Search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) can be confusing concepts to grasp, especially when the terms are mistakenly used interchangeably. This shows either laziness on the part of those who juggle the terms or outright ignorance. I’ll let you decide which is worse. The point is to understand the difference between the two terms; oh yes, they are different.
Basic Explanation of SEO and SEM
“SEO is increasing the number of website visitors by getting the site to appear high on results returned by a search engine. SEM is considered internet marketing that increases a site’s visibility through organic search engine results and advertising. SEM includes SEO as well as other search marketing tactics.” – according to the SEO and SEM experts over at HubSpot.
What Is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?
SEO is“the process of maximizing the number of visitors to a particular website by ensuring that the site appears high on the list of results returned by a search engine.”
SEO is continually changing, thanks to the elusive nature of Google’s algorithm. But, effective SEO always embodies components that are either directly on (or in) the content to be optimized, or not on the content.
On-Page SEO includes:

  • Blog posts and webpage copy that is written and optimized with quality
  • Clean and formatting page URLs
  • Fast-loading pages
  • Google authorship incorporated
  • Incorporating selective keywords naturally into title tags, meta descriptions, heading tags, alt text, etc.
  • Social sharing integration within your content

Off-Page SEO includes:

  • Backlinking (having other high quality/authoritative sites  link to your site naturally)
  • Social sharing signals
  • Social bookmarking (Stumbleupon, Reddit)

What Is Search Engine Marketing (SEM)?
SEM is now often used as the umbrella term for SEO and SEM. The longer phrase “search engine marketing” — or SEM — is now typically used to describe paid search activities. Working to gain traffic and visibility from search engines through both paid and unpaid efforts is now usually just called Search Marketing.
Other than search engine optimization (SEO), SEM includes pay per click (PPC) listings, social media marketing (SMM), and advertisements. Most of the time, SEM strictly includes PPC campaigns and activities, but if you use SEO and paid search, that falls under SEM efforts.
The main difference between these two terms is that search engine optimization is simply a component of search engine marketing. It is important to never use the terms SEO and SEM interchangeably because although they work hand in hand, they are not the same term.
SEO vs. SEM: Which Is Better?
Marketers often debate which one is better than the other, or if there is such a concept. Arguably, how can a part of something (SEO) be better than the whole (SEM)? That may seem like a vicious circle of semantics, but in the online marketing world, it actually matters.
Inbound Marketing experts would argue that organic SEO is the best approach. This means doing the hard work of optimizing your content and tweaking your efforts until you are on the first page of Google results. But as anyone can see, true SEM cannot succeed without the use of organic SEO.
Moreover, there are situations where PPC (pay-per-click, a component of SEM) makes more sense than SEO. If you are launching a new site and you want immediate visibility, it is a good idea to create a PPC campaign because it takes less time than SEO. However, you still cannot ignore SEO. Although organic SEO takes longer to show results, in the end, it will be less costly and you will establish a search credibility that you probably cannot establish with PPC.
Here is the real kicker: SEM traffic is considered the most important source of internet traffic because it is targeted. People use search engines to find the solution to a problem, an answer to their question, or to learn how to do something. So, when users click on a website from the search results or click on an ad, they are more likely to convert. The relevancy of the displayed websites and ads makes SEM traffic more valuable than any of the other sources.
When it comes to choosing the best tactic for you, evaluate your specific needs, and be sure to fully understand both the differences and how you will maintain your efforts with each. Do you have SEO or SEM tactics you have used with success in the past? How about sharing them in the comments with our readers?

About the Author: Donna Amos

I believe you can achieve anything you truly want to achieve. “It might sound trite, but time and time again, I’ve seen it happen with my clients. They overcome the fear of exposing themselves to the possibility of failure to creating profitable exciting businesses. My clients do great work, and sometimes it only takes someone else believing in them to give them the confidence to step out and take the chance.”