Understanding the Difference Between SEO and SEM


Updated April 10, 2023

In the digital marketing world, there are a range of methods that can be used to increase exposure, traffic, and leads for your business online. From paid advertising to organic, there is a type of online marketing that can benefit any company.

In fact, it can often be confusing trying to keep all of the different terminology straight. Today, we’re here to share the main differences between two common forms of digital marketing: SEO and SEM.

SEO and SEM – What’s the Difference?

Digital marketers regularly refer to the terms SEO and SEM, which may appear confusing because they sound so similar. While there certainly is some overlap, SEO and SEM do denote different things. Let’s take a look at each one a little closer.

What Is SEO?

SEO stands for “search engine optimization,” which is a collection of processes designed to attract free traffic to your website. In other words, it’s a technique used to obtain targeted traffic to your site through organic methods. The more a website is optimized, the better it will be displayed in online searches compared to its competitors. SEO is essentially focused on boosting a website’s ranking in the organic section of search results.

There are many moving parts that go into having a fully optimized website, though. Also, search engine optimization tools and best practices often change, but there are various on-site and off-site factors that remain constant. Let’s take a closer look.

On-site SEO Factors

On-site SEO factors are tactics that can be applied manually to your site to make it more friendly to search engines.

There are many ways to incorporate such a strategy. One of the most helpful ways is to utilize keywords discovered from keyword research. With keyword research, you determine the most influential terms that relate to your industry, ones that potential customers are most likely to choose when looking for your products or services. When you incorporate these keywords in targeted and relevant ways, you can see real results in your website’s rankings.

Optimizing metadata is another crucial aspect to sound SEO, and this is an area where companies will want to additionally incorporate keywords. Other on-site SEO tactics include presenting a strong title; adding valuable, authoritative content; incorporating a variety of images and videos; and using a well-constructed URL.

Off-site SEO Factors

The biggest off-site SEO factor is what’s referred to as link building. This is a process where websites link from their site to yours. Link building is one of the main ways to boost the credibility of your own site through the help of other people.

The more that your site is linked on other sites, the more likely it will be that search engines recognize your site as being trustworthy and present it more prominently in searches.

What Is SEM?

The concept of “search engine marketing” might have different meanings depending on who you ask, but the general definition is that SEM refers specifically to paid marketing on search engines, or pay-per-click marketing (PPC).


Although there might be some overlap in how people view search engine optimization vs. search engine marketing (and it does feel like we’re getting pretty granular with these definitions), the easiest way to look at it is through lens of organic vs. paid marketing.

In terms of SEO, it’s an inexpensive way to build traffic to your site, with far-reaching, long-term benefits. For an SEM campaign, you are spending money to make money, and depending on your audience and product or service you are promoting, that can be a more expensive marketing path to go down.

How Long Until I See Results?

There is a distinction between SEO and SEM when it comes to how long it takes to see results from your work.

SEO can certainly take time. You can typically expect to see results within the first 4-6 months of implementing these practices when done correctly. With that said, this does not necessarily mean you will achieve all of your goals within this timeframe, but if you’re investing your efforts into SEO, you should expect to see progress during this initial period and then moving forward. When done well, SEO can be a main driver of quality leads for years to come.

On the other hand, with SEM, talking about a pay-per-click campaign, you can expect to see results almost immediately. The ads you are running will start showing to your target audience right away, so you’re typically able to generate traffic – and leads – quickly.

How Much Do They Cost?

Another distinction between SEO and SEM is the cost. Pricing can depend on a variety of factors, including scale, industry, and competition.

With SEO, your traffic is free. However, there are still financial and time investments. Hiring an SEO agency or investing in SEO software can contribute to the costs of SEO. Typically, a mid-sized company can spend anywhere from $750-$3,000 per month on SEO depending on their goals and strategy.

If you’re using SEM, each click costs you money. The more clicks your ad receives, the higher your spend will be. With PPC, you have an allotted budget that you set each month as an ad spend. A typical mid-sized company spends about $9,000-$10,000 on SEM each month. This amount varies based on the size of your business and the goals of your company.

While there are differences that do exist between SEO and SEM, they are rather subtle. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, and one might be more suitable for your business and goals than the other.

Should I Use SEO or SEM?

Now that we’ve gone into detail on SEO and SEM, you’re probably asking yourself which one is best suited for your business. The answer to that question depends on the goals of your marketing strategy. Ideally, it would be most beneficial to implement both. However, not everyone has the bandwidth or budget to do so.

So, there are several things to consider when deciding between the two:

  • What are your business goals?
  • What is your budget?
  • How do customers purchase your product or service?
  • What are your top competitors doing?

Want to Learn More About SEO and SEM? Contact Sixth City Marketing Today

Now that you have a better understanding of SEO and SEM, it’s time to get started on your own digital marketing strategy. If you have any additional questions, contact our team at Sixth City today!

Sixth City Marketing

About the Author

Sixth City Marketing

This post was written and edited by employees at Sixth City Marketing, a full-service SEO and digital marketing agency helping clients across all industries since 2010.

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