SEO v.s. SEM: What’s the difference?

The marketing industry is booming, and along with this upward trend comes a plethora of new terminology. Which, if we’re being honest, can be insanely difficult to keep up with. Just when we were starting to wrap our minds around search engine optimization (SEO), search engine marketing (SEM) popped up on the radar. These two terms have been used interchangeably, which just adds to the confusion. SEO… SEM… how about SOS?! However, SEO and SEM do have some major differences, and we’re here to help clear things up.

SEO optimizes your content for maximum visibility on search engine results pages. When your website is one of the top results on the first page, this increases traffic to your website. SEM is more focused on Internet marketing to increase a site’s visibility through organic search engine results and advertising. But that doesn’t really explain too much if you are unaware of the components of each, so we’ll break it down:


The ultimate goal of SEO is to increase the quality and quantity of traffic to your website through organic methods. This means you don’t have to pay to get your content seen, as it will be relevant enough to appeal to Internet users over your competitors. SEO consists of:

  • Incorporating specific keywords throughout your content, especially into titles, meta descriptions, heading tags, alt text, etc in a natural way
  • Content and page copy is optimized with these keywords as well
  • Cleanly formatted pages
  • Quickly loading pages
  • Google authorship incorporated
  • Streamlined social media sharing abilities


SEM does often include SEO tactics, but it also incorporates other internet marketing strategies as well. SEM uses the paid services that SEO does not, such as pay per click (PPC) listings and advertisements. SEM also uses social media marketing.

In short, the main difference is that SEM incorporates paid methods while SEO focuses on getting your content out there naturally and organically. And it’s important to note that SEO can be SEM, but SEM cannot be SEO.

SEO vs SEM: Which one is right for you?

Now that you have a good idea of what the differences between the two are, you may be wondering which one would work best for the kind of marketing you do, or plan to do. It’s important to evaluate your specific needs first, as your approach will depend on a variety of different factors. Nicole Rende, a Digital Media Specialist and writer for Hubspot says “As an Inbound Marketer, I would argue that organic SEO is the best approach, but as you can see, true SEM cannot succeed without the use of organic SEO. Additionally, there are many situations where PPC (a component of SEM) makes more sense than SEO.” She says, for example, if you were a company launching your new website and you wanted immediate visibility, it would be best to spring for a PPC campaign because it works quickly to get fast results. However, she advises eventually leaning on SEO as well, as you don’t want to rely solely on SEM. Organic SEO produces results much more slowly, but in the long term it will be less costly and you will establish search credibility, which will be crucial for future endeavors.