SEO vs SEM: What is the Difference?

Posted: September 6, 2012 in Advertising
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Search Engine Optimization and Search Engine Marketing have been an essential part to online advertising in the past decade and are often thought to be the same. Both aims to help a site appear on the first page of search results. But are they one and the same? I hope after reading this blog post, you would be able to discern what is SEO and SEM on your search result page.

This screenshot would quickly help you differentiate between the two. The ads you see during a search would be SEM. They are always labelled as ads and appear highlighted in beige and on the side for Google search while the organic search results would be attributed to SEO.


To improve a site’s organic listing, site owners have to optimize their site’s link building and utilizing keywords throughout the site. This is all done on the website and it would need extensive planning so as not to commit keyword stuffing. SEO takes lots of effort and time for a site to climb the organic search listings but it is a more cost-effective way of bringing traffic and sustaining traffic to your site.


Think of SEM as a paid and easier way to appear on the first page of search results. Though it is not necessarily better than SEO, it is definitely faster in getting traffic to a site. SEM is faster due to the fact that you are paying search engines to place your site amongst the search results. SEM generally goes by a bidding system. You bid on the keywords you want by either placing a bid through the cost-per-click or cost-per-mille (cost per thousand views) model. The higher your bid the better your SEM ranking.

Ideally, SEO and SEM should be used together to ensure sustainable traffic to a site. Here’s how SEO and SEM can deliver optimum results for a site.

  1. A new site should start with SEO. When done properly, SEO should be able to maintain a sites traffic and would keep competitors at bay as SEO is not easy to replicate in a short time. Savvy users would prefer to click on an organic search result rather than a SEM advert.
  2. Once a site is search engine optimized, its is time to give the site launch a little push with SEM. SEM would increase the awareness of your site instantly and serve as an introduction phase to a site. SEM will also allow for better control over keyword associations and help build links to a site.
  3. Once the site has built sufficient links and have enjoyed substantial awareness, SEM can be paused and SEO can run its course to sustain the traffic of the site. SEM can be re-activated as and when traffic is slipping.

There are many creative ways SEO and SEM can be implemented. I have only managed a few search campaigns and would like to learn from your experiences. So leave a comment on your thoughts of SEO and SEM or share your search campaign experiences with me!


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