-friendly to provide the users with an amazing experience. Navigation should be as simple as possible.

Search engine optimization can be broadly categorized into two. The two main pillars of SEO are:

On-page SEO


This refers to optimizing your site for maximum visibility using optimized meta-data. Some examples of on-page SEO include:

  • Proper use of target keywords, headers, title tags, images, and meta descriptions.
  • Use of clean URLs.
  • Publishing quality posts that rank easily in search engines.
  • Making sure that your posts are sharable on other platforms.
  • Optimizing the load time of your website’s pages.
  • Incorporating Google authorship.

Off-page SEO


This involves getting quality and natural backlinks from high-ranking websites and using them to gain trust with search engines. Examples of off-page SEO are:

  • Link building from other quality websites.
  • Asking influential people in your niche to endorse you.
  • Leveraging social media sharing to increase traffic.
  • Using social bookmarking sites such as Reddit to attract visitors to your website.

What is Search Engine Marketing?


With SEM, you have to pay for advertisements to increase your website’s visibility. Basically, SEM features search engine optimization via paid search. This means that SEO is a part of SEM. However, SEM goes beyond organic SEO to incorporate paid traffic.

The SEM traffic is really important because it brings visitors who are actually searching for information related to your content. In short, the traffic is targeted. When a searcher clicks on the ad from the search results, they’re more likely to convert.

Paid search allows you to attract relevant searchers who conduct searches using specific keywords. You ads pop up next to the organic results in the search engine results pages. Paid advertising is a sure way of increasing your website’s visibility.


How is paid search?


Here’s a list of steps to follow when you want to pay a certain search engine so that your website’s information shows up in the results list:

  1. Create an account where you give all the important information about your business. You should also include details on how you will pay for the ads.
  2. Come up with a budget. The amount you set should be reasonable so that you don’t go beyond your ROI. Most platforms will allow you to set a periodic budget so that you don’t have to deal with cost overruns.
  3. Choose a number of keywords that are relevant to your industry. Your ads will run depending on whether or not searchers use these keywords when making a query.
  4. Since there is a lot of competition for ad space, you will be required to bid. If your keywords are very unique, you can skip this step.
  5. Set your meta description/headline. You are only allowed to use a limited number of characters so use them wisely.
  6. After everything has been taken care of, it’s time to launch your campaign. This is so easy; all you need to do is click on a button

Some of the popular ad networks are Google AdWords and Bing Ads. These allow your ads to run on Google search results and Bing search results respectively.

As we saw earlier, search engine marketing gives you the opportunity to pay for your ads. The ads are then shown to the searcher who is specifically looking for your products/services. Some of SEM’s best practices include:

  • Search engine optimization.
  • Using keywords and leveraging keyword analysis.
  • Creating ads and content for local listings.
  • Ad campaigns whose mode of payment is pay-per-click.

Key activities that are required for successful search engine marketing are:

  • Always have a specific target audience in mind. This will guide your ad campaigns and how you launch them.
  • Setting a budget for your ads.
  • Creating ad groups based on the different target keywords.
  • Use the keywords to write relevant ad copies.
  • Lastly, you should monitor metrics such as clicks, impressions, average cost-per-click, and click through rates.



With this kind of marketing, you only pay for the ads after somebody clicks it. This explains why the whole process is referred to as pay-per-click. Here, you’re investing in the possibility of your ad getting results; this is different from paying for “space.”

The ad that you run will appear at the top of the search engine search results if it ranks best. This means that you have to pay a lot of money for you to beat your competitors.

The amount of money that you bid will determine how well your ad ranks and if you’ll get profitable results. You, therefore, require a well-thought-out bidding strategy. The highest bid gets the highest rank on the search engine results.

In addition to the amount paid, search engines also take into account the quality of your ads. If you cannot afford to outbid your competitors, you can focus on improving the quality of your ads.


Do keywords still matter for SEM?


Just as they are for SEO, keywords are a fundamental part of SEM and form the basis of its advertising strategy. When you run SEM campaigns, the type of keywords you choose determines how frequently your ads will show up in the search results.


Before choosing the keywords for your campaigns, you need to perform an in-depth keyword research. If you don’t select the right keywords, you will lose a lot of potential customers.

To increase the likelihood that your ad will rank highly, go for keywords that have high volume and low competition. If you need help picking out the most effective keywords, there are several SEM keyword research tools that you can use. These tools will give you insight into the competitiveness of the keywords as well as their search volume.


The Difference between SEO and SEM


SEO and SEM exist as two separate entities. These two concepts are quite confusing as most people cannot differentiate between them. It is really important to know and understand the difference between these two terms.

In this part of the post, we’re going to take a closer look at the main difference between SEO and SEM. While SEO emphasizes on organic search results, SEM emphasizes on choosing the right keyword to invest in paid advertising.

SEO focuses on improving your website’s authority by focusing on keyword placement and link building. On the other hand, SEM takes ad slots and positions you directly in front of users who are actively searching for specific that you’re targeting.

Other differences between SEO and SEM are that:

  1. You cannot control the traffic volume for SEO; it’s long-term and obscure. For SEM, the traffic volume is controllable and depends on the amount paid
  2. SEO takes a longer time to achieve the results as compared to SEM
  3. No additional cost is incurred for SEO so it can be described as an “inexpensive” form of marketing while SEM is relatively expensive. Although SEM is expensive, it is a cost-effective technique.

Which strategy is better, SEO or SEM?


There is a never-ending debate on which of the two tactics is better than the other. Marketers on either side argue that one is more effective than the other. Some insist that SEO is the best approach while others argue that for a website to be successful it needs SEM.

Do you really need to incorporate both strategies? Absolutely not. But you stand a better chance of getting more leads if you implement both.

SEO is a prerequisite for SEM. You will need high-quality and well-optimized content to lay a solid foundation for paid search. Otherwise, your SEM efforts would not be as effective if you have low-quality content. SEM also requires the consistent creation of quality content to make visibility in the SERPs much easier.

Organic SEO is the basis of true SEM. However, organic SEO takes quite a long time to show results. If you’re looking to build your brand faster, you must implement SEM. It’ll help your website appear at the very top of the results.




When choosing the best strategy, you should first make sure that you clearly understand the difference between them. Evaluate your specific needs and come up with a plan on how you wish to maintain your efforts.

Weigh all your options before you can make a final decision. Now that you know the difference between SEO and SEM, we believe that you’re in a better position to make an informed decision.

If you choose to implement both strategies, that is well and good. Where you start depends on how soon you want to see results and your budget. For example, you should keep in mind that organic SEO usually takes longer to show results but is cost-effective. If you don’t have a lot of money to spend on advertising, you should focus on creating amazing content that is optimized for search engines. If you have the money and are willing to spend it, you should, by all means, implement both strategies to stay ahead of your competition.