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SEO and SEM:

These are two different terms that often confuse us because we confuse one with another. Yes, all of us know that SEO stands for search engine optimization and SEM is search engine marketing, but where it all gets tangled is when it comes to marketing.

I mean,

Isn’t SEO just another way of inbound marketing? If it is, then how can we draw a clear line between both: SEO and SEM?


In this blog post. I am going to draw that line for you and we will see what is the difference between SEO and SEM & which one is better.

Let us take a look at some very clear points of distinction:

SEM is Whole – SEO is Part

Yes, exactly:

For starters, SEO and SEM are not two equal or parallel marketing or search engine manipulation tactics. SEO is a big part of a bigger whole that we know as SEM.

SEM consists of two parallel techniques of bringing lots and lots of traffic to your website. One of those techniques is SEO and the other one is PSA (Paid Search Advertising).

What is PSA?

You must have tried or at least heard of Google PPC advertising that is also known as Google AdWords advertising.

When you think that SEO will take a long time to kick in and you need some traffic immediately, you go for a paid advertisement. You pay Google to show your website in Google ads or search results.

So, to start with, not only SEM includes an entirely different tactic than SEO, it is the whole which SEO is only a part of.

Focus Difference Between SEO & SEM

While comparing SEO to SEM is like comparing a car engine to a car itself (part vs whole). There are certain points that help one draw a line of difference between both of them. Take the focus of both strategies for example.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO):

If you look at SEO and try to find its focus, it is a two-fold marketing and traffic acquisition strategy that is focused on two main fronts: on-site and off-site.

So a person who applies SEO is like a ping-pong ball between on-site SEO strategies and off-site hard work to accumulate more and more traffic.


The focus is not the same in the case of SEM.

SEM does not have to do anything with on-site and off-site because it already encapsulates SEO and all its dimensions.

Search Engine Marketing (SEM):

SEM is, in fact, an extensive marketing approach and strategy that relies heavily on the two most important parts: SEO and PSA.


Since SEO is a small universe of its own, when someone presents themselves as SEM expert, we mostly think of Google AdWords and other PSA strategies.

So while SEM’s focus is very wide and it covers SEO as well, SEO focuses only on two main techniques.

Yet, when it comes to scalability, both: SEO and SEM are equally difficult.

Activity Difference Between SEO & SEM

In terms of activities too, SEO and SEM do not sound much similar.

Yes, I know SEO is part of SEM and thus both should look alike – to a certain limit.


While an SEO expert is supposed to be busy in keywords search and getting backlinks etc., an SEM expert is supposed to take up the task like ad campaigns and managing ad groups, etc.

Here’s a breakdown of the activities of both an SEO and SEM

Launching ad campaignsTaking care of keywords research
Creating ad groupsGetting content
Setting an ad budgetGetting backlinks
Making sure that spending is proportionate to the ad metricsFinalizing small details like tags and structure etc.
Doing SEOGuest posting, social media, and other tactics

Approach Difference Between SEO & SEM


This is one very important point that differentiates SEO from SEM or vice versa. This is in terms of approach.

We all know that whether to go for the whole or SEO part, the target is only and only one: getting more and more traffic for one’s website.


The way how both strategies channelize the traffic from the internet in general to one’s website is what makes the difference.

As we know SEM includes SEO as well. However, it is a group of techniques that includes SEO and if we minimize SEO from SEM, it is all about paid advertising.

SEO, on the other hand, is about getting more and more traffic from unpaid sources.

This is the difference in terms of approach. SEM (minus SEO) is all about allocating ad budget, managing expenses, launching ad campaigns and taking other actions that do the same thing – bringing traffic in return for money (via ads mostly).

SEO, to the contrary, uses technique and smart work to replace the money that we find involved in PPC advertising techniques. How to structure the website, how to strategize the content, how to do keywords research, how to do tags and how to bring in more and more do-follow backlinks, it is all smart-work.

So, a major difference between SEO and SEM is smart-work vs money (not that SEO can be done without money or SEM does not require intelligence and hard-work).

Place of Action & Form of Action


I know a lot of posts discussed this topic, but none of them mentioned this point. I know this point does not matter much, but it is still a point of difference.

Where do you expect to run into SEO and where you have chances to meet SEM? To some, this question does not matter, but in certain scenarios, this is an important point.

For example, a learner of SEO and SEM would not like to waste time and immediately want to know the places and tools used in both types of techniques.

SEO is done on and off your website. On-site means that whether your website is on WordPress or some other CMS that is the place where you do SEO. Also, you do SEO on others’ websites and social media and forums, etc.

The tools are Ahrefs, SEMRush & Moz, etc.

In the case of SEM, a place is an ad tool of a search engine. For example, when you have to test a PPC Google ad, you go to AdWords which is a tool for Google ads.


This is it.

These are the most important points about SEM and SEO that a researcher and blogger could find out. You ferret around the internet and do enlighten me if you find any other point of difference.

Also – don’t forget to share this and comment if you like.

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Shehryar Aziz
Shehryar Aziz

About The Author: Shehryar Aziz is an all-rounder digital marketing expert with Wowbix. He manages content, website development projects & also working on improving the rankings for his SEO Clients & Wowbix. When he's not helping the clients to increase their leads & sales, he is teaching, learning, or listening songs.

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