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Updated on February 5, 2016

What's the Difference Between SEO and SEM?

Sometimes the terms SEO and SEM are used interchangeably. However, they are not the same. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is also known as organic search. SEO is the process of maximizing the number of visitors to a site by making sure that the site appears high on the Search Engine Result Page (SERP). Search Engine Marketing (SEM) encompasses both SEO and paid search results.

SEO includes any activities done to increase a website’s rank on the SERP. These activities can range from things done on the webpage itself, such as using HTML best practices (using headings, alt text, meta descriptions, title tags, etc.), posting relevant content regularly and properly using keywords without keyword stuffing. SEO also includes activities not on the webpage itself, such as using social media, backlinking, and bookmarking sites (e.g. Reddit).

According to Wikipedia, “Search engine marketing is a form of Internet marketing that involved the promotion of websites by increasing their visibility in search engine results pages (SERPS) through optimization and advertising.” SEO is the large, organic portion of SEM. The other component is paid search, mainly pay-per-click ads which appear on the top or side column of a SERP.

SEO is vital to any SEM campaign. SEO is free, in that there’s no direct cost for optimizing your website. However, depending on the complexity of your site, there could be a significant cost in either man hours or a consultant fee. Paid search techniques require an initial investment, and the cost of upkeep, but doesn’t require as much initial expertise. Paid search is much quicker to get off the ground.

Organic search methods take a long time to yield results. Paid search ads are much quicker. Additionally, it’s much easier to track the results of paid search techniques. You can easily track what keywords or campaigns yielded the highest increase in traffic and sales. However, organic search techniques yield a long-term result. Once you have optimized your website, you’re likely to stay on the top until a competitor comes up with a method to top you. With paid ads, as soon as you stop paying for the keyword, you stop getting hits.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both organic and paid search techniques. It is important to determine your website’s goals before you decide which method to use. However, SEO continues to be important to every SEM campaign. Searchers trust the highest ranked organic results over lower ranked results, and sometimes over paid results. Additionally, many searchers habitually “tune out” the paid results.


Rende, N. (June 19, 2014). What's the Difference Between SEO and SEM? Retrieved from:

Search engine marketing. (n.d.) Retrieved September 14, 2015 from Wikipedia:


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