SEO vs SEM: What’s the Difference?

Back when you were in high school learning geometry, your teacher probably told you a square is a rectangle, but a rectangle may not always be a square. The same type of correlation exists between search engine optimization (SEO) and SEM. SEO is always part of SEM, but SEM isn’t always SEO.

Just like you need to understand what squares and rectangles are to do well in geometry, so too must you understand what SEO and SEM are to do well in internet marketing. If you want your website to get noticed and get traffic, you need to know how each of these practices work.

In this guide, we’ll start out by discussing what SEO and SEM are. Then we’ll move on to helping you decide which will work best for your brand’s needs. Keep reading to settle the SEO vs SEM battle once and for all.

What Is SEO?

Google identified it’s top ranking factors; at the top of that list are links and content. Both of these fall into the SEO category. The first is off-page SEO and the latter is on-page SEO.

Before we get into off-page and on-page tactics, let’s discuss the organic search definition. Organic search means getting rankings on search engine results pages (SERPs) without paying for the position. In order to do so, you need to optimize your website.

Organic traffic is free traffic. It’s free in the sense that you don’t pay for impressions and clicks, though you should still have a budget for SEO if you’re going to use it, as it takes time. Let’s look now at what SEO might entail.

Off-Page SEO

Off-page SEO is exactly what it sounds like–everything you do to increase organic traffic without making changes or updates to your own website. There are two main branches of off-page SEO: link-building and social.

With link-building, your goal is to get links coming in from other websites. In the past, quantity was enough to push your own site up in the SERPs. Now though, quality matters as well as relevance.

Websites linking to your online property should have authority. They should also be publishing content related to your industry or brand. If you’re an accountant, a website that sells shoes–even if it has authority–won’t be that useful of a link because it’s irrelevant.

In the realm of social, social sharing signals (how often your content is shared on social networks) and social bookmarking on sites like Reddit and Stumbleupon, can work to build your off-page credibility.

You might have some influence over off-page SEO, but you can’t guarantee that sites will or won’t link to yours. You can’t guarantee people will share or socially bookmark your content. You can only encourage.

On-Page SEO

On-page SEO involves using optimization tactics to improve your own website. You have more control with these tactics than with off-page SEO, but you still don’t have much control over your SERP rankings.

If you’ve heard of keyword research for SEO, this is where it comes into play. You’ll want to ensure your titles, descriptions, and images are optimized for the keywords which are most likely to drive organic traffic to your site.

Your URLs should be clean and well-formatted. You should use headers properly in your content. When you write blog posts and web page copy, it should be high-quality and optimized–but not stuffed–with relevant keywords.

Page speed matters here, too. The faster your website loads, the better. Integrating social sharing is also a good on-page tactic (and can encourage off-page growth).

Remember that SEO takes time, and therefore requires a monetary investment in by way of the cost of those hours. However, unless you’re hiring an SEO professional or subscribing to a service, you shouldn’t have to pay out-of-pocket to improve organic traffic.

What Is SEM?

What does SEM stand for? SEM stands for search engine marketing.

SEM includes SEO, like the rectangle includes the square, but it also brings into play what’s known as pay-per-click advertising (PPC), or paid search advertising (PSA). In other words, you offer to pay every time someone clicks on your link on SERPs.

This involves buying ad space on SERPs so your website can appear above organic search results. PPC campaign services, like Google Adwords, allow you to hyper-target your traffic for relevancy.

SEM not only encompasses SEO and PSA on search engines, but it can also include paid search in social media. This practice is known as social media marketing, or SMM.

Paid search is on the rise; year over year in 2017 PSA spending grew 24%. SEM provides you with greater control over your results, and allows you to pivot more quickly because results are faster with SEM than with SEO alone.

Keep reading to find out which you should use.

SEO Vs. SEM: Which Should You Use?

Both SEO and SEM seek to improve visibility in search engines with the ultimate goal of increasing traffic to your website. Use of these strategies and tactics is made confusing by interchangeable use of the terms SEM and SEO. They’re not the same, as you’ve seen above.

But how do you know which to use? Let’s look at the pros of each.

SEO Pros

SEO offers many strengths to your digital marketing efforts, all with the goal of increasing organic (unpaid) traffic to your website:

  • Increased brand awareness
  • Increased trust and credibility
  • Increased traffic
  • Costs less
  • More sustainable
  • High-quality click-through rates
  • Broader reach

SEM Pros

SEM’s biggest benefit is fast results. Let’s look at some of the contributing benefits:

  • Top spots on SERPs
  • More control
  • Showcases products
  • Easily control your budget
  • Ads are laser-targeted
  • Feedback in real-time
  • Ability to A/B test
  • Increased stability when search engines change algorithms


In the SEO vs SEM battle, you may decide that one practice is better for you than the other. You might also decide to employ them both. Since SEO is a part of SEM, it’s not difficult to combine both strategies and maximize on both sets of benefits.

If you still have questions about SEO and SEM, contact us.

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