Defining SEO and SEM: Why It Matters For Your Business

Keyboard for SEO and SEMOnline marketing often can be a confusing and fast changing space. Acronyms and buzzwords like SEM, Inbound marketing, social marketing, and lots of words that use optimization seem to flock up repeatedly, but oftentimes their real meanings are lost in translation.

But when it comes to determining the best online marketing strategy for your company, starting with some basic, working understanding of these buzzwords can avoid all sorts of problems down the road. One of the most confusing distinctions comes up when we are defining SEO and SEM, aka Search Engine Optimization and Search Engine Marketing.

So before you let an online marketing company tell you what you want, make sure you have an understanding of what your options actually are.

The Definitions

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

“The process of affecting the visibility of a website or web page in a search engine’s “natural” or un-paid (“organic”) search results” (via Wikipedia).

According to this definition, SEO is then based on purely organic, or un-paid, search results. This can be done through both on-page and off-page optimization, and usually consists of increasing the ranking of a webpage or website for specific keywords (terms) that have to do with the website and what it has to offer to a user. This type of optimization will hopefully result in higher ranking on a Google, Yahoo, or Bing search.

Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

“A form of Internet marketing that involves the promotion of websites by increasing their visibility in search engine results pages (SERPs) through optimization and advertising” (also via Wikipedia).

Through this definition, we are able to see that optimization is included, but so is advertising, which means that the company is paying for some sort of visibility online. This can differ greatly depending on the type of service and where it will gain the most attention.

The important thing to take away from these two definitions, is that SEO is a part of SEM, but they are not synonymous, so don’t confuse them. SEO means you are striving for organic results, whereas SEM is merely concerned with visibility, organic or not. In fact, SEM has been recently evolving to mean paid search more and more.

Why Does It Matter?

When it comes to making a decision about what will work best for your company, you have to take into account the exposure your company has had online in the past. If you have very little online presence, starting with basic SEO on your own website may be a good beginning place. If you have had a strong online presence for some time, SEM may be a better fit to continue to grow and increase that online visibility.

So now we understand a simple definition of both SEO and SEM, let’s look at what types of activities would fall under each category:


  • Adding specific keywords into title tags, meta descriptions, alt text, etc. All smoothly and naturally.
  • Creating content, like blog posts and service pages, that reflects keywords and quality writing.
  • Formatted and keyword focused URLS.
  • Social sharing or social following buttons on page
  • Quick loading
  • High quality user experience
  • And more!


  • As discussed before, SEO components are often included, although SEM has grown to mean more paid activities than organic ones.
  • Pay-per-click (PPC) advertising (Adwords, Bing Ads, etc)
  • Social media marketing efforts (typically paid)

Notice that SEO is going to be much slower yielding results. Organic change can take time, and building domain authority does not happen over night.  SEM can gain results at a much quicker rate, because you are paying for those results. The pitfall of any paid online advertising is knowing who to target without wasting your entire marketing budget on very broad and competitive keywords.


Understanding the differences between SEO and SEM matter, because as a business owner you need to understand what it is you are expecting from your online marketing team. Whether you currently have a team, or are looking around for possibilities, being educated on the latest buzz terms and how they apply to your business help you define your companies needs, and avoid the pitfalls some vendors may not warn you about.

Understanding what results you desire: organic, paid, or both, can help you determine where the time and effort should go for your online marketing. And online marketing is always changing.


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