The Six Main Differences Between SEO and SEM & Why you Need to know Them | LimeLight Marketing

The Six Main Differences Between SEO and SEM & Why you Need to know Them

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It’s a common misconception, even amongst online entrepreneurs and professional marketers, that search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) are one and the same. This in turn adds to general confusion about the terms. At a very basic level, the main difference between the two is that SEO is narrower in scope and SEM is broader in its strategies. SEO is part of SEM.

As an integral component of SEM, SEO is the main strategy used in online marketing in terms of generating organic leads through keyword searches and backlinks. The main goal of search engine marketing is to make websites rank higher in the results of search engine queries.

So if you want your business to be easily found by your target customers, SEO and SEM are crucial in your business visibility and viability. But what exactly are the main differences between SEO and SEM? Firstly, let’s look at what each of them are.


What is SEO?

Even if you have a hyper-local brick-and-mortar business like a family-owned restaurant, you will need some level of online presence. For instance, if you have a restaurant in a small town, tourists and visitors in your town can easily use their smartphones to find your restaurant if you have a digital footprint.

SEO is all about maximizing the online searchability of your business. This means that your website will climb higher amongst Google’s ranking system with the aim to be on the first page of search results.

SEO uses both on-page and off-page strategies to make it easier for search engine bots (sometimes called spiderbots or crawlers) to index your website. On-page SEO typically includes keyword optimization and social sharing integration. Meanwhile, off-page SEO includes high quality backlinks and social bookmarking.

The more optimized your website is, the easier it is for potential customers to find your website by using specific keywords or phrases related to your business, products or services.


What is SEM?

Whether you’re a start-up, an SME or a blue-chip corporation, finding the right clients or customers online is the main goal of SEM. It is a broader approach that includes SEO strategies and advertising. It incorporates pay per click listings and paid advertising such as Google Ads and social media ads.

Paid ads are customized ads that are intended for specific demographics. These are tailored based on the online behaviors of potential consumers such as their social media groups, likes, and networks of friends with common interest.


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Six main differences between SEO and SEM


  • The scope: narrow vs. broad

The primary difference between SEO and SEM is the scope. If you’re wondering whether you need a highly targeted approach or a broad approach, it will largely depend on your type of business. SEO is just a component of SEM. It is more focused on your website. On the other hand, SEM is broader in approach in terms of using various online resources outside of your website, such as paid ads.

If your business is website dependent like an online store, SEO should be an integral part of your daily operations. It helps you to generate quality organic which drive conversions or sales. However, if you have a new business and you want to make your brand to be immediately known to a wider audience, broader SEM strategies are useful.

  • Leads: organic vs. paid

SEO is a sustained and gradual process that also involves page optimization and link optimization. These strategies attract organic leads, which means potential customers actually searched or directly clicked on a backlink leading to your website. These potential customers or clients are searching for specific products and services, which your business may provide. SEO is basically you telling Google (and other search engines) what your business does so that it connects you with your target customers.

SEM, on the other hand, includes both organic and paid ads. Leads may come from targeted or generic ads. The average conversion rate of Google AdWords across all industries is 3.75%. Meanwhile, the conversion rate of organic SEO leads is 14.6%.

  • Algorithm susceptibility: static vs. dynamic

Google’s influence

Another main difference between SEO and SEM is their susceptibility to search engine algorithm changes. Google is the most influential simply because it is the most popular and widely used. It has an overwhelming market share of 81.5%. Consequently, any major change in Google’s search algorithms will drastically affect online marketing.

Level of susceptibility

SEO is more susceptible to search engine updates such as Google’s Panda and Penguin updates. SEO strategies typically have to be modified and updated to comply with any updates which makes SEO strategies more dynamic compared to some SEM strategies that are essentially static since they are dependent on paid ads.

  • Required efforts: passive vs. active

SEO comparatively requires more active effort than some SEM strategies like AdWords. Typically, it may require daily work and a team of specialists. For instance, SEO strategies include regular content updates such as blog posts.

Some SEM strategies such as paid ads do not require as much effort because they can be automated. An online marketer simply needs to pay for an ad placement on the search engine results page or SERP. Clearly, they do need to be tracked, analyzed, and tweaked for best performance, but they generally don’t require as much intensive resource as SEO.

  • SERP positioning: fixed vs. ranked

SEM paid ads on SERPs have fixed positions, either on top or at the bottom of the first page – this is one of the ways you can tell that these are paid ads. They also may appear on other websites that are monetized by ads.

SEO ranking varies depending on the keywords or search phrases used. Some websites may rank higher compared to others within the same categories or niches. SEO ranking is highly competitive and may depend on several factors such as the quality of the content, use of keywords, backlinking, domain authority, and how well your content answers user intent.


Do you need both SEO and SEM?

Understanding the differences between SEO and SEM will allow you to choose which strategies to use to best promote your business online. Although SEO is part of SEM, you can opt to focus on specific aspects of SEO rather than try to implement all strategies.

Paid SEM strategies are ideal if you have a new brand or business that you want the immediate attention of a larger audience. Nonetheless, hyper-focused SEO campaigns are necessary if you want organic leads, better audience engagement, and higher conversion rates. It may take more time, but it’s certainly worth that investment in the long term with higher conversion rates due to quality leads.


Do you need help to drive more organic traffic to your website? Let’s chat.

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