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SEO and SEM - What Are Their Similarities and Differences

updated on Oct 09, 2015
SEO and SEM - What Are Their Similarities and Differences The terms SEO and SEM cause much confusion for beginners as they are similar to each other and sometimes used interchangeably. Both of them are to optimize the visibility of your website in search engine results pages (SERPs), but in fact, they are different services when the tactics are taken into consideration.

This post offers the basic information about the two phrases, and analyzes the similarities and differences so that you can decide which to use when optimizing your website and trying to get more traffic.

What Is SEO?

SEO, as the abbreviation of search engine optimization, is a process of bringing the maximum free traffic to a website by helping the site gain high rankings in the search results of a search engine such as Google, Bing and Yahoo.

Successful SEO makes a website easily found and understood by search engines, which brings more chances for the site to get favorable rankings. As people are likely to click the first results when conducting a search, good rankings drive a lot of natural traffic.

SEO guidelines keep changing as search engines, especially Google, update their algorithms constantly. But one thing stays the same: you should perform both on-page SEO and off-page SEO if you want your website to be loved by search engines.

On-page SEO

On-page SEO refers to the optimization activities that you can apply on your website to make it search engine friendly. Basically, it includes:
  • Creating fresh and quality content.
  • Writing good post titles and meta descriptions with keywords included.
  • Optimizing the URL structure.
  • Using the proper heading tags.
  • Improving the website speed.

Off-page SEO

Off-page SEO helps you build the reputation of your website by getting "votes" (links) from other quality websites. With the better reputation, search engines trust your site more and rank it higher. Off-page SEO usually includes:
  • Using social media marketing to reach out to a larger audience.
  • Creating a natural and quality backlink profile.
  • Submitting your site on social bookmarking sites like Stumbleupon and Digg.
Remember that SEO is a long-term task which should be done naturally, and you may not see the desired results within a few months. There is no shortcut. All the tactics introduced above are white hat SEO techniques which you should always use. Also, never try to fool search engines with black hat SEO strategies like buying links, or you can get penalized.

What Is SEO

What Is SEM?

SEM, search engine marketing, is a series of marketing strategies and actions that boost a website by increasing its visibility in search engines primarily. It is a broader term than SEO because it includes not only natural ranking optimization, but also paid listings and other related services.

In an SEM campaign, you should consider how to focus on the site ranking consistently for organic search by the optimization internally and externally, as well as managing the keyword bidding in the paid search network if you have the budget.

What Are the Similarities and Differences?

From the explanations above you can see that the only similarity between the two terms is the goal. They both aim to increase the traffic of a website by making it more visible in SERPs.

The differences are many more, and the most important ones are listed in below.
  • SEM has a broader concept than SEO. SEO is only a component of SEM which also includes paid advertising.
  • SEM traffic is more expensive. As is explained, SEO is low-cost or even free if you do not use paid services or software from the third party. SEM, however, puts more emphasis on paid traffic and usually pays for each click.
  • SEM traffic is more targeted. In the case that you have launched a good SEM campaign, your ads are displayed to many potential consumers who are exactly looking for your services or products, which could result in a high conversion rate.
What Are the Differences

Which Should You Choose?

SEO and SEM are not competing with each other. In fact, you cannot ignore SEO when you want to achieve success with SEM. Every website should value SEO.

If you are in the following situations, you can practice SEO only without trying SEM.
  • Do not want to invest much in website promotion.
  • Do not sell products or services directly on your website.
  • Want to establish credibility in search engines.
However, if you want to achieve one of the following results, using paid advertising is a good idea.
  • Get immediate visibility in search engines when you are launching a new website.
  • Increase the conversion rate effectively and gain more sales of your products or services.
For online businesses, it would be suggested to combine SEO and SEM to get visible in both organic search engine results and advertisements. It's unwise to stick with PPC only without optimizing the website content and links.