SEM vs. SEO, What’s the Difference?

In the digital marketing and design realm the terms SEO and SEM are used frequently within the office, with our clients, and are the driving forces behind successful campaigns, but what do they mean? SEM and SEO are similar, but they reach campaign goals in different ways. SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, is the process of getting traffic from users that is “organic,” “natural,” “free,” or “editorial.”


Google, Bing, Yahoo, and other search engine systems collect information about every page on the web to help users find exactly what they are looking for. Every search engine has a secret formula (or algorithm) that turns all the information they collect into useful, organized search results, and they matter! When your page has higher search result rankings, the more people can find you. The key to higher rankings is to make sure that your website has the key ingredients that search engines need for their formulas to read your website properly. This is called SEO. Most of the big key elements are known, so if you are a website owner, you should ask yourself if your website contains the following general elements:

  1. Content.

    Words matter! Search engines account for every word on the web. They scan entire websites and all pages within for content and words. Is your website properly conveying your brand? Is it using words that people are searching for organically on the web?

  2. Links.

    Links between your website and other websites are important, but they need to be legitimate! Search engines can tell if you have bought links on other websites that refer to your site. If you are not providing useful information you will go down in search engine results. When one website links to another it’s normally a recommendation, telling users that this linked site has more useful information for the subject in question.

  3. Titles.

    Search engines take titles of websites and landing pages seriously. They pay attention to these titles as they normally give a good indication of what the page is about, summarizing the context.

  4. Words in Links.

    This is close to the first item on our list, content. For example, let’s say your website sells coffee cups. Your content should be about coffee cups, the title of your landing pages should be in reference to coffee cups, and keywords such as ‘large coffee cups,’ or ‘graphic coffee cups,’ should be featured within your site.

  5. Reputation Management.

    Are you creating content for your site that is reputable to your brand? Are you being consistent? The more content you create the better your site will do.

The above is just a basic overview of what SEO best practice is. However, none of this is set in stone. The algorithms are forever changing, but having the basics down will always keep you in the running. So, now that you have a better understanding of SEO, what’s SEM?


SEM, or Search Engine Marketing, was once grouped under SEO. As communication gets stronger through our various new and uprising technologies, reaching consumers from a marketing stand point has changed as well. No longer do we group SEO and SEM in the same category, as the approaches are very different, although their aim is to obtain the same results: an increase in website traffic and a conversion to more customers. SEM is the process of gaining website traffic by purchasing ads on search engines. SEM has also been referred to as ‘PPC (pay-per-click/pay-per-call),’ ‘paid search advertising,’ and ‘CPC or CPM (cost-per-click/cost-per-thousand-impressions). SEM is interesting in that it is interactive with the user. Google, Bing, and Yahoo are search engines that allow advertisements, correct? These search engines are always trying to create a better user experience, though. They want to show the user the ads that are relevant to them, and depending on the service you are using, the amount of money, or PPC (pay-per-click), is dependent on how often your ad is clicked on, how much you are paying for you ad, and if it is leading to a landing page that will actually help the user find what they are looking for. As mentioned above, SEM and SEO are similar. A good idea will link to a relevant landing page. What makes a relevant landing page?

  1. Original and helpful content.
  2. Easy to locate the product or service the user is looking for.
  3. Your site should clearly express what your brand is about, what you intend to do with the user’s information, and how your site will interact with the user.

Your ad is measured by its relevance to the user,  and search engines take into account many factors including your bid (how much you are willing to pay for an ad), the quality of your ad, and the format of your ad (is there a phone number? Address?). All of these will affect the rank of your ad, or visibility, and how much you will end up paying. Do you have questions about SEO, SEM or paid advertisements? Give D4 a call! We love to discuss our passion for digital marketing and will help you better understand what it is all about.