digital marketing

What is the difference SEO and SEM?

It would be easy to assume that search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) are e same thing since they both revolve around getting customers to your website. A closer look reveals that they are actually two completely different traffic generation methods though, each with their own disciplines and skill-sets. Part of the confusion comes from SEO being one of the core ranking tactics behind SEM, which we will explain in detail below.


Search engine optimization is the process of making your website user-friendly to the the search engines. This includes technical aspects like using clean code and fast loading times, plus quality criteria in the form of content, multimedia, visitor statistics, backlinks and social sharing. Google is said to use over 200 criteria to decide which website belongs at the top of Google search results for any given keyword.

Search engine marketing includes generating traffic from other sources through pay per click campaigns (PPC), social media marketing and content marketing. This category does include your organic SEO efforts as well, and the paid traffic should create more on-site interactions for Google to rate you on.


Some of the more common tasks in search optimization are:

Researching keywords and properly using them in your website.
Writing content that visitors enjoy and sharing it on social media.
Optimizing how fast web pages and multimedia load.
Providing simple yet comprehensive navigation for your users.
Building quality backlinks from other domains in your genre.
Creating ways for visitors to visit more pages, increase their time on your site and decrease your site’s bounce rate.
The common thread in SEO is to focus on your core website to streamline the way it shares information with customers.


Some of the more commonly used search engine marketing tactics are:

Maximizing your organic search engine optimization.
Developing web pages optimized for leads or sales.
Pay-Per-Click campaigns within the search engines.
Paid content marketing links on mainstream websites.
Guest posting on authoritative sites in your genre.
Placing ads and sponsored posts on social media sites.
Creating newsletters and email marketing campaigns.
Building communities on forums and sharing sites.
Search engine marketing focuses on bringing traffic to your website through multiple channels and converting it into loyal followers or customers.



Maybe it would be more helpful to translate SEO vs SEM into a real-world scenario.

Let’s say that a music website is about to release a new line of MP4 players. Since the owner plans on spending a large amount on advertising, his first task is to get his website into as good a shape as possible. So he updates the content on the website’s homepage, adds lots of new photos and has a search optimization specialist to ensure that each page loads quickly with great information and a solid call to action.

If the music site was considering SEM as well, they would definitely take care of the SEO aspects first to ensure the best possible conversion rates. After all, you wouldn’t place ads for a brick and mortar music store until the shelves are stocked, the employees are trained and the parking lot is cleaned -it’s the exact same principle here. Before you put out paid ads online, you make sure your website is fully optimized and looking great.


As the above example shows, search optimization is a critical part of search engine marketing if you want to maximize your sales potential. However, an optimized website doesn’t do any good if it’s not getting sufficient amounts of traffic, so this is not an instance of one marketing practice being more important than the other. Both are equally vital for any business to grow online.

Here’s a quick guide to determine which marketing type your business needs.

  • If you are new to building an online presence, focus on SEO first and then SEM.
  • If you have solid amounts of incoming traffic but poor conversions, focus on SEO.
  • If you have great conversion rates but not enough steady traffic, focus on SEM.

One final note -remember that search optimization is a relative term. Even if your website appears to be fully optimized and dominating all the main keywords you’re currently targeting, there are hundreds of other organic traffic streams that can be tapped into. While SEM revolves around your marketing budget and conversion rates, SEO should be a continual process that expands with your business.