Demystifying the Difference Between SEO and SEM

In the constantly changing environment that is the Internet, there are new acronyms and terminology that pop up alongside new concepts and ideas. Two terms commonly heard in Internet marketing is Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM), which both fall into the realm of Internet marketing. Despite the importance of these two, there’s a fair amount of confusion in where the two terms fall in place, and where they divide. In order to better understand the differences between the two, it’s best to start off with a general understanding of the two terms.

Defining the Two…

Search Engine Marketing (SEM):
SEM, or Search Engine Marketing, is a larger, umbrella term meant to signify the efforts made to increase the visibility of websites in SERPs. If you’ve seen the €œsponsored links€ or €œsponsored results€ on the right side or above the search engine  results page (SERPs), then you’re looking at the end results of search engine marketing.  In general, advertisers will work through search engines, such as Google AdWords or Yahoo! Search Marketing, in order to display their ads on results. In short, SEM is allows advertisers to engage in paid advertising, instantly obtaining results through inorganic listings.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO):
While SEM deals with paid advertising and inorganic results, SEO is all about improving one’s organic listings. SEO deals specifically with the improving the visibility of a website through natural search engine results. There are a variety of strategies involved with SEO, involving both onpage and offpage optimization.

So What’€™s The Difference Between SEM and SEO?

You may be wondering whether you spend your efforts on SEM or SEO, or even both. While the question depends on a wide variety of factors, there are several differences between the two that can help you decide which is best for your marketing efforts. The following are several differences that are associated between SEM and SEO:

With SEM, you’re able to control exactly what keywords and terms you want to rank for, and how much you’re willing to spend. Much like an advertising service, you’ll also be able to decide which pages to link towards, and how often they will appear. On the other hand, SEO is affected by factors that are out of your control. All efforts are geared towards the hopes that your site will appear organically in search engine results.

Organic Vs. Inorganic
SEO mainly deals with organic listings, and as a result, can be difficult and costly to maintain. Unless you rely on black-hat tactics, it can be quite a while before you see any measurable results. However, organic results are generally more favorable, as an overwhelming percentage of searchers explore the first page of search results. Thus, many businesses and companies make the effort to rank organically. Inorganic results are quick to implement and only require a budget; however, once your advertising budget runs out, your inorganic, paid results will disappear as well.

With SEO, there’€™s a strong focus on producing quality content in order to get your site to appear in search engine results. Whether on your own blog or on other sites, writing unique content with the relevant keywords and structure is a lengthy, but worthwhile strategy. However, there’s no focus on content when getting involved with SEM. All it requires is a budget and a winning bid, and you’ll be able to place your website alongside the search engine results.

Note From Brian: While the article above sounds like SEM is a simple way to pay for targeted traffic without the need of SEO, I’ve personally witnessed plenty of people and businesses lose every penny they’ve invested into Google AdWords without generating a single sale. SEM is almost an art form that requires knowledge, testing, and the budget to sustain the campaign. Like Abby said, stop paying – stop receiving traffic. Also, don’t forget that traffic from SEM are real people too (The same people from SEO) and you still have to do your part to guide and influence those people to take action in the manner you planned. That can be a tough cookie from either strategy so both SEO and SEM are just a small part of getting the job done.

About Abby Evans

Abby Evans is an avid blogger who writes on everything from finding jobs in Canada and the job search Toronto.
She has written on a variety of blogs and websites, and loves to learn
all she can on the job hunt. Follow on Twitter.


  1. Great stuff, Brian, and may I suggest that anyone looking to hone in on capitalize on the shift in importance in optimizing SSO (social sharing optimization) rather than SEO – to try RiteTag. Hone in on conversations, curate content and, of course, optimize topic-tags for reach. It is a brand new social media tool, for brand monitoring, listening, topic smart-tagging, and content curation (with proper referencing of original content creators): RiteTag is a tool for finding the “rite” tags for many social networks based on your query. RT also provides stats and examples of recent updates with each tag suggested, so people can learn about the types of content that tends to go with a tag.

    Some tools do tag illustration. Also, they do the job just with Twitter; already has 10 social neworks (with topic-tagging) integrated, and will expand to more than 20 – which people can search on simultaneously. RiteTag – to find the rite tags, per network (they vary per network) and learn about tags as well. Its not about SEO, but SSO: social sharing optimization: optimizing social media updates to be seen by those not following you by name, but following and searching for your tagged topics. And absolutely nothing out there does what does for this, not for one network, let alone the ten that we already have integrated.

  2. This is a great read Brian. Useful, short and informative. But I do have a question, what do you think is the better tool?

  3. well till now i am not aware of SEM, thanks for the article.. the best practice is getting organic traffic where the SEO comes into practice.

  4. Abby Evans says

    I’ve never heard of Ritetag, that definitely sounds like a tool to try out. Thanks for reading the article!

  5. Abby Evans says

    I think that question depends on the individual – for larger companies with a budget, SEM would definitely be included. But for individuals, bloggers, small business, and so on, SEO is a cost-effective option that can yield positive results in the long run.

  6. Abby Evans says

    SEO is all about the organic 🙂 Thanks for reading the article, I hope you enjoyed it!

  7. Thanks for clearing up this issue for our beginning bloggers Abby, it’s easy to forget there are new people looking for the basics everyday. You did a fantastic job in distinguishing the difference in SEM and SEO and the roles they play together.

  8. Abby Evans says

    Thanks for the kind words! It was a pleasure writing for you!

  9. Wonderfully Distinguished the most confused terms in online marketing, Not till few months of my online marketing journey did i know the difference between SEO and SEM, You’ve also included many new concepts, Thanks

  10. I still rely on organic search results although a bit tricky and a bit slow to see measures I can still make some more adjustments to that since taking too much traffic while you are paying for it won’t take too long. The best part is free traffic that’s how it is especially to those who have low on budgets like me. thanks for your great stuff

  11. this post does an excellent job of explaining the difference between the two. reblogging for Monday.

  12. Abby Evans says

    I’m glad to have clarified some of the confusion for you 🙂 I’m glad my article was able to help you out!

  13. Thanks for this explantion! It was exactly what i was searching for. Clean and simple! Regards!

  14. Anonymous (Read Comment Policy) says

    Great tips, it seems that Google is weeding out the irrelevant sites if anyone has read the news recently such as pirate sites in search results, and as was said before, organic is what it is all about.

  15. Thanks for the detailed comparison between SEO and SEM, now i’ve fully understood the difference

  16. Julius Masst says

    Excellent post. Would you choose SEM since it is larger and provides with a wide control of the keywords ranking stats?

  17. I am glad to see the difference because I honestly did not know the difference between the two terms. I understand the importance of the two terms. thanks

  18. Hey, thanks for the post. These all points are really very helpful for differentiating SEO and SMO. Yaa, content is very important part in SEO. If we create Quality Content then everyone takes interest to read this. And using Content with Keywords are very beneficial and helpful for increasing ranking in Search Engines.

  19. Abby Evans says

    Wow thanks so much! I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

  20. Abby Evans says

    I agree, if you have a low budget, then you’ll probably want to stick with SEO. It takes longer to see the effects, but the cost-effective methods makes it hard to ignore. Thanks for reading!

  21. Abby Evans says

    Yay, I’m glad to have ended your search! 🙂

  22. Abby Evans says

    The key is to make your webpage and content look as natural as possible, in order to have it appear in organic search results. Thanks for reading!

  23. Abby Evans says

    Awesome, I’m glad that my article helped you! 🙂

  24. Abby Evans says

    Personally, I would utilize SEO because it fits my needs more…but if I had a larger budget, I’d probably consider whether SEM would fit into my online marketing strategy. Thanks for reading!

  25. Abby Evans says

    I’m glad to have clarified the two for you! Glad you enjoyed the article 🙂

  26. Good stuff with information I was not aware of. This clarifies the difference between SEO and SEM for me. As a relatively new business we want to improve our internet position and this validates the path we’re taking to make it happen. Thanks for the great article.

  27. Following all of those acronyms is difficult to do when you are hiring SEO experts and web designers. They all sound good when they are spouting all the industry jargon but I still want to know what they are doing and how it is going to help me.

  28. SEM is something to learn and learn about.

    It is based on the right results. Many can fail with SEM because it is based on different strategies.

    SEO can be the same thing. It all takes time and money 🙂

  29. Really came on time. All i know this time that they are just the same or has one thing in common. 🙂

  30. Hi,

    SEO and SEM are obviously different from each other in many ways. SEO is carried out to make sure that your site is unique and is on top. SEM is an effort made to make the presence of a site felt as much as possible. These are the basic differences. Both bear significance with respect to the performance of sites/blogs.

    Sanjib Saha

  31. Many new bloggers can get confused with these two terms, they might use it interchangeably but they are different. Good explanation for those….

  32. It seems to me you’re using the term ‘inorganic’ to mean ‘paid’. And paid results are inorganic, to be sure. But really, anything that isn’t just creating content and waiting for results is ‘inorganic’. This blog reply, despite being on nofollow blog, is pretty inorganic. There’s no way I’d have even found this blog if it wasn’t looking for places to get backlinks for free.

    Thanks for the few minutes of thought on the whole idea of organic vs inorganic thouugh.

  33. Hi Abby,

    Yes – One of the biggest and notable differences are the paid and organic factor of SEO and SEM. And the amount of time it takes to achieve a desired amount of traffic is extremely different – not to mention the amount of resources necessary to manage SEO and SEM.

  34. Hi Abby, this post is great and awesome. You tell us clear difference between SEO and SEM. What a nice wordings to explain.

  35. Daniel Stoller says

    Both SEO and SEM are great, but I (personally) put much more value in SEO. When I search in a search engine, more often then not, I just skip over the links that were paid for and sitting at the top, and check out the ‘real’ results.

  36. Very informative blog! Thanks for sharing this information. I would agree that there are indeed a lot of people whose purpose is to deceive many just for their personal gain. I hope this blog could reach as many readers to share this worldwide.

  37. Not many now the difference between the two and some things are also clear to me now. Thanks for the distinction. More power!

  38. Tauseef Alam says

    Hi Abby

    If i explain SEO & SEM in a lay man language then the difference between the two would be SEO is free but require some expertise & great content to rank in SERP, on the other hand SEM is paid promotion on search engines.

    Thanks for sharing the info… 🙂

  39. Md Firdosh says

    After reading this article i come to know the real difference between the SEo & SEM. Earlier i was thinking that SEo & SEm is the same thing Thanks to the author for sharing this article

  40. Hi Abby,
    You have provided great insights about both SEO and SEM.SEO is the technique which enhances the search results and it comes in organic and SEM is we can say the strategy to market the business and build reputation by placing ads or other means of marketing strategies.

  41. I believe in SEO , rather than SEM .

    Those who have money to spend a lot will go for SEM although they’ll make it. we bloggers dont have that much ability to go for SEM . thats why all go for SEO : backlink,pagerank and so on..

  42. Very deep article on SERP and SEP and great overthrough on organic and inorganic search according to my consideration Google trying to vanished organic search by changing there algorithm day by day.Every Month Google give surprised to SERP specialist indeed Google are more intelligent then SERP specialist but indeed SEO can’t dead.

  43. jennifersmith says

    I think that these two are different from each other. Some concepts do overlap. But those are not enough to say that they are indifferent.

  44. I’ve found SEO to be more productive for me than SEM. We used SEM when first launching our website and it got visits but not sales. Once found organically the sales followed.
    I’ve toyed with using it again to test a year later. Q4 would be the time to do it.

  45. Abby, thanks for clarifying the difference. Now I can say with certainty that SEM is really paid search results and SEO is organic. I think that both can have their advantages, no? If I want to sell an information product, I think I would prefer SEM in the beginning of the product roll out and then go to SEO. Does that sound OK? Suzanne

  46. Hi Suzanne, I guess that would depend on the product and budget but most ecommerce sites would work on both. I imagine a site selling insurance, for example, would have to pay a fortune for decent ad position.

  47. Hi Lisa, Other than the $100 coupon everyone receives from Google, I haven’t played with SEM much. I guess it wouldn’t make sense for me to pay for traffic without a product to offer but that hasn’t stopped me from thinking about it at times. 🙂

  48. I think for any business a good mix of SEM and SEO is essential. SEM is maybe not as important for people trying to promote their blogs but for someone trying to sell a product then they should be testing what ROI they can get.

  49. This was a very informative post. I didn’t really know the difference between the two til I read this. New acronyms can be really confusing! Thank you so much for the great share. 🙂

  50. Awesome and very interesting post for me! SEO is carried out to make sure that your site is unique and is on top. SEM is an effort made to make the presence of a site felt as much as possible.I know only this Difference.if you have any more difference about SEO and please sharing me.thanks to tell about it.

  51. Both SEM and SEO are being applied by many business and website owners these days. Depending on the marketing needs of a company or website, both SEM and SEO are great technique in gaining popularity and visibility on the web.

  52. Knowing the difference between SEM and SEO, I certainly go for the latter one. SEO I think,basing from what you have discussed,is most beneficial as it focus more on the quality rather than bigger budget and bidding only.

  53. SEM is a relatively new concept to me so thanks for the informative share 🙂

  54. I agree with you. Most of the time a “standard” blogger chooses to go for SEO rather than SEM, because of the budget is limited. Moreover, doing SEO ourselves we have a total control what is optimised and what are the effects.

  55. Hi Abby!

    Yes there is a difference between SEO and SEM, the major difference is that you can do SEO for free and you need some bucks for SEM. 😛

    Thanks for differentiation the two in an easy manner.


  56. Excellent post Brian. You have managed to demystify or tell us in laymans terms what the difference is between SEO and SEM. Think I can do it in seven words. SEO – organic free traffic. SEM – paid traffic.

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