SEO vs. SEM: What’s the Difference?

Simply speaking, SEO (search engine optimization) refers to improving your website for the purpose of generating organic traffic once people search for keywords in search engines like Google and Bing. On the other hand, SEM (search engine marketing) generally refers to the wider practice of using all the tools afforded by search engines, including paid advertising platforms and other tips and tricks to improve your business outcomes from search engines.

SEO and SEM - search marketing

But understanding the difference is not the only important thing to know. Read on to understand the major benefits of SEM vs SEO, plus how each work together in a successful digital marketing strategy.

What is SEO?

SEO stands for “search engine optimization,” the pursuit of earning more organic traffic by optimizing your website and content to gain authority with and placement in search engines. The idea is that you will capture more website traffic (and by extension, warm leads) if you appear in more search engine results pages (SERPs).

SEO strategies generally include:

  • Content marketing and frequent publishing of quality content
  • On-page optimizations to your title tags, image alt text, header tags, and other web mark-up
  • Creating a keyword strategy that drives linking and page naming
  • Link-building and other off-page factors such as earning social signals
  • Technical optimizations to speed up your site and make it easily “crawlable” by search engines for relevant terms
  • Overall website authority factors, such as linking between pages and choosing the right navigation menu items

The benefit: SEO usually has longer term, evergreen gains for your digital marketing and lead generation strategy. By targeting the right keywords and earning ranking in search engine results pages (SERPs), you create a lead generation engine that works while you sleep. And organic traffic tends to be some of the most highly qualified website traffic, because it’s made of people who are actively searching for something.

What is SEM?

SEM is search engine marketing, a wider term that encompasses many activities in the search engine world. It isn’t just limited to things you pay for, although some usages of the term refer to the paid strategies alone.

Some SEM tactics include:

  • Pay-per-click (PPC) advertising such as Google AdWords
  • Creating and updating search engine listings for your company
  • Earning positive Google reviews and ratings from your clients/customers
  • Optimizing your website via SEO tactics (Yes, SEO is part of SEM!)
  • Exploring other paid campaigns associated with search networks, such as Google display ads and/or YouTube videos, which get displayed in different search environments (like video searches)

Benefit: SEM can give you scale quickly if you are willing to invest in pay-per-click advertising or other paid search engine options. And by making other low-cost optimizations and earning reviews, you increase your visibility and convert more searchers into business leads.

What do I focus on, SEO or SEM?

While SEO involves a lot of “builder” activities, SEM involves many “driver” activities. Builders are generally creation-based activities like blogging, publishing landing pages, and writing website copy. Drivers are activities that drive new traffic, visibility, or lead generation, often with a paid investment.

Both builders and drivers together are important for the quality and scale of your digital marketing efforts. SEO can generate longer-term results, while SEM usually pays off immediately. By having both, you gain near-term insight and leads while also building something robust for the long-term.

Want to learn more about SEO vs SEM? Here are some links for additional reading.




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Ironpaper is a results-driven digital marketing agency. Ironpaper integrates design, technology and marketing for the web to drive meaningful results for clients. We are based in New York City and Charlotte, NC.