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When it comes to SEO vs SEM, the terms sound remarkably similar, but the definitions for both are very different. Making matters worse, the terms are often used interchangeably, which only makes things even more murky. While both terms deal with search engines, the concepts behind them are strategically different.

In the paragraphs following, we’ll break down what SEO vs SEM means, how they differ, and why both are part of a modern marketing stack.

What is SEM?

SEM stands for “search engine marketing“, and is commonly known as the the practice of buying ads on search results. This also means that SEM is mostly made up of PPC, or pay-per-click.SEM & PPC AdsThe significant difference between SEM and PPC occurs when efforts to improve pay-per-click are taken to the next level. Tactics such as critiquing, optimizing, and testing ads, as well as creating and sculpting unique web pages that the ads push visitors to.

When such active levels of management occur and the focus is on the entire visitor experience from keyword to landing page to conversion – that’s SEM. The process goes beyond keyword research, buying keywords, and placing ads. It is managing the entire user experience even on the landing page, and recognizing that consumers move through the awareness phase, consideration phase, and conversion phase quickly.

What is SEO?

SEO stands for “search engine optimization, and is the practice of creating code and content to have websites rank high in search engines.

Zero SERP is when search engines display information directly on the search result page - typically a sign of high trustSEO is a constantly changing process due to search engine ranking algorithms. This process includes factors such as keywords/phrases, content, site speed, backlinks, and a number of other factors.

SEO doesn’t pay for placement like SEM or PPC – instead, SEO requires time to create meaningful content and have it garner attention and links from third parties. Over time, search engines begin to trust the website by sending traffic and users to the website for related terms and phrases, or by showing content in position zero (called Zero SERP), and observing if the user is satisfied with the content.


Therefore, with the understanding that SEM is mostly about paying to be present during keyword searches and managing the entire user experience including landing pages, while SEO is about building trust to rank a website organically, the difference is clear on SEM vs SEO.

Instead of buying keywords and placing ads to garner traffic (SEM), you are working to build trust and rankings from search engines with content (SEO).

SEO vs SEMWhat is the benefit of SEM?

Speed. You can buy traffic within an hour and have users on your website. This makes sense in a lot of scenarios. Sometimes users don’t know your product or service exists – buying terms around your business can scoop up traffic that could have gone to a competitor.

Of course, this means that the downside to SEM is an ongoing budget, not only to buy keywords but to actively manage the pages and process.

This is also why measurement and metrics beyond the cost of the ads are important. Understanding which campaigns and terms drive leads, and more importantly drive leads that convert into customers is key to lead generation.

What is the benefit of SEO?

SEO is the long play – it means that search engines trust your website. This means that your website already has a head start on any new content – so if your business creates a new product or service, it stands a high chance of being ranked high simply because your website is an authority.

A good metaphor for this is “a rising tide lifts all boats”. Consequently, if your business does not rank well, then it means that your business needs to work hard to garner the trust of search engines. Therefore, SEO is a different strategy than SEM.

SEO vs SEM – which method will grow your business?

When it comes to SEM vs SEO, the truth is both methods are effective for business growth, and for different reasons.

SEM can attract massive audiences extremely quickly. A business needs ample money and effort to create the ads and landing page, and traffic can begin flowing within an hour, but it requires active monitoring to be most efficient.

SEO takes time. Content must be created, it must be tested with search engines, and users have to exhibit trust signals that search engines take notice of. The good new is this content doesn’t require massive ongoing budgets – once content is created and published, it should passively garner more and more traffic and require minor upkeep.

Both methods involve search engines, and the future of search marketing is massive and will continue to grow. From voice search to videos, search engines will continue to receive a lions share of attention from marketers and users alike. For this reason, both methods should be a part of every marketing stack.

Our Search Team can take care of your SEM and SEO needs

If your business is struggling with SEO or SEM/PPC efforts, Venn Marketing can help. Let our experience boost your marketing efforts and let you focus on your business. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.