Search engine optimization and search engine marketing are often used in the same manner. However, what you may not know is that there’s a not-so-subtle difference between the two. In this article, we’re going to talk about the difference between SEO and SEM.


What’s the difference between SEO and SEM

The difference between search engine optimization and search engine marketing is that SEO is part of SEM.

SEM is the name given to all marketing performed on search engines. SEO is only focussed on the organic search engine marketing.


The problem is that a lot of people refer to SEM as only paid search marketing. It’s the same as the term “social media marketing” now being used to social media advertising.

These misunderstandings can be troublesome when it comes to learning about different topics.

There are a lot of these confusions in marketing…

  • SEO vs SEM
  • Copywriting and content writing
  • Social media marketing and social media management
  • Advertising and marketing

And there are probably a lot which we’ve left out.

It’s probably because marketing has always attracted people to it, and often people who are not-so-knowledgeable about the topic. This has grown a lot since the internet became a thing. The internet made it possible to spam your way to “success” in the early days. To this day, this still seems to be the general consensus among people who “aren’t so well versed” when it comes to digital marketing.

This leads to people distinguishing between different concepts in strange ways. The difference between SEO and SEM has become quite blurred due to this.



What’s included in SEM?

Search engine marketing includes SEO and paid search. So, both the ads on search engines like Google and Bing, as well as the organic search results.

Technically, SEM includes only paid search and not PPC ads on other parts of Google’s (or other search engines) networks. However, this is something that often goes with it, since it’s a type of advertising done on the same platform. It’s just shown in a different place.

Image of someone googling "paid search"


What makes SEM so effective?

Search engine marketing is very effective, for the same reason that SEO is so effective. Both SEM and SEO account for the context that the searcher is in. You can tell with relative certainty in what stage of the buying cycle a searcher is in. By targeting the right keywords, you can appear in front of your target audience at the moment they’re ready to buy.

This can result in a great return on the investment that has gone into your SEM campaign.

Another advantage that paid SEM campaigns have, is that the results are quicker than organic SEM (SEO) campaigns are. Unfortunately, we live in a time where patience is no longer a virtue, but a fantasy. You want results now, and that’s where paid SEM campaigns come in.

That being said, paid campaigns are often slightly lacking when it comes to longevity. Organic search results can be maintained, and this maintenance is usually a lot cheaper than the pay-to-play strategy of paid SEM campaigns.

SEO takes a lot longer to take effect than paid SEM campaigns, but the results are often a lot bigger and long-term.

So, now we come to the next question…


What’s included in SEO?

In SEO, we only include the organic search engine results and traffic. This is an extremely profitable marketing channel for businesses, as appearing in the organic search results has massive branding benefits, as well as driving a lot of (relatively) consistent traffic to your site.

There are 101 strategies to propel your website to the top of Google. However, the real downside is that it takes time.

Google needs to trust your brand and your site, and this is a lot easier in some niches than others. This is one of the main reasons why SEO can take about 6 months before you start seeing the fruits of your labor.

As well as this, you’re dealing with an algorithm which is changing multiple times per week, if not daily. This makes SEO an extremely data-oriented marketing channel. It requires a high level of expertise and a lot of testing. The things that impact rankings actually vary from one keyword and one niche to another. This means that, unfortunately, there’s no “one size fits all” solution for SEO like a lot of people would like you to believe.

This is why a combination of both paid and free search, as well as other marketing channels is often advised for starting businesses. This offers you more security as well as increasing the impact of each separate channel.


Which is better SEO or SEM?

This is a question that is often asked but doesn’t really make sense. That’s like saying: Which is better, your legs or your whole body…?

Assuming that you are asking if paid search or organic search is better, then we’ve got a debate on our hands.

As someone who really loves SEO and focuses on it a lot, I feel that organic search trumps paid search in the long run. In my experience, SEO provides a much more sustainable foundation to build on.

If you’re just launching your business, then you won’t see much organic traffic coming in for the first few months. This can take even longer in some markets/niches. Paid campaigns can help you get initial clients coming in.

Also, paid SEM campaigns are a great way to scale. Because of all the data you are getting, you can see exactly what amount you’re spending per click or sale. This does give you a great amount of control over your profit. With a good referral strategy and a good client retention rate, a paid search strategy can be very effective.

Overall though, a mixture of both, even combined with some other marketing channels is going to perform best. Social media, content marketing, and branding are all important factors for SEO too.



At the end of the day, SEM and SEO are two different things. Search engine optimization is a part of search engine marketing. Paid search and SEO both have their advantages and disadvantages. To find out what kind of digital marketing strategy is best for your business, reach out to a professional for some advice. Testing the channels out yourself (if you have the expertise) is a great way to go too!

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