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SEM and SEO: What’s the Difference?

By September 18, 2018February 22nd, 2024Digital Ads, Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
online marketing services

Are you new to digital marketing and looking to get an effective strategy off the ground? Whether you’ve just started your research or already have a part in building your company’s web presence, there’s a good chance you’ve come across Search Engine Marketing and Search Engine Optimization.

But do you know the difference? The terms often get used interchangeably, and though they are related, there are some key distinctions to understand. Knowing what separates these two terms will help you better utilize these tools over time and as your marketing strategy gains momentum. If you’re looking for professional marketing services, a basic understanding of the differences might make it easier to choose which strategy is best for your business.

Let’s start with the similarities. SEM and SEO are both ways to increase the visibility of your website on Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) within Google, Bing and other platforms.

Customers who search for business services are more likely to click on the top results. Therefore, it is important your business ranks among the top pages. But how do you climb the search results ladder? SEM and SEO both offer ways to rise in the rankings, but SEM mainly uses targeted paid search methods—such as Pay-Per Click (PPC) advertising—whereas SEO in itself is not a paid strategy, and involves optimizing web content to build organic traffic.

Part I: Search Engine Marketing

Here’s an overview of some of the most-used Search Engine Marketing tools.

search engine marketing

Google Ads: The amount advertisers pay per click on their ads can vary from one search engine to the other. Google Ads—formerly AdWords—is one of the most popular SEM platforms. Advertisers bid on keywords so their ads can appear on Google’s search results page. The cost of each click depends on an advertiser’s bid and the quality score of the advertisement. Google uses sophisticated algorithms to rank ads on in its search results pages. Therefore, advertisers need to ensure:


  • To bid on the right keyword.
  • Use graphics and data that are important for their users.
  • To bid above the average amount for higher ranking.

Website managers use SEM to invest in online ads to market their website on SERPs. These paid ads can appear on SERPs or other relevant websites. There are different types of advertising you can use online, including:

  • PPC – Pay Per Click
  • CPC – Cost Per Click
  • CPM – Cost Per Impression

You can implement PPC, CPC and CPM into two main ad formats—Search Ads and Display Ads. The main difference is where these ads show up on the web. Here’s a breakdown:

Search ads: These ads only appear on search results pages. When someone searches for a keyword you have bid on, the ad appears in the ad section of the results page. Search ads are targeted to customers directly searching for your products or services based on keywords.

Display ads: Unlike search ads, display ads are presented to your audience when they are on other websites. Display ads show up even when customers aren’t directly searching for your brand or products.

Here’s a deeper look at related Search Engine Marketing tools:

Google Shopping: This Google service, formerly known as Google Product Search, allows customers to view, search for and compare products. E-commerce businesses can use Google Shopping to display their specific product listings in front of searchers—including, price, size and availability. Businesses can upload their inventory descriptions in the Google Merchant center and create a shopping campaign in Google Ads. Shopping ads appear in search results, and customers can purchase the item directly from the search results page.

YouTube advertising: Video is the fastest-growing ad format, and YouTube is the second-largest search engine. The popular video-sharing platform has more than 1 billion users, making video ads a great way to expose your business to a broad audience. Businesses can build video advertising campaigns that target your ads to customers in your region, show up when people visit the YouTube homepage and appear alongside searches for specific topics. Not sure where to get started? Arvig Media can help businesses produce videos and develop an advertising strategy.

Universal App: If your business has an app, Universal App campaigns streamline the process of getting your app into the hands of paying users. Here’s how Google puts it: “Unlike most Google Ads campaigns, you don’t design individual ads for Universal App campaigns. Instead, we’ll use your ad text ideas and assets from your app’s store listing to design a variety of ads across several formats and networks. All you need to do is provide some text, a starting bid and budget and let us know the languages and locations for your ads.” These campaigns promote your app across Google properties, including Search, Google Play, YouTube and The Google Display network.

Part II: Search Engine Optimization

search engine optimizationSearch Engine Optimization is a broad term for a combination of strategies designed to increase the amount of organic traffic to your website. Unlike paid advertising, SEO relies largely on “natural” methods for increasing website traffic and achieving a higher search results ranking.

Effective SEO combines factors such as appropriate title tags (the labels you see that headline each website search result) and website content that is optimized for search. Content that is engaging, original, authoritative and free of spelling and grammar errors is considered optimized, and tends to rank higher. Poor-quality content is penalized by search engines and ranks lower.

Successful SEO relies on consistent, quality content and using other tools such as social media to naturally attract web traffic and gradually improve search rankings.

When users enter their query on the search engine, the results appear based on the following factors:

  • How relevant the web content is to the keywords entered in the search bar.
  • The diversity of content such as text, images and videos used on the webpage.
  • Website architecture, including content organization on different sub-pages and links used to connect each page.
  • Use of keywords that are in demand on search engines. Google Analytics is a useful tool to determine the most sought-after keywords on different subjects.

SEM and SEO are both key in a digital marketing strategy. SEM is an ad-driven, paid strategy that provides immediate visibility in search, which can be beneficial for new businesses or new product launches. SEO, on the other hand, relies on organic traffic, and it can take more time to implement and see results.