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SEM vs SEO: What’s the difference?

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) and Search engine optimization (SEO) are essential marketing strategies in the world of online business. These two might be confusing for some people because they sound synonymous but the fact is they are exactly different from one another. So, SEM vs SEO: What’s the difference?


First, let us discuss the similarities between these two.

Both SEM and SEO …
Both help a brand appear in search results.
Both are designed to drive more traffic to a website.
Both require knowing your audience.
Both use keyword research to uncover popular search terms.
Both target specific keywords.
Both require testing and continual optimization.


Search Engine Marketing (SEM) vs Search engine optimization (SEO) Definitions

“Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of optimizing your online content so that a search engine likes to show it as a top result for searches of a certain keyword.” A definition from Neil Patel.

According to an article in WordStream, “Search engine marketing (SEM) is the practice of marketing a business using paid advertisements that appear on search engine results pages (or SERPs). Advertisers bid on keywords that users of services such as Google and Bing might enter when looking for certain products or services, which gives the advertiser the opportunity for their ads to appear alongside results for those search queries.”


Now, let us differentiate these two marketing strategies to find out which one is better to help you reach your marketing goals.

Below is an infographic from Delhi School of Internet Marketing showing a comparative study of SEO vs. SEM:

Search Engine Optimization

  • Organic
  • Cost-effective
  • Steady
  • Time Consuming
  • Difficult to Measure
  • User Friendly
  • Dependent
  • SEO = Google

Search Engine Marketing

  • Paid
  • Expensive
  • Inconsistent
  • Instant
  • Easy to Monitor
  • Lack of Trust
  • Independent
  • SEM = Google + Bing


Another image from Alexa Blog shows the differences between SEM vs. SEO

SEM vs SEO: What's the difference?


In Radd Interactive website, they differentiate these two as “In simple terms, SEO focuses on just optimizing for search results traffic – usually by optimizing website content. SEM involves the entire range of search marketing opportunities available including those that go beyond SEO, like paid-ad spots on search engines and paid social media marketing.

SEM involves using the full range of search marketing tools including SEO, Pay-per-Click advertising, social media advertising and Google or Bing shopping campaigns. SEO is still considered a part of SEM since it’s a valid method of marketing in the world of web search. One that exploits search engine algorithms to naturally rank higher on search results pages.”

Overall, the main difference between SEM vs. SEO is that SEM is a paid strategy and SEO is an organic strategy.

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References: (Grabbed Photo)