difference between seo and sem

SEO vs. SEM: What’s the Difference and Why it Matters

When creating your website for a business, others often tell you to monitor and improve your SEO or SEM. If you’re new to this, you might wonder what they are and what’s the difference between SEO and SEM. Why would it matter for your website? This article gives a rundown on what each is, their differences, and how it can help improve how your website looks to search engines. 

What is SEO? 

SEO, or search engine optimization, is an organic method and strategy to rank better in search engines such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo. With SEO, you can boost your organic visibility by providing content on your website that matches your target audience and what search engines want to see. Search engines will generally rank you higher on search results when you do this, getting you to more people in your target audience.

There are four sections that SEO can specifically be divided into: 

Technical SEO 

This type of SEO revolves around the structure of your website and improving it. This SEO can include the website’s speed, security, index, sitemap, and crawlability. For technical SEO, you require a deeper understanding of how a site works to begin improving for it.

On-Page SEO 

This type of SEO centers around how you optimize a page on your website to help search engines understand the context of the website’s content. This SEO includes your title, headings, meta description, keywords, and alt text in images, to name a few. In summary, on-page SEO lets search engines know that your website or the specific page has the correct answer that your target audience may be looking for. 

Off-Page SEO 

This kind of SEO deals with improving the trustworthiness of your website in the eyes of search engines and your target audience. This SEO can include link building, reviews, and mentions of your website by other sites. 

Content SEO 

This type of SEO has to do with improving and optimizing the content on your website. It is also a separate part of On-Page SEO. This SEO can include:

  • Answer snippets within the first two paragraphs if your website has an article
  • Distribution of keywords throughout the content
  • Adding internal links to other parts of your website 

What is SEM?

SEM, or search engine marketing, deals with paid methods and strategies to rank better in search engines. Examples can include using Google Ads, Bing Ads, or any other form of search engine ad. Generally, Google Ads is a more popular choice because of its many options. 

When performing SEM, you usually want to research some keywords that your target audience is searching for. While using the desired keywords, you can create an ad for your website and submit it with a bid. This bid essentially tells whatever search engine you’re submitting the ad to the maximum amount you’re willing to spend every time a person clicks your ad. This method of paying for ads is referred to as price-per-click, or PPC for short. 

After submitting your ad, search engines will rank it based on its quality and how much it matches a user’s search intent, as well as by how much your bid on it is. For Google Ads, you can place it in locations such as:

  • Gmail
  • YouTube
  • Search Results Page
  • Shopping
  • Display

Typically, there is some optimization involved in creating ads and can be where SEO and SEM align a bit. Examples can include the text, image, or overall look of the ad. You want to make sure the ad looks like an attractive solution or provides a call to action to get your target audience to click it. 

Difference Between SEO and SEM

When looking at SEO vs. SEM, several key differences separate the two despite both benefiting the ranking of your website.

Paid vs. Organic

Firstly, a stark difference between the two is whether or not you pay for them. SEM uses paid keywords, while SEO uses organic keywords. Although SEO may take more of your time and skills, it comes free of cost. Meanwhile, SEM is quick and easy to do but comes at a monetary fee.

Time Frame for Results

When using SEM, you’ll typically see results from conversions and ad clicks within a short time, such as a few weeks or less. With SEO, it can take up to several months before you can see the results of your improved website. If you have a time-sensitive goal for your website, then SEM would be the approach to take first if you have the budget for it.

CTR for SEO vs. SEM

CTR or click-through rates can differ between SEO and SEM. When using SEM, your ads will appear with the word “ad” next to them in the search results on the user’s end. Generally, when people see the word “ad,” they can sometimes relate it to a form of spam unless it is a popular business already. SEO, which would only have the page’s title in the search results, will generate more clicks in this case in the long term.


Your website’s position on the Search Engine Results Page, or SERP for short, can also differ between SEO and SEM. With SEM, your paid ads will appear at the top of the page, even before the organic results. With SEO, it can appear as the first result under the ads or somewhere beneath, depending on how well you’ve optimized your website.

Continued Results

Even though SEO takes a lot longer than SEM to generate results, the results can be long-lasting. As you build your SEO strategy over time, you will gain more and more viewings from your target audience that will generally last. 

With SEM, all it takes is to turn off the ads, and you can have thousands of views per day turn to nearly zero immediately. To think of it this way, SEO is more of a solid ground for building up the community visiting your website for the long term. 

Why Does Your Website Need SEO and SEM? 

If your main goal is to get others besides your friends and family to view your website, SEO and SEM are necessary. Both have different ways of allowing your site to rank higher and therefore be easily seen and clicked on by more users in your target audience. 

SEO can aid you in narrowing down the content you should make when targeting a specific search intent. SEM, if you have the budget for it initially, can help generate views towards your website quickly while you’re still busy trying to nail the SEO for it. SEM is beneficial in cases where you are running a sale on a product you have or have a time-sensitive goal, for example. 

Finally, many people widely assume that SEO and SEM can’t be used together because of their differences. It’s quite the opposite. You can use both alternatively or in whatever balance that best suits your SEO and SEM strategies.

Also Read: Top 5 Ways to Earn Money Online in 2021

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