difference between seo and semAs marketing has evolved, so has the language we use as marketers. We’re all guilty of tossing around various jargon and acronyms on a daily basis that often leave our clients confused. And in fact, we as marketers are probably confused ourselves at times on what certain terms and acronyms mean.

An example of this are two terms and acronyms that are often used interchangeably without clear understanding of how they’re related and how they’re different: SEO & SEM.

Here’s an elementary level overview on the key differences between SEO and SEM.

To sum it up, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a component of the larger category known as Search Engine Marketing (SEM) or Search Marketing for short. This doesn’t explain the full story obviously, so lets dig into the specifics.


SEO as defined by Wikipedia is “The process of affecting the visibility of a website or a web page in a search engine’s ‘natural’ or un-paid (‘organic’) search results.” The industry and discipline of SEO is continually evolving to keep up with Google’s ever-changing algorithm, but one thing is constant: SEO is made up of On-Page and Off-Page (aka “On-Site” and “Off-Site”) activities as the two main pillars.

On-Page SEO consists of:

Off-Page SEO consists of:

  • Link building to attract and obtain quality inbound links (aka “back links”)
    • This makes up the large majority of Off-Page SEO as a whole
  • Social sharing signals
  • Social bookmarking
  • and the list goes on here too!


SEM as defined by Wikipedia is “A form of internet marketing that involves the promotion of websites by increasing their visibility in search engine results pages (SERPs) through optimization and advertising.” Note that compared to SEO, SEM includes the use of paid search results, such as pay per click (PPC) listings and ads. In some contexts, the term SEM is strictly used by marketers to refer to their PPC campaigns and activities. But if you utilize both organic SEO and paid search, it’s accurate to say these fall within your SEM efforts.


Advocates on either side could argue one is better than the other; as an Inbound Marketer I have bias for the organic SEO approach but as I’ve outlined, true SEM still incorporates the use of organic SEO.

There are many situations when PPC makes sense. For example, if a new company was launching their first website and initial online footprint, they’re likely going to need some immediate visibility in search until they build up some organic credibility since this process takes time. With a strategic PPC campaign, they’d be able to achieve this. What they shouldn’t do, though, is rely strictly on PPC long-term and not address organic SEO, since it’s proven that PPC performance is dwindling as we get smarter as creatures of search.

Organic SEO is also less costly long-term as you establish search credibility, as long as you maintain it with the consistent creation of quality content and social media usage.

So, evaluate what’s best for your specific needs but make sure you fully understand the differences and how you’ll maintain your efforts long-term.

To learn more about the latest SEO best practices, dig into our FREE eBook: The SEO Survival Guide.

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