SEO vs SEM: What’s the Real Difference and Why Does It Matter?

Seo And Sem

Digital marketing continues to evolve by leaps and bounds, and so does the language associated with it. You don’t have to look far to find plenty of acronyms and jargon bandied about by online marketers. 

For example, what’s the deal when it comes to SEO vs. SEM? While you probably have a basic knowledge of SEO as a way to bring more traffic to your website and pages through organic search traffic, throwing the term SEM into the mix muddies the waters.

What’s more, the two terms have a symbiotic relationship, yet they cannot be used interchangeably. (Although people do it all the time.) Confusing, right?

Fortunately, understanding the similarities and differences between SEO and SEM will help you better leverage their full potential. With this knowledge, you can ramp up your digital marketing efforts and results. 

Let’s dive into a thorough explanation of how SEO and SEM relate to one another. 


First, though can we agree on something? Online, you can’t make money without an audience. Period.

That’s why SEM and SEO came into being in the first place. 

SEM stands for search engine marketing. Historically, it encompassed a variety of digital marketing tactics aimed at bringing in more organic and paid traffic. 

SEO refers to search engine optimization. This approach attracts an audience to your website and pages by way of organic traffic. SEO traditionally represented just one aspect of a robust SEM plan, but things have changed.

Today, SEM refers solely to paid search while SEO references organic strategies to attract more customers. These strategies include the conscientious placement of keywords in original content. 

While both strategies represent critical aspects of a solid online marketing strategy, these terms should not be used interchangeably. 

An Overview of Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

SEO is an excellent strategy for bringing organic traffic to your website, and it’s one you can’t do without.

Over time, the factors that SEO covers have expanded dramatically as digital marketers continue trying to “chase” Google’s ever-changing algorithms. SEO is all about knowing these algorithmic changes and then using them to your advantage.

That way, when your ideal customer searches Google for something related to your company’s products and services, they’ll get directed to you and NOT your competition. 

After all, no website receives more traffic around the world than Google. So, directing even a small fraction of that traffic back to your website or landing pages can mean millions of views. 

Fortunately, optimized content stays on top as long as it’s relevant. A top-ranked Google post can sit on page one of Google search for months or even years, unlike paid search, which times out as soon as your campaign comes to an end. 

Nonetheless, SEO relies on two main pillars of activity, on-page and off-page practices, for support.

On-Page SEO

When it comes to on-page SEO, this refers to a variety of content that will affect how your pages rank on Google. For example, you must start with well-written and well-optimized page copy. 

You also need strategic keyword research that helps your company’s ideal audience find your content during searches. 

Another important aspect of on-page SEO involves the optimization of page speed. Using simple, well-formatted page URLs with particular keywords also matters.

Optimized metadata remains critical, too. Metadata covers everything from crafting meta descriptions to page title tags, heading tags, image ALT tags, and inclusion of strategic keywords. 

Other Aspects of On-Page SEO to Consider

You should also ensure your website and landing pages benefit from optimized page speeds. In other words, your pages need to load quickly. Load speed represents an essential component of ranking well in search engines, particularly Google.

Social sharing integrations are another vital factor when building and expanding your organic audience. 

Of course, on-page SEO ultimately requires the creation of high-quality content that adds value to your readers’ lives.

Gone are the days of riddling your web copy with keywords. Keyword stuffing’s also one of the easiest ways to get knocked down in Google rankings. Instead, focus on crafting content that’s relevant to your users and will keep them coming back for more. 

Off-Page SEO 

Off-page SEO refers to things that you do in other places on the internet to bring a wider audience back to your content. In 2020, one of the most critical aspects of this is link building.

Link building requires actively obtaining backlinks or inbound links. These links make up the majority of off-page SEO.

There are a variety of techniques for building backlinks. One of our favorites? Contacting webmasters to let them know about broken links on their sites and then suggesting some of your own website links to replace them.

Posting infographics represents another vital way to draw more attention to your website and bring in more backlinks. After all, people love infographics, and many bloggers and website owners relish sharing them with their audience. 

Guest blogging is another excellent way to ensure more backlinks to your website. It also helps you build company authority and website credibility.

Want to deep dive into other link building strategies? Check out the top link building techniques on the planet.

But don’t stop there! You also want to increase traffic to your website or landing pages by harnessing the power of social sharing via social media.

This approach might involve sending out new social posts every time you publish original content, for example. That way, you actively draw people back to your website.

Another excellent off-page SEO strategy involves attracting attention from social bookmarking sites such as Stumbleupon, Digg, and Reddit.

The Bottom Line When It Comes to On-Page and Off-Page SEO

So, how do you incorporate all of these tactics into an effective SEO strategy? There’s no simple answer to this question, and that’s why the most effective businesses turn to professional marketers to help them attract more organic traffic. 

That said, a reputable SEO agency should help you create high-quality, valuable content that your target audience will perceive as useful and relevant. A skilled agency will ensure this content adds value and establishes your company’s credibility.

They should also help your organization build backlinks by reaching out to other websites, and they should ensure you gain traffic through the advantageous use of social media and bookmarking sites. 

An Overview of Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

Now that you’ve got a more robust concept of what SEO involves, let’s turn our attention towards the principles and strategies associated with search engine marketing (SEM). SEM refers to techniques used to increase search visibility through paid means.

These paid means include advertisements that appear on search engines such as Google. These ads are often referred to as pay-per-click ads (PPC).

Why? Because they compel potential customers to click on a link for more details. Or they ask customers to take another action.

You might also see aspects of SEM referred to as paid search ads, paid search advertising, or cost-per-click (CPC) ads.

What’s so great about SEM? It allows you to target potential customers through relevant ad copy and keywords. These keywords will match specific search queries.

You’ll find PPC ads on search engine results pages or SERPs (see what we mean about digital marketers liking acronyms?) In other words, these ads show up next to organic traffic results. 

These ads provide your company with the chance to gain visibility and attract new visitors to your blog posts, landing pages, and other web pages. 

Examples of Search Engine Marketing Strategies

Of all the various types of search engine marketing out there, by far, the most common form remains Google Ads. There is no other search engine platform that proves more popular when it comes to hosting ads. 

That said, you may also wish to consider Yahoo or Bing search ads. How will you know which search engine is best for hosting your paid content? Always go where your customers are. 

In most cases, of course, that will be Google. 

No matter where you choose to launch your campaign, here are some strategies that’ll help you get the biggest bang for your buck. 

First, always launch your ad campaigns with a specific audience in mind. That means knowing everything from the industry they work in to their geographic location and interests.

Second, make sure you create an ads group that incorporates target keyword variations. Third, relevant copy remains vital, so don’t shirk when it comes to presenting useful information to your customers combined with selective keywords.

Fourth, set an ad budget that you feel comfortable with. Fifth, monitor your ad’s metrics throughout the process. What do we mean by “metrics”? These are figures related to impressions, clicks, click-through rates, and average cost-per-click. 

One of the best aspects of SEM remains your ability to monitor campaigns in real-time. Then, as needed, you can make adjustments. That means no more wasted ad spend, but it does require consistently keeping an eye on things. 

SEO vs. SEM: Which One Is Better? 

Like apples to oranges, SEO and SEM can’t be compared in a linear fashion because they represent two very different approaches to attracting website traffic. Nonetheless, each comes with pros and cons.

For example, SEO involves a lengthy process that requires patience and the consistent implementation of a strong content marketing strategy. After all, you need relevant content to place your keywords, and it takes time to increase rankings.

As for SEM, it comes with short, quick gains. But these last only as long as your ads do.  What’s more, you need to think long and hard about where you’re sending people with your ads. 

What do we mean by this? Simply, if your website doesn’t establish your authority through engaging, compelling content, then people will be underwhelmed after clicking on your ads. The same goes for websites that load slowly or look unprofessional.

If you’re going to pay the big bucks for people to visit your site, don’t let their experience fall flat because you haven’t taken the time to fully establish your company’s online presence. That’s a waste of money. 

What’s the bottom line? You need both SEO and SEM. While you’ll meet advocates on both sides who argue the effectiveness of one over the other, both approaches offer extreme value to your company.

It would be a shame not to take full advantage of each one, especially since they dovetail beautifully. Relying on a fast solution, like SEM, will buy you the time necessary to build a high-quality SEO foundation. 

SEO vs. SEM and Why It Matters to Your Company

When it comes to SEO vs. SEM, think of them as a complementary pair. Now that you’ve got a better understanding of each of these concepts, you also know more about the focus, energy, and skill it takes to run a successful digital marketing campaign.

As digital marketing continues to transform, your company must stay on the cutting edge of these changes. Of course, trying to do this along with running your company and making money can prove overwhelming.

That’s why the most successful online companies turn to an affordable SEO expert for guidance and strategic help. Having the right SEO team on your side can mean the difference between a thriving online business and one that attracts little to no traffic.

At Top Spot, we take SEO and SEM seriously. We’d love to help your company dominate online in 2020 and beyond with our expertise and unique approach to digital marketing. Contact us to discuss the possibilities of a beneficial collaboration.