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What's the difference between SEO and SEM?

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) are two terms that are often confused. While they are related, they are not the same thing. Understanding the difference between the two can help you better navigate the world of online marketing and make informed decisions about your digital strategy.

In this post you’ll learn:

(A heads up: This post contains an affiliate link for SEMrush. I use SEMrush, and I recommend it. If you make a purchase through an affiliate link, I will receive a small commission.)

What is SEO?

Let’s start by defining SEO. SEO refers to the practice of optimizing your website and its content to improve its visibility and ranking in search engine results pages (SERPs). The goal of SEO is to increase organic (unpaid) traffic to your website by improving its relevance and authority in the eyes of search engines like Google.

So what exactly does that mean? Essentially, it involves making changes to your website’s structure, design, and content to make it more attractive and user-friendly for both search engines and users. This can include things like using relevant keywords, creating high-quality content, optimizing images and meta tags and descriptions, improving website speed, and building high-quality backlinks.

You can use a tool like SEMrush to help you build your content and keyword strategy by finding relevant keywords with low competition and relatively high volume. A SEMrush site audit will also alert you to any technical issues that may be negatively impacting your SEO.

What is SEM?

SEM uses paid methods to appear in search results. Also known as pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, SEM includes: search ads, shopping ads, display ads, Gmail ads, and YouTube ads.

The definition of SEM has undergone slight changes over time, adding to the confusion between SEO and SEM. However, the current consensus is that SEO is primarily concerned with organic search rankings, while SEM involves paid strategies.

With SEM, you have the ability to bid on specific keywords and create ads that appear at the top of search engine results pages. These ads are typically marked as “sponsored” or “ad” and are displayed based on the relevance and bid amount.

With PPC advertising, you only pay when someone clicks on your ad, making it a cost-effective way to drive targeted traffic to your website.

Differences between SEO and SEM

Aside from the paid vs unpaid distinction, one of the main differences between SEO and SEM is that SEO is a long-term strategy that requires ongoing effort and patience to see results, while SEM can deliver quicker, more immediate results. SEO focuses on organic (unpaid) traffic, while SEM boosts traffic by ensuring your site is displayed at the top of a search results page.


In conclusion, understanding the difference between SEO and SEM is crucial for developing a successful digital marketing strategy. By leveraging both strategies effectively, you can enhance your online presence, attract targeted traffic, and ultimately achieve your business objectives.

If you need help with your SEO, check out my website audit package! You’ll get a report of any technical issues negatively impacting your search rankings and recommendations to improve your site’s performance as a marketing asset. 

Marketing Blog Author Jenn Yamnitz image

About Jennifer Yamnitz

Jenn is an independent marketing consultant and owner of Adance Communications, LLC. She has more than 20 years of experience in marketing-related fields and has a unique, comprehensive perspective of marketing and branding having worked in PR, graphic design, and marketing over the course of her career.

In 2022 she earned a master’s degree in marketing from the University of Arizona Eller College of Management – one of the top ranking M.S.M. programs in the U.S.

Her mission is to help small businesses and nonprofits with limited budgets get the most out of their marketing investment.

Have a marketing challenge you want to discuss? Schedule a consultation to explore how we can work together to maximize your marketing efforts.