What is the Difference Between SEO and SEM?

seo vs sem

Search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) are two methods of getting traffic to a website, but many people wonder what’s the difference between SEO and SEM. While SEO focuses on organic searches and getting traffic to a website for free, SEM puts its focus on paid ads a search engine results page. Understanding how they work and when they are used helps a website owner get more traffic without using their entire marketing budget.

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How SEO Works

SEO is a multi-step, hierarchical process. It involves researching the site’s ranking and the keywords that consumers type into search engines. The next step is implementing the words and phrases into the site’s headers, content, tags, and backlinks. It also involves indexing, regular content updates and more. Constant reevaluation is needed in order to attain a first-page search engine results page (SERP). SEO is the organic or natural ranking of a website in search engines. Keywords and phrases change over time, and so do the algorithms used by the search engines. This is why SEO needs constant updates.

How SEM Works

SEM is a paid service. It involves paying for ads on the first page of search engine results. The paid ads may be shown at the top of the page or to the sides of the list of results. Most SEM involves pay per click ads. A pay-per-click advertisement is a type of marketing campaign in which the site’s owner pays the ad provider a specific amount of money for each click on the ad. The ad will be shown based on the keywords or phrases entered into the search bar. More people will see the ad than will click on it. The views are free, but the client pays for each click on the ad. Clicking on the ad takes the user to the client’s website.

Uses of SEO

SEO is used in order to get a site listed on the first page of results in an organic search. Sites that are on that first page have more authority and trustworthiness in the eyes of consumers. SEO results show up in featured snippets, knowledge cards and graphs, some maps results, and some rich snippets. SEO campaigns are long-term and require more time in order for a company to get its investment. An SEO result could stem from a search such as “how to recover from sinus surgery?” Sites that have content discussing this topic would be listed on the first page of results according to the relevancy of the content.

Uses of SEM

According to Business 2 Community, SEM’s is typically used to advertise rather than inform. SEM is noticeable in the ads that are listed on a search engine results page. They are clearly ads. However, SEM can also be found in some maps, some rich snippets, and nearly all product results pages. If a person searches for “women’s Columbia purple anorak,” the result will be an SEM product.


Understanding the differences between SEO and SEM makes it easier to set up the right type of ad campaign. It also makes it easier for a site’s owner to attract the right attention. Knowing what’s the difference between SEO and SEM also facilitates the planning of marketing budgets.

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