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E-Marketing Performance Blog

Ask the Pit Crew: What is SEO vs. SEM?


Members of the Pole Position Marketing pit crew answer your web marketing questions from their unique perspectives, with a “bonus lap” by a guest industry pro. See previous questions or go to our contact page to ask your own or inquire about our services.

Today’s Question: What is SEO vs SEM?

This is a great question that generated varying responses. Read them below, and let us know what YOU think the difference is between SEO and SEM in the comments.

Stoney deGeyter

Stoney deGeyter’s Answer from an SEO Perspective:

Conventional wisdom says that:

  • SEO = Organic Optimization
  • SEM = Paid Marketing (PPC)

I’ve never been a fan of those distinction because I don’t really think they do justice. I think PPC does just fine as a representative for PPC marketing. We don’t need “SEM” as an additional title for that.

To me, any marketing that deals with search engines is SEM. That would mean that SEM includes:

  • SEO (including link building)
  • PPC
  • Click Through Optimization

When it comes to what we do as “digital marketers,” I’ve always had a preference for the term “web marketing.” That seems to cover pretty much anything web related, including content marketing, social media marketing, etc.

Other terms that have similar meaning are “digital marketing” and “inbound marketing.” Both of those are in pretty common usage, but they have never really hit the spot for me.

When I consider the scope of what we do, covering everything from web design to SEO to content marketing, I feel like “web presence optimization” rings pretty true. In everything we do, the goal is to optimize all aspect of a business’ web presence.

So, if you ask me what SEO or SEM means, I might give you the technical answer. But if you ask me what I do, I’ll tell you Web Presence Optimization.


Annalisa Hilliard’sAnnalisa Answer From a Link Building & Local SEO Perspective:

Search engine optimization is one aspect of search engine marketing. SEM includes a full spectrum of tactics from optimization to content creation and promotion. Not only does it include a wide array of tactics, but it also includes various mediums like videos and apps. With every tactic and medium, there are best practices (ways to optimize) for better search presence and performance.

SEO is specific to the on-page elements of a website including title tags, meta descriptions, heading tags, alt image tags and content. Site architecture (the ability for search engines to crawl the site), is also part of SEO.


CircleChris Steurer’s Answer from a Web Developer perspective:

I don’t believe it is a matter of SEO vs SEM, but rather how are they related. SEO is the easy one that everyone with a website has heard of, Search Engine Optimization. This is a matter of optimizing mostly onsite issues in combination with gaining tactful external links in an effort to better rank for search phrases on search engines. SEO mostly focuses on optimization of current content, not necessarily content expansion.

SEM is a little more obscure but still simple nonetheless, Search Engine Marketing. Search engine marketing is a broader stroke of the same brush of SEO. Search engine marketing typically encompasses not only earned media like SEO, but also paid media such as PPC ads. The goal of SEM is generally to create more or better content to convince users to take the actions you want them to.


Bruce Clay headshotBONUS LAP WITH:  Bruce Clay

Bruce Clay is founder and president of Bruce Clay, Inc., a global digital marketing optimization firm established in 1996. The company serves clients through search engine optimization (SEO), online advertising (SEM/PPC), social media, content development, and SEO tools and education.

The difference between SEM and SEO is this: SEM is pay per click. SEO is organic search rankings. Fundamentally, one is an advertising traffic mechanism and one is a free traffic mechanism. Digital marketing is the umbrella term for SEO, SEM, content, social media, email marketing, and other marketing arenas that require the end user to have an internet connection.

My take on today’s world is that SEO is the optimization of a website so that it appears higher in algorithmically controlled free results within a search engine. While an algorithm may be involved in the positioning of PPC search results, SEM is a paid advertising mechanism that is predominantly auction-based and generates revenue for the search engine.



Tagged As: PPC SEO

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