If you’re a business owner looking to harness the power of digital marketing, you must have frequently encountered two terms- SEO and SEM. For a beginner in the field of Digital Marketing, these two terms can be very confusing, especially given that they are often used interchangeably.

With the escalating importance of Online Marketing to promote businesses on the internet, these two acronyms have become a part and parcel of every professional online marketer. However, as a business owner, it is imperative to understand the key differences between the two so that you can effectively execute your brand campaigns.

Search engine marketing (SEM) and search engine optimization (SEO) are related terms as they both revolve around getting customers to your website. But if we take a closer look, they are actually two completely different traffic generation methods. Let’s explore the differences and similarities between SEO and SEM to understand how they both complement each other in any marketing plan.

Search Marketing

In today’s digital era, brands are competing to attract attention and drive website traffic by appearing on search engine results pages (SERPs). As such, you can grow your business with the help of Search Marketing which uses tactics to get higher rankings and increase search visibility to drive more traffic to your website. To achieve this, search marketing relies on SEO and SEM. In simplest words-

  • SEO means the use of ORGANIC strategies to rank higher in search results.
  • SEM refers to use of PAID strategies to appear in search results.

What is SEO?

As a part of search marketing, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) uses unpaid, ORGANIC tactics to gain visibility in SERPs. SEO strategy makes use of methods to optimize your website to generate organic traffic when people search for related keywords in search engines like Google and Bing. As compared to SEM, SEO usually has long term benefits for your digital marketing and lead generation strategy.

To help businesses increase their search rankings, SEO techniques under three categories are employed.

1. On-page SEO: Under this method, each page of a website is optimized to target a specific keyword. To make a website rank higher, on-page optimization method includes keyword research, content creation, and keyword optimization. Content marketing and frequent publishing of quality content help generate organic traffic.

2. Off-page SEO: Here the focus is on link-building and other off-page factors such as earning social signals. By connecting your website to other high-quality websites with the help of backlinks, your search rankings will improve. This will make your website more reliable and trustworthy for search engines.

3. Technical SEO: Here the non-content elements of a website are optimized by ensuring site speed, mobile friendliness, indexing, crawlability, site architecture, structured data, and security. These tactics help in gaining higher search rankings by enhancing the experience of users and making the website easily “crawlable” by search engines.

What is SEM?

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is a broader term that encompasses many activities to gain visibility in SERPs. It uses PAID methods and tools such as paid advertising platforms and other tricks to increase your visibility and convert more searchers into business leads. By investing in pay-per-click advertising or other paid search engine options, businesses can grow quickly. This strategy mostly uses Google Ads (formerly Google Adwords) where brands conduct keyword research to create campaigns that target the best keywords for their industry, products, or services. The brand’s ads appear on the SERPs when users search for those keywords. Other methods in this strategy include creating and updating search engine listings for your company. Also, getting high ratings and positive Google reviews from your customers is a part of SEM.


The objective of both, SEM and SEO is to help a brand appear higher in search results when users search for their business-related terms. However, unlike SEO, SEM search placements include an “Ad” designation. This means that the search results that appear as a result of SEM or SEO look different on SERPs. SEO search results have featured snippets, whereas SEM search results usually show ad extensions and sometimes phone numbers and callouts. If you’re perplexed that which one is best for your business, look at what your competitors are doing.