The difference between SEO and SEM

Marketing, SEO, Web Development
11 September 2017

While Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) can seem similar to the average person, they perform two very unique functions. That said, these two terms are often used interchangeably—and the two concepts work best when used together—so it’s no wonder so many people are left confused.

In this article, we’re going to clear up a few of the common misconceptions between SEO and SEM. We’ll uncover what exactly the differences are, and how can you use them together to maximise your results. Read on to find out.

What is SEO?

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) generally covers the techniques used by businesses to ‘organically’ increase search traffic. By organic, we mean search traffic that isn’t paid for by Google AdWords or similar pay-per-click programs.

Technically, SEO is one component of SEM. However, it’s an industry of its own, as it’s constantly shifting and evolving to keep up with Google’s ever-changing algorithms. SEO broadly consists of two categories: on-page SEO, and off-page SEO.


On-page SEO includes:

  • Keywords (and appropriate metadata!)
  • Web content, such as copy and blog posts
  • Page hierarchy and navigation (no broken links!)
  • Clean and clear page coding
  • Mobile optimization


Off-page SEO includes:

  • How many other sites link to your site
  • Social media connections


SEO practices are constantly changing, which is why so many businesses opt to hire SEO specialists. Google’s algorithms are also constantly evolving, and what might boost your search ranking one day can penalise you the next.

What is SEM?

Search Engine Marketing can encompass SEO strategies, but expands to include paid search strategy and other marketing tactics.

More: Maximising Your Marketing Strategy: The Importance of Repurposing Content


SEM includes:

  • AdWords
  • Pay-per-click campaigns
  • Social media marketing
  • Search engine optimization
  • And more!

While SEO is a core component of and SEM strategy, the two are not interchangeable. SEO doesn’t encompass a lot of the tactics used by marketers. And some marketers might prioritise paid SEM techniques over organic search. Why? Well it all depends on what your businesses goals, budget and desired outcomes are.

When should I use SEM vs SEO?

There are no hard and fast rules about what SEM and SEO tactics are best for your business. However, there are some advantages to each. While all businesses should be attempting to build strong SEO organically, new businesses will benefit from pay-per-click SEM campaigns to generate traffic when they’re just starting out. For brands with a stronger presence, AdWords campaigns may complement strong SEO by placing them in front of customers twice when they search certain keywords.


If you’re unsure how to use SEO and SEM most effectively for your business, contact JTB today. We can help you identify opportunities to help boost your online traffic strategically and cost-effectively.


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