SEO vs SEM: What's the Difference?

Does your marketing strategy include search optimization? If not, your business is invisible to people searching online.

That's critical when there are 63,000 Google searches every second of every day.

Search optimization helps search engines understand your website. The engine then determines if your site is helpful to users.

Successful search optimization puts you at the top of search results. It drives traffic to your website. It builds brand awareness and grows your business.

But, the first step is a clear grasp of the terminology. It’s hard to plan if you don’t know the differences and similarities between SEM and SEO. SEO uses an organic strategy to appear in search results. SEM is a paid strategy. Some marketers group paid and organic strategies under the term SEM.

It's best to separate the categories for a clear marketing plan. Verify you and your marketing partners use the same terms and definitions.

Keep reading to learn more about SEO vs SEM.

What is SEO?

Search engine optimization (SEO) uses organic tactics to appear in search engine results. There's no payment for placement. 

When a brand appears at the top of search results in an unpaid position it builds trust with consumers. The search engine puts the company first because it’s content is the best match for the search query.

For that to happen, the information must be reliable, authoritative, and valuable.

There are many ways SEO can increase search rank. The best are the following white hat SEO techniques.

Let’s dig into the three main types of SEO techniques:

On-page SEO

On-page SEO attracts search engines with specific keywords on every website page. The keywords appear in product descriptions, educational information, and blog posts.

On-page SEO informs the search engines. The search engine ranks the page based its content. Relevant content ranks higher.

Brands optimize search results with keyword research. They find and use specific keywords for their products and services.

The right keywords drive qualified traffic from search results to the website.

Off-page SEO

Off-page SEO connects to other quality websites. This connection increases a brand’s reputation and authority.

Techniques used for this are link-building and profiles in local directories. When quality websites link to a brand site it tells search engines the brand is trustworthy.

These links are backlinks. Backlinks show your site is reliable and trustworthy. Search engines rank websites with authoritative backlinks higher in search results.

Technical SEO

Technical SEO refers to techniques used on parts of the website that aren’t content.

Site architecture, speed, and structured data affect search rankings. Making a site mobile-friendly is essential for higher ranking.

Technical SEO makes the website experience good for visitors and search engine crawlers.

If you want to build a strong search strategy use all three techniques in your plan. 

What is SEM?

Search engine marketing (SEM) uses paid tactics to appear higher in search results.
A paid strategy includes a budget, creating ads, and paying for their placement.

Many people refer to SEM as paid search or pay-per-click marketing. Google Ads is the search engine provider used most often for SEM strategy.

When a brand employs SEM the first step is to find the best keywords for their products and services. This can include industry-specific terms.

When someone searches those keywords they see paid ads above the organic results. The ads are pay-per-click because each time someone clicks on the ad there is a charge.

SEM serves your ads to people already searching for your products and services.

Understanding the Differences: SEO vs SEM

Let’s look at the differences between SEM and SEO.

Targeting Your Audience

SEM lets you choose distinct demographic filters like age, location, and income. These parameters determine who sees your ads. SEM shows your ads to your target audience.

You can’t specify who sees your search results with SEO. 

Cost for Clicks

The advertiser pays each time someone clicks on an SEM result. You must include pay-per-click costs in your SEM budget.

There is no charge when a user clicks on an SEO result.


Paid SEM results look different from organic results. There is an icon next to the listing that says AD. A row of SEM image ads includes a SPONSORED tag. The icons reveal paid placements.

SEM results have ad extensions with extra links, phone numbers, and callouts. Featured snippets may appear with SEO results.

Immediate Impact

When you use SEM paid placement your audience sees your ads right away. Once a campaign launches, the ads appear.

You can turn the ads on or off as needed. Want to increase visibility for a promotion? Turn on the ads. When the promotion ends stop showing them.

SEO builds over a period of time. Your brand starts to rank months after creating content and implementing a strategy.

Long-term Value

While SEO takes longer to rank, it adds long-term value to your brand. SEO has lasting results that grow over time. 

The first two or three organic search results get the most click-throughs. Lower organic search results are often ignored.

SEM only works when you use it. When you turn off your ads the strategy ends. Yet, if your organic search results are low, SEM puts you in front of consumers.

A/B Testing

If you want to test an idea or promotion, use SEM. You can turn SEM paid ads on and off as needed.

Try an ad. If it doesn’t work, turn it off. After you revise the copy, change demographics or build a new landing page turn the ad on again.

You’ll know right away when something works. You can’t do that with SEO.

SEO vs SEM: How are They Alike?

Here are some similarities between SEO and SEM. 

Get Your Company in Search Results

The goal of each strategy is to place your brand at the top of search results. This shows your brand to people searching for terms related to your business.

Drive Traffic to Your Website

Both SEO and SEM try to increase click-through-rates. The goal is to drive traffic to your website where visitors become customers.

Use Keyword Research

Keyword research is essential for both strategies. Identify which keywords perform well, reach your audience, and fit your budget. Research includes studying your competition and the keywords they use.

Identify Your Target Audience

Successful SEO and SEM rely on knowing your target audience. Pinpoint the wants, needs, and habits of your buyers, then create content and ads offer value to them.

Need Constant Testing and Optimization

Don’t establish an SEO or SEM plan and forget it. Successful strategies need testing and constant monitoring. Regular updates and optimization yield the best results.

Discover Which Strategy is Best for Your Brand

There’s no one answer when weighing SEO vs SEM. Many companies focus on SEO. Other spend their time and energy on SEM. Some companies use a combination.

The right approach depends on your business goals. For more insights and guidance, contact the experts at Trigger Digital.