• The Difference Between SEO and SEM: Effective Search Engine Optimization Explained

Are you confused about the difference between search engine optimization and search engine marketing? If so, you’re not alone. These two terms can be very confusing, especially to small business owners who are trying to develop an effective Internet marketing strategy on their own.

So, what is the difference between SEO and SEM? While both SEO and SEM are related tools that work together to drive traffic and increase your rankings, which one works better and why? Let’s explore the difference between SEO and SEM and show you how to create tangible results for your business through the use of SEO vs. SEM.

different between seo and sem

What is Search Engine Optimization or SEO?

Search engine optimization (SEO) is a subsection of Search Engine Marketing or SEM designed to maximize the amount of organic web traffic a company gets to their site. Since there are over 3.5 billion Google searches every day, we’ll use Google as an example for how SEO works.

The goal of SEO is to make relevant keywords and content on your website stand out to Google’s Internet-probing robots and get your business on the first page of Google. Despite Google’s ever-evolving algorithms designed to improve users’ search results, if your website has effective and current SEO practices in place, Google will recognize your site as one of the most relevant and authoritative sources of information pertaining to a specific search, and list your website higher up on a potential customer’s Search Engine Results Page (SERP). This article shows how easy it can be to get your own site ranking on the first page of Google.

Onsite and Offsite SEO

Both on-site and off-site SEO practices help to boost a website’s ranking on a Search Engine Results Page (SERP). The most common element of onsite SEO that small business owners are familiar with is the use of targeted keywords to boost rankings.

However, there is much more to SEO than this. It is important to perform keyword research to ensure you are effectively reaching the customers who are most likely to purchase your product or perform your call to action. There are many tools available to help you perform your own keyword research, including Google AdWords’ Keyword Planner and other free alternatives.

Onsite SEO

Once you’ve chosen the best keywords for your site, the next step is to embed them in your web content where Google can easily identify them.

Keyword placement is a large part of onsite SEO, which also includes:

  • Using keywords within title tags, headings, alt tags, image tags, and meta tags
  • Regularly updating blogs and page content, with keywords placed naturally throughout
  • Properly formatting URLS with keywords
  • Improving page load speeds
  • Integrating social media
  • Internal linking

Off-Site SEO

While on-site SEO is important, off-site SEO will also help you get found by search engines and is therefore important for your small business. Off-Site SEO includes:

As Google’s algorithm has evolved over the years, the practice of link building has changed as well. Today, it is not just a function of how many links direct back to your site. The authority and quality of the sites you are linked from is also a factor Google uses to determine if your site is a credible source.

What is Search Engine Marketing or SEM?

Search Engine Marketing or SEM, is the larger bubble that incorporates SEO, PPC or CPC, and other forms of paid Internet advertising. While SEM incorporates many other aspects of Internet marketing, the biggest difference between SEO and SEM is this:

SEO is a portion of SEM that focuses on gaining organic search traffic while SEM focuses on gaining search traffic through the use of paid advertisements.

Common Methods of SEM include:

  • SEO (free)
  • Paid Inclusion
  • Traditional Ads
  • PPC (Pay-per-click) Advertising

When you type a search phrase into Google, you will notice that there are several results on the top and side of the SERP that have a yellow “Ad” logo next to them. These are the results that Google promotes because a business is using paid SEM to be listed here for those specific keywords. Using PPC (or pay-per-click) campaigns as a part of your Internet marketing strategy will allow your business to be listed at the top of the page immediately for a particular keyword.

[Related: Google AdWords for Small Businesses]

What is a PPC Campaign?

We won’t get too in-depth about PPC campaigns here, but here’s a brief overview of how they work and why they matter. Businesses pay to have their advertisement listed in one of these reserved spots on Google’s SERP when a particular keyword phrase is searched. A cost-per-click bidding method allows businesses to pay a designated amount every time a user clicks on their ad, rather than paying a flat fee or daily rate to rent this ad space. (So essentially, they only pay when their ad is working). If a certain keyword phrase is searched very frequently and there are many different companies competing to be listed for that keyword phrase, the cost-per-click will be higher than the price for a keyword that rarely gets searched. For competitive keyword phrases, this can get pretty expensive, but it gets your site ranked highest on the page.

Many companies use PPC campaigns for very specific long-tail keywords because the person searching Google knows exactly what they’re looking for and is likely to purchase it if they click on your ad. Google AdWords is the most common platform where PPC campaigns are built and run, but many small business owners find it confusing and complex. ThriveHive makes paid search engine marketing easy with this free eBook on how to use Google AdWords to set up a simple PPC campaign.

So Which is Better? SEO or SEM?

Effective search engine optimization is the most important part of building your online web presence. Search engine marketing is an invaluable tool for driving specific consumers directly to the products they’re looking for. SEO and SEM go hand in hand, but they are not two terms used interchangeably for the same thing.

In order for SEM to be a worthwhile investment for your small business, it is a good idea to have effective SEO already in place. No matter where you are in the process of starting your online business, be sure to invest some time and money into performing local SEO keyword research and fully optimizing your website before making a large investment in paid advertising.


  1. Jasper says:

    Great information. I learned a lot. SEO and SEM are both important, in my own opinion. If you do great on both marketing strategy, that’s a good thing.

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