What is the Difference Between SEO and SEM?

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Search Engine Optimization (SEO) versus Search Engine Marketing (SEM). It sounds like an inter-association wrestling showdown. “Oooh lawd, SEO is gunna CRUSH IT this year.”

But that really couldn’t be further from the truth. Search engine optimization versus search engine marketing is not a battle to the death at all. It’s about comparing the two strategies, and seeing how each can uniquely assist you with your marketing, and how they might be able to work together.

No choke holds here.

For those unfamiliar with the terms (and from here on in you’ll just have to find a way to cope with the acronyms), SEO and SEM are just two simple strategies that enable you to market yourself through search engines.


SEO is all about optimising your website so it ranks as high as possible in the search results. There are a whole host of strategies that will assist in bumping up your ranking by making your site Google beautiful. While you’d normally pay for a professional to optimize your site, there are no marketing dollars going directly to the search engine, and your search engine ranking is an organic result of your behind-the-scenes efforts.

SEM, on the other hand, is the option in which you pay Google directly to ensure you show at the very top of the page when your specific keywords are typed. A pay-per-click fee is usually charged, and you have full control over what keywords you’d like your site to be aligned with, as well as controlling a host of other variables to get the exact audience you desire.

So what is better?

The Costs

One of the first considerations when deciding on your online marketing strategy will be to figure out what the constraints of your budget are, and how you’d like to spend it.

I’ll come right out and say it – SEM is a far easier system to track the results of when compared to SEO. If you’re looking for hard numbers on how fruitful your marketing investment was, it’s a no contest. SEM options such as Google Adwords give you a mess of analytics with which to judge your success, and by choosing a pay-per-click version, you can ensure that you’re only paying for those who actually used the link provided, rather than those that just blindly scrolled past your ad.

SEO, on the other hand, requires a little more faith. The investment is spent on ensuring the cogs are well-oiled in the back room, and how that transfers to the front is a little harder to gauge. There are ways to track the search engine performance and click-through rate of your site pre- and post-SEO, but the numbers just aren’t as hard and fast as those with SEM, so it is far more difficult to track performance.


The Process

SEM is instant gratification. You can set up an SEM campaign in the time it takes you to boil a kettle. You can start to get results from an SEM campaign while you’re drinking your fresh-brewed coffee. You could be done with your SEM campaign when you wash your mug three days later.

A three day dishwashing turnaround is normal, yeah?

An SEO option is a comparative long game. It’s about getting the core and the structure of your site to a point where quick-fire SEM campaigns aren’t required at all. You can wait up to a year for the fruits of your labour to materialize into a result, but what comes to those who wait?

Good things.

The Results

And those good things are worth waiting for. Think about it. How often do you mindlessly scroll past those sponsored ads at the top of your search results? Often? Internet users have learnt, subconsciously or no, that you can scan straight past those first few results with the yellow ad square next to them without paying them any sort of heed.

What SEO does, is put your website as an uncontrived, legitimate option to the searcher’s query. Sure, it is harder to track results. Sure, you’ll have to play the long game and can’t expect instant success. But it is an investment in your organization’s online future.

Both SEM and SEO have their place. They are very different strategies that seek to solve the exact same problem. Using them in tandem is as good a strategy as any. Why not get started on SEO development, and use SEM to hit the first page of results while you’re waiting for it to gather steam?

There’s no right or wrong answer to the question of search engine marketing. As long as that question isn’t “should I bother with online marketing?

Then the answer would be a fervent YES.

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