SEO vs. SEM: What’s the Difference?

Develop your understanding of SEO vs. SEM, and how these digital marketing strategies can work in tandem.

When considering your business’ digital marketing strategy, you’re likely to encounter a variety of terminology that might be unfamiliar to you– or at least, unfamiliar enough to not be quite sure how to put it in practice.

The good news is, the team at Monte Verde Media is here to help. In the following blog post, we’ll be tackling two digital marketing tactics you may have heard of: Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM).

Understanding SEO

SEO is a strategy that involves improving a website to increase its visibility in organic (non-paid) search engine results. SEO is a high-level strategy that consists of many different components, from the words on your webpages to the way other sites link to you on the web.

In the simplest of terms, SEO is all about making your site attractive to search engines like Google, Bing, or DuckDuckGo, whose goal is to provide its users with the highest quality recommendations. For more on investing in SEO, visit our guide to the subject.

The goal of SEO is to attract quality traffic, improve traffic quantity, and enhance the visibility of your webpages in search engine results. It involves tactics such as:

  • Keyword Research and Implementation
  • On-Page SEO (metadata, title tags, alt tags)
  • Off-Page SEO (backlinks, social media)
  • Technical SEO (website speed, mobile-friendliness, schema markup)

Understanding SEM

SEM, on the other hand, is a digital marketing strategy used to increase a website's visibility in search engine results pages (SERPs) through paid advertising.

SEM practices include:

  • Pay-Per-Click (PPC) Advertising
  • Cost-Per-Thousand Impressions (CPM) Advertising
  • Retargeting/Remarketing
  • Display Ads

SEO vs. SEM: Key Differences

While “SEO” and “SEM” might only appear to be one letter different from each other, the two strategies are entirely different in practice. Let’s dive in.


SEO is typically an organic approach to digital marketing, meaning it doesn't require direct payment for placements in search results. Instead, SEO focuses on optimizing your website and content to naturally appear high in organic search results. If done right, this method is more cost-effective in the long run, but requires time and effort to be successful.

SEM, however, usually involves paying search engines to display your website prominently in search results. Through methods like PPC, you bid for ad placement in a search engine's sponsored links for keywords related to your business.


SEO is a long-term strategy, taking months to see results. This is because SEO requires building credibility and authority with search engines– which is not instantaneous.

SEM, on the other hand, shows results quickly because as soon as your campaign starts running, your ads start to appear in search results. This immediacy can be beneficial for special offerings such as sales, or when launching a new product, service, or your company in general.


SEO brings continuous visibility to your site, because as long as you continue to optimize your website with high-quality content, you can maintain high visibility in search results.

Because it’s a paid strategy, SEM's visibility depends on your advertising budget, as ads only appear as long as you continue to invest in your ad campaign.

Combining SEO and SEM

While it might not seem like it, SEO and SEM complement each other quite well. Using both in tandem, businesses and marketers can create a comprehensive and effective search engine strategy.

A website that’s optimized for search (SEO) provides the foundation for your paid ads (SEM) to perform better. The insights gained from SEM, such as which keywords convert well, can feed into your SEO strategy, helping you create content that drives traffic and conversions.

The TL;DR: Both SEO and SEM are valuable digital marketing tools that aim to increase web traffic, with the goal that the users heading to your website will convert. However, these strategies have different strengths, and their use should depend on a business's needs, budget, and timeline. The most successful businesses know the importance of both SEO and SEM, and combine the two to create a digital marketing strategy that complements each other.

So, if you’re considering how strategies like SEO and SEM can help your business, be sure to reach out to Monte Verde Media for assistance personalized to your brand, service, and beyond.