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What is the difference between SEO and SEM?

SEO SEM differences

Today, almost every business has its web page. For potential customers to find it, it should appear in search results after typing specific keywords. This is why SEO and SEM are so important. Find out what these abbreviations mean and learn the differences between these two frequently confused terms.


SEO and SEM are increasingly popular tools used to promote websites. However, not everyone knows the exact scope of their activities, which is why they are often confused or used interchangeably. Meanwhile, SEO techniques and SEM represent slightly different methods to appear in search results. The most common assumption is that SEM (Search Engine Marketing) is SEO (Search Engine Optimization) extended to PPC (Pay Per Click campaigns, i.e. Google Ads). What does this mean exactly? Let’s explain both concepts!

What is SEM? What is Search Engine Marketing?

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is an approach aimed at improving the rank of a given page in search results. SEM encompasses organic results and paid results.

SEM is an end-to-end marketing process that aims to promote your website through various actions, including SEO. However, paid ads and links as well as other advertising tools are also used to achieve the desired results. The effectiveness of SEM is assessed based on users visiting the web page. They should also translate into better visibility of the site in the search engine result pages. All this creates more opportunities for conversion and therefore affects the commercial success of the business – of course, combined with a properly prepared website, offer and other factors that increase sales.

What is SEO – Search Engine Optimization?

SEO is a concept narrower than SEM. It includes the optimization of web pages for search engines, namely all activities aimed at achieving a higher rank in organic search results. How is it done? SEO is based on consistent activities giving long-term results. It implements strategies to ensure your website is visible to search engines and appears in the results.

How are SEO activities done? Multi-tracking. First, they can be divided into two types: on-page SEO and off-page SEO. On-site activities consist in preparing the website in terms of the search engine bots. The entire architecture of the website should be taken into account – from its construction and structure to the content. Appropriate optimization of the content on the website should include:

  • proper saturation with relevant keywords,
  • long and valuable content at the same time,
  • original content (no duplicate content from other websites or within the same website),
  • right headers, metadata and other attributes,
  • selection of internal linking (links leading the user to other content within the same website).

In addition, SEO should include the modification of the website structure – namely, its adaptation to the current requirements of search engines and users. Such changes may influence responsiveness (proper display of the website on different devices), implementation of an SSL certificate or code optimization.

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Off-page SEO, on the other hand, is most often based on the so-called link-building, which means building a base of links leading to the website. This allows you to increase visibility and rank because sites linked by other pages are considered more valuable. It is worth noting, however, that nowadays, unnatural links are links created to manipulate the website’s ranking in search engines. This is considered a bad practice. Constantly learning indexing crawlers easily catch manipulation attempts and “reward” with better ranks only those pages that are credible and valuable for the user. Therefore, the most commonly used are:

  • link exchange,
  • SEO – taking into account the users’ requirements,
  • content optimization by creating useful content.

Black hat SEO, is a practice against search engine guidelines, for example, spamming forums, adding relevant keywords on the website in an unnatural way and creating content that is useless from the user’s point of view. These are practices that were very popular not so long ago and were even the basis of SEO. Thanks to the improvement of indexing bots, bad practices are now easily detected, which results in lowering the rank of the page in the search engine or even blocking it, making it invisible.

SEO vs SEM – What are the differences?

To sum up: SEO and SEM goals are the same (generate traffic), and the activities carried out within these two approaches should be consistent with each other. There are, however, significant differences. First of all, SEM is a much broader concept. SEO focuses only on getting the best possible results in terms of organic traffic. On the other hand, SEM also uses paid ads so that specific content can reach the audience and the website traffic increases – whether organically or not.

A good SEM campaign cannot exist without SEO. Sometimes, however, these concepts are treated separately, assigning SEO to all organic activities and SEM to paid advertising only. If you want to promote your website, the best way is to combine both ways of promotion.

SEOand SEM – act wisely

SEO and SEM have one more thing in common – the need to conduct only consistent and well-planned activities. Otherwise, they will not bring the expected result. They can even backfire! Developing the right strategy is very important as SEO and SEM techniques take time and money. In order not to waste them, you have to be prepared. What do you have to remember when implementing SEO and SEM solutions?

Setting goals

Improving the rank and visibility of the website is a direct result of the SEO and SEM strategy, but it is not its main goal. Nor is it enough to say that the aim is to obtain maximum profits. The goals of the campaign should be specific – only then will it be possible to decide how to achieve them. This can be an increase in sales, the number of inquiries, subscriptions, etc. – depending on your business profile and current demand. 


Who wouldn’t like to get publicity and lots of customers in a short time? In practice, however, it is unrealistic. SEO and SEM are long-term processes with long-term effects. Especially in the case of SEO, the effect does not cease immediately after finishing the implementation of the strategy and is successfully maintained for the next months. SEM strategies – for example, advertising in search engines – allow you to drive traffic on the site much faster, but usually, it does not immediately translate into increased conversion.

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For this reason, people investing in SEO and SEM need patience. This is not a one-time advertising campaign. Optimization activities should be carried out continuously to adapt to user requirements and technological progress, and at the same time stand out from the competition, which may be constantly growing.

By the way – it’s not worth employing SEO and SEM specialists who promise to get specific, very good results in a short time. Often these “specialists” use aggressive techniques that may even lead to blocking the site in the future. Search engine optimization takes time – and there are no shortcuts. The better the strategy, the longer the results will last.


SEO and SEM is an investment that will pay off if it is accurate. However, you should be prepared to incur certain costs. Theoretically, SEO activities can be carried out completely for free, however, SEO involves appropriate knowledge. That is why specialists are usually hired for this purpose. SEM campaigns also require financial resources, although it is worth noting that compared to other forms of advertising they are inexpensive. Small, local businesses can conduct effective promotion for as little as several dozen euros a month (including the cost of the ad itself).

Studying the results

Constant monitoring of website traffic is the only way to check how specific elements of an SEO or SEM strategy are working. This is important because the reaction to certain activities cannot be predicted. So we have to check and see what works and what doesn’t. Then it is easier to decide whether to intensify a given practice or change it to another – to achieve the goals set at the very beginning.

SEO and SEM – why is it worth it?

Are you not sure if you should invest in SEO and SEM? Currently, it is one of the most important marketing activities that allows companies to exist without huge expenditures on advertising. The advantages of investing in a decent strategy in the field of SEO and digital marketing include:

  • Efficiency – the possibility of obtaining very good results at low costs.
  • Targeted traffic – in the case of the traditional form of advertising, it is much more difficult to predict who will see it. On the Internet, you can rank yourself on specific keywords that are searched for by users interested in a specific topic.
  • Friendly reception – even paid links in search engines and other similar activities in the field of SEM are accessible and minimally invasive. Thanks to this, you do not have to worry that you will lose potential customers from the very beginning due to irritating and intrusive advertising.
  • Long-term benefits – SEO and SEM is not an advertisement that works only when it’s displayed, but long-term action that will affect the recognition and reputation of the brand and allow it to constantly reach a larger group of interested parties.
  • Scalability – digital marketing can be conducted in many ways and on any scale; therefore, it can be effective for local services and large global corporations.You need both SEO and SEM

Remember that the best results will always come from the combination of SEO and SEM. SEO works organically and in the long term, but requires a long wait for results. On the other hand, SEM allows you to speed up the promotion process and specify many of its aspects, but it requires more financial resources. Only together do they create a mutually complementary duo, giving the best results. The optimized and constantly improved website combined with well-targeted regularly ran PPC campaigns will help you increase brand recognition and gain more traffic!

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Author of the article

It’s been 8 years since Maciej took his first steps in the world of marketing - especially the one related to content. So far, he has worked for politicians and the b2b and b2c industries. A fan of content marketing in the digital strategy and its influence on customer navigation and brand reputation. He is also interested in the issue of Corporate Social Responsibility and sees this topic as a springboard for the communication development of many businesses. Responsible for marketing in Verseo. In his free time Maciej reads reports from the world and scientific + sci-fi literature. :)