Search Engine Marketing

What is the Difference Between SEO and SEM? [with Examples]

posted in: Paid Search 2

Throughout my entire career as a search engine marketing expert, most people I meet are confused about the difference between search engine marketing and search engine optimization. So I’m on a mission here to explain the difference between the two and settle the confusion once and for all.

If you are a business owner, in charge of a marketing department, or responsible for driving leads and new business, knowing the difference between SEO and SEM is important because it can help you prioritize and strategize based on your goals as a business.  In the end, both of these can help you drive sales, increase brand awareness, and compete online.

In this post, I am going to define SEO and SEM, explain a search engine results page with examples, and share why you would invest in SEO and/or SEM. 

Defining SEO & SEM

Search engine optimization (SEO), is the effort to strategically update and improve a website in the effort to drive more traffic and quality traffic on a search engine. Examples of search engines include Google, Bing, YouTube, Amazon and Yahoo.  SEO is a form of digital marketing, however, there is no paid aspect – you are judged by a search engine solely on certain factors. 

You can do SEO on your own without a dedicated budget, however, you may want to set aside a budget to have an agency or SEO expert help you out.

Search engine marketing (SEM), otherwise known as pay-per-click (ppc) or paid search, is quite simply, paid advertising on a search engine. SEM is a form of digital marketing which gives your website traffic at a cost to be in a better position on a search engine’s results page. 

You cannot do SEM without a dedicated budget. All the traffic you are driving to your website will be paid for and you’ll have some control – we’ll get into this later on. You can run SEM on your own, however, you may want to set aside a budget to have an agency or SEM expert build and manage your campaigns for you.

Let’s simplify:

In marketing, the effort to improve organic positioning is known as Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and the promotion of paid listings is known as Search Engine Marketing (SEM). Just remember:

  • SEM -> Paid
  • SEO -> Organic

Understanding a Search Engine Results Page

To truly understand the difference between SEO and SEM, you need to understand a search engine result page (SERP) and how it works. A search engine results page is a page served to someone when they search for something online using a search engine.  As a reminder, Google, Bing, YouTube, Amazon and Yahoo are all search engines. 

If you were to go to a search engine, type in a keyword, and hit enter – what do you see? Ads? A Map? Website Links? The outcome and layout of the SERP will depend on the type of search you do. You may be looking for information, or a product, or a location, but no matter what you see on Google, Bing or any other search engine, there will be two defining factors for the type of content and why it’s there. The content is either paid or organic. Paid means someone is paying to be in that position and organic means Google is judging their website on quality and other factors, to put them in that position (and they are not paying Google to be there).

Here is an example of a search engine results page on Google. Below is the difference between what a SEM ad looks like vs organic search results (SEO):

Search Engine Marketing

You can get started with search engine marketing on Google by going to Google Ads and creating an account for yourself. To begin to learning about your SEO, check out one of my favorite and well priced tools called KWFinder.

Below is an example of a search engine results page on Bing for the same search term. In this case there are a lot more ads that pop up on Bing’s result page than Google’s. There are five ads taking up the SERP! Can you spot the little ad box? That’s how you can identify wether a listing is an ad or not. To get started advertising on Bing you can go to Bing Ads and create an account.

Bing SERP results SEO and SEM

SEM can very often be confused with Search Engine Optimization (SEO), so don’t sweat it – at least you’re taking the time to do your research! Think of SEM as an apple and SEO as an orange. Yes, they’re both fruits, however, they are very different. You don’t 100% need apples and oranges, but they can both be good for your health. Investing in your health can benefit you. You don’t 100% need SEM & SEO, but they can be good for the health and growth of your business.

Let’s check out another example of a SERP page. This results page was for the search term “boots womens”. This type of term is someone who is most likely doing some online shopping for boots. 

Shopping for SEO and SEM
SEO and SEM for Ecommerce

On Google, SEM allows you to show something called shopping ads. Below all of the pictures of boots are sponsored – meaning those advertisers are doing search engine marketing. There is also another ad underneath it that is a text ad and then an organic listing below that. The organic ad has the best SEO page for this type of search so it is showing up first. The company did not place it there, instead Google decides it was the best fit for the search term based on the page’s content and other factors.

In this last example, the term searched was for “delivery near me”.  This type of term is someone who is looking for food locally. So when it comes to local terms, a search engine will do its best to show you options near you. Which is why there is a map that shows up. Again, with SEM there is an ad above the organic listing (which is the map in this case). The map, then shows locations in proximity to your location based on the optimization of the pages that Google think will be the best fit. 

SEO & SEM for Food Search

Ultimately SEO is the effort you put in to try to appear higher on a search engine results page and you don’t have control over where you show up. SEM is the paid effort to appear higher on a search engine results page and you do have some control over where you show up and who your audience will be.

Both SEO and SEM can be fundamental parts of your online marketing strategy. Let’s dive into why you might invest in one vs the other.

Why Search Engine Optimization?

SEO is important because you’re investing in raising your rankings on a search engine. This means you will be able to show up higher on a SERP or even in position #1 for certain keywords. This eventually will lead to more traffic to your website. More traffic can generate more leads and sales for your business if you’ve optimized for the right keywords.

Before deciding to invest or begin SEO, you should know that SEO should be considered as part of a long-term strategy. For example, you cannot begin SEO and expect to see results in a day or two. It can take months for the quality content you invest in and the changes you make to your current website to be recognized by a search engine.

Above, we broke out SEM as paid and SEO as organic. Now when you invest in SEO you’re investing in your organic listing efforts on a search engine results page. This means the traffic driven from SEO efforts is completely free. (The only cost for SEO might be the time it takes you to research and do it yourself – or for you to hire an SEO agency/freelancer to do it for you.)

Questions to ask yourself:

  • What keywords do I want to optimize my website towards that will result in traffic that completes the goal?
  • Do I have Google Search Console and Google Analytics set up (they’re free tools, fyi!) and how can I learn from these?
  • Which actions on my website are most important for a user to take?
  • Do I want to take the time learning and executing SEO or should I pay someone to do it?

Why Search Engine Marketing?

SEM is important because you have the power to increase sales/leads, conduct business research, increase web traffic quickly, and protect your brand terms (as other people can bid on your brand terms!).

SEM requires an ad spend budget to get started but it’s much more immediate than SEO. You can start driving traffic to your website today with search engine marketing – I’d recommend doing some more research too before jumping head first though. With SEM, you have more control over what search your website shows up for but, you have to pay for it. With search engine marketing, you have the power to choose which keywords you want your ad to show up on, whereas with SEO you do not have that power. 

Because you can choose which keywords (user search terms) you want to bid on – you must remember that with great power comes great responsibility. Your ad can show up on terms you choose with people searching with the intent to buy, however, your ads can also show for terms that might not be relevant to your business if you’re not careful. This can lead to irrelevant spend but at the same time SEM can be used to put your website in the right position to answer a search with an ad and lead to a conversion.

Questions to ask yourself:

  • What do I want to achieve by running ads?
  • How much do I want to spend?
  • How much do I want to spend to acquire a new customer, lead or signup?
  • Do I want to take the time learning and executing SEM or should I pay someone to do it?


Hopefully you’re able to answer this question by thinking about your goals and your current situation after reading why SEO? or why SEM?. Do you have a budget? Are you looking for fast results? Think about how you want to allocate budget but also don’t be afraid to invest in both at the same time. 

You can invest in SEO and start improving your search rankings while running search ads at the same time. They are completely separate but can be important aspects to a greater digital strategy together. 

If you have any further questions, drop a comment below. At DDM Generation, we are search engine marketing experts, and we know our way around a search engine results page well. So if you need help with strategy or getting started with search engine marketing let us know here.


2 Responses

  1. Joquim
    | Reply

    Hey, great article! SEM is a very critical component of the internet marketing domain. In fact, paid searches can offer attractive ROI on their initial amount provided the campaign has been optimized properly.

    • Jenna
      | Reply

      Thank you. Agreed, many of our clients are seeing high ROI from paid ads.

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