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“I’m confused” is the response I’ve heard too many times from intelligent, smart, successful business leaders whenever the terms "SEM" or "SEO" are mentioned. While many people involved in digital marketing professionally will clearly understand the different meanings of these abbreviations for many business owners these seemingly simple abbreviations can be confusing.

Most of the business people I work with understand that both “Search Engine Marketing” (SEM) and “Search Engine Optimization” (SEO) relate to search engines. But both the definition and important role each plays for them in digital marketing is not clear. Even in their unabbreviated form, they seem intentionally vague and broad; ‘Marketing’ and ‘Optimization’? These words have a lot of meanings, and don't help to clarify the distinctions.

To complement the above language, a lot of the vendors who provide digital marketing services to the SMB segment will also combine PAID SEARCH (SEM) and SEO into a holistic solution that doesn't follow the common definitions of these services.

So the combination of this opaque terminology with well-intentioned service providers creates more inconsistent definitions that don’t align with other practitioners. As I’ve witnessed first hand; it’s a mess on Main Street.

I can’t fix this, but I do hope to declutter some of the confusion.

Before we get into details, here are the five main differences and benefits between SEO and SEM that every marketer should know, and in a simplified language that most lay-people can easily understand:

If the above chart helped you enough that the differences are clear...great! You may not need to read more.

If you still aren't sure, the rest of this article is meant for the business owner or manager trying to find a simpler definition of these two terms. More experienced digital marketers should be advised to skip this article as this is really intended to help those who are just starting out or are hopelessly confused by this terminology.


A good way – although not entirely accurate – to understand the difference between these two types of services is to compare your digital marketing to something like an automobile. To ensure your car operates and can get you where you're going, you need to do two things: 1) put gas in the engine and 2) maintain your engine.

“Taking care of the engine” is a good metaphor for Search Engine Optimization (SEO); it involves checking the oil, water levels, tire pressure, and all the other maintenance and repair things needed to be done to keep it working. You can also improve your performance by adding new parts to ensure that you have the most horsepower or most efficient out there. This is what SEO is. If you’re like a lot of people, you also hate this part of automobile ownership. We’ll come back to this later.

SEM – Search Engine Marketing – on the other hand, can be viewed as the putting fuel into the tank. While ‘maintenance’ and tune-ups can cost you money, it's possible to defer these things for a long time and still have a functioning vehicle (for a while, not recommended!). Fuel, however, is the only way that motor will take you where you want to go right now.

These aren’t precise metaphors but they’ll do for now.


Let’s start with the easiest one to define: SEM, or Search Engine Marketing. This typically relates to using one of the two search engines – Google or Bing. And it requires creating an account with the search engine, writing some search ads, identifying what keyword terms people will use to find your business, and then setting up a credit card or other payment solution to pay Google or Bing for each click they send to your website based on the ads you created and keywords you selected. This is often referred to as PPC – or ‘Pay Per Click” advertising for good reason: The advertiser only pays for the click on the search ad.

But what people click on is your ‘ad’ – which has the appearance of a typical search result, but it's not. They are easy to distinguish, but I’ve found a lot of people don’t realize the difference. A Search ad can be distinguished from ‘organic’ search results usually by a small icon presented next to the search result identifying it as a paid advertisement. The below image identifies the icons currently used by Google to distinguish ads from search results:

The reason I used "fueling your car" as a metaphor for SEM is that you pay for every click. If you don’t put gas in the tank, you don’t go anywhere. If you put money into SEM, you WILL get clicks.

That is Paid Search, PPC, SEM, whatever. But, it's not the only way people will find you after searching for your products or services. These are the ‘organic’ search results.

You might be thinking…"well, if I don’t have to pay for organic search results, why should I ever PAY for clicks? I’ll just stick with SEO.” It’s a great question, and may be the correct answer for you. However, successfully getting the organic search results where people can find them requires significant coordination, planning and management.


First, I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on SEO – it’s a very broad field requiring different levels of skill and expertise. As someone who works mainly in the advertising realm of digital marketing, I look for partners and firms who have the capability to provide a broad set of technical skills, experience and capabilities to build effective SEO results. Having said that, here is why SEO is important:

IF you want your website (and therefore your business, service and products) to be found on the internet and don’t want to pay for every click, then you want to make sure that the robots at Google and Bing can easily identify what you do.

Keep in mind that the main customer for a search engine is the person searching for a solution; so they want to provide that ‘searcher’ with results that are relevant and legitimate. They are not as interested in helping you grow your website traffic or your business – unless it helps them deliver more relevant search results to the person who is searching.

SEO, whether intentionally or not, is about setting up a set of rules that will limit only the most qualified to appear in search results. A bit like applying for college or a job; it’s a vetting process and they don’t want just anybody being able to do it without going through some checks first.

So the goal with Search Engine Optimization is to create the right ‘signals’ with the right information in the right places so that a search engine can use its algorithms (or robots) to understand who you are and what you do so that it may then provide a listing of your website to the people searching for these solutions.

Instead of just walking up to Google and handing them a few dollars to show your ads (SEM), you are instead attempting to romance them by leaving roses and candy where they can be easily found, so that Google will say, “This is a great widget store in Tacoma. We should make sure people know about them if they search for widgets in Tacoma!”.

And there are a lot of ways that Google (and others) are trying to find the best ‘widget’ store.

The below chart is from a survey conducted by Moz using a variety of methods from SEO leaders. These represent their estimate of the importance of different efforts and their impact on getting the right attention from the search engines:

If that chart causes you some angst, well, I don’t blame you. It’s one of the reasons that identifying and hiring a good SEO focused partner might be a good idea. And because the criteria can and will change over time, comparing your SEO program to vehicle maintenance is pretty accurate. There are a lot of components that all need to be working for your car to drive correctly and efficiently.

My intention with this post is not to provide an explanation of SEO but to clarify its very distinct role in your marketing priorities. It is very different from SEM, while also generating some similar results (traffic to website, etc…). SEO requires coordination and management of information and data across your own website and external websites, and includes everything from ensuring that your business name, services and phone numbers are consistently replicated on your site and others, quality reviews on external review sites or social media, and having a website that works well on mobile devices, correct 'anchor text' and on and on.

The bottom line is that SEO is incredibly important. It may not yield dramatic results immediately, but in the long term it should be the driver behind most of the traffic to your website. If your website is not appearing in the organic search results when you search for services or products that you offer, you have an SEO challenge.


Both SEO and SEM provide the same result: Getting people to your website or your business. But this is where the comparison of SEO as ‘engine maintenance’ doesn’t work; a well optimized website will result in organic search listings – which brings traffic to your website – eventually (a well-maintained engine, of course, never will, so not a great analogy but the best I have ever heard of). SEO may be a long-term investment that needs to be coordinated across your website, social media, external websites and directories with a very unclear immediate impact. SEM, or paid search, can drive traffic and show results almost immediately. Of course, SEM needs constant feeding (cash) to keep going. The momentum of good SEO can continue indefinitely – but its going to cost you in time or money as well.

As budgets are not unlimited, each business will need to make its own prioritization in this area. In some cases, SEM may be the priority, whereas for others, SEO is the right investment.


If you’re looking for more insight into what it takes to do proper SEO, I recommend a couple of great links. I recommend this article from Moz on the importance of citations/links for local advertisers here:

If you’re interested in more detail about the SEO Ranking Factors Survey chart shown above, check out this page from Moz:

Since reviews are important for multiple reasons, and likely will not change, this article on their role in local SEO listings is very informative:


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