The terms ‘SEO’ and ‘SEM’ are often used in similar contexts, and they’re both incredibly important when it comes to success in digital marketing.

It’s understandable how the two terms can be confusing. After all, the letters ‘SE’ in both of them denote ‘Search Engine’, leading one to believe that SEO and SEM mean essentially the same thing.

However, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

It’s the letters ‘O’ and ‘M’—Optimization versus Marketing—that make all the difference.

In this article, the online marketing and advertising strategists at Sympler are clearing the air with a common sense explanation of how and why SEO and SEM are differentiated from one another.

The Search Marketing Category

To help explain the difference between SEO and SEM, we’re going to use an example of a small business trying to attract new customers online.

Let’s say you’re a supplier of high-quality leather goods: wallets, belts, keychains, that sort of thing. And, let’s say you’ve whipped up a website showcasing your products. Now, you want to start bringing customers to your website so they’ll eventually make a purchase.


You know that your target consumers are using major search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo! every minute of every day. But, how can you get your website to show up on the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) consumers are presented with when they use search terms like ‘leather wallet’, ‘leather belt’, and so on?

Generally speaking, you have two options available to you. This is where the difference between Search Engine Optimization and Search Engine Marketing becomes crystal clear:

  1. You can PAY to have your company advertised when someone searches for a relevant keyword or phrase (Search Engine Marketing), or…
  2. You can ORGANIC strategies to increase the likelihood that your website will be included in the unpaid search results (Search Engine Optimization).

[Sidenote: Search Marketing approaches like SEM and SEO are not the only ways to attract customers to a website. There are also disciplines like Social Media Marketing, Email Marketing, Content Marketing, Affiliate Marketing, and so much more!]

It might help to remember that SEM requires money for results; whereas SEO takes time, research, and a lot of focus on website dynamics, which we’ll get into in a bit.

Keeping It SEM-ple

Now that you know the categorical differences between SEO and SEM, let’s explore each one in a little more detail, starting with SEM.

organic vs paidAll of the biggest search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo!, and here in the US) allow advertisers to pay a small fee for every click that their ad generates. This fee can range from a few pennies all the way to $5 or more. A good average cost, though, is about $1-$2 per click depending on a variety of factors.

So, when a potential customer searches for ‘Leather Keychains’ on and an ad for your website shows up in the first few listings, you only pay when that potential customer clicks the ad.

This is called Pay-per-Click or PPC advertising, and it’s one of the fastest and most effective ways to get qualified website traffic. It’s also a huge industry: in 2020 alone, Google reported revenues of $146 billion generated from PPC advertising.

Getting started with PPC is fast and easy. The following steps are all that’s needed to start seeing success with PPC:

  1. Conduct keyword research (i.e., determine if ‘leather wallets’ or ‘leather goods’ are better targets for your ads).
  2. Set up an account with Microsoft, Google, or Yahoo!.
  3. Create the ads you want to use.
  4. Modify your ad spend according to your budget and tweak your ads to optimize performance.

In case you don’t have the time or patience to run a PPC campaign on your own, each of these steps can be made much easier with the help of a professional SEM partner like Sympler!

Say Hello to SEO

For those looking to capitalize on the organic search results that users are presented with when using search engines, Search Engine Optimization is the name of the game.

The good news is that SEO is technically free—if you do it yourself. However, there’s a lot that goes into a well-optimized website, including:

  • On-page SEO. Each individual page on a website is given the fine-toothed comb treatment to ensure the right words are being used in the right context, so the site as a whole is more attractive to search providers.
  • Off-page SEO. Off-page SEO is using other websites to increase the perceived value of your website. This is typically done through link-building and other strategies.
  • Technical SEO. Optimizing site performance by reducing loading speed, allowing for mobile friendliness, etc. helps to win favor with search engines.

So, which approach to Search Marketing is best for your business? SEM or SEO? Or, maybe the right answer is a combination of the two?

Why not contact us to find out? We specialize in helping businesses succeed online. Get in touch with our team today, and learn more about how you can put the power of SEM and SEO to work for you faster and more affordably than you might think.

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