SEO vs SEM: Definitions, Differences and How to Use Them

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 7 September 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Creating a website that ranks high on search engines can be a key way for companies to advertise their products and develop their customer base. Marketing tools, such as search engine optimisation (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM), can help businesses optimise their websites for increased visibility. If you want to expand your marketing knowledge, learning the components of these strategies may be a beneficial step in your online career. In this article, we explain SEO vs SEM, discuss the major features of each and review the key differences between each strategy.

What is SEO vs SEM?

Understanding SEO vs. SEM can be important for professionals in data, marketing or content creation who want to establish or grow a company's online presence. SEO and SEM are methods professionals may use to improve their search engine ranking and increase the traffic flow to a website. A key difference between the strategies is that while SEO relies on traffic from organic search results, SEM requires companies to pay for ads to improve their search engine visibility.

Related: Credentials to Include on an SEO Resume (With a Template)

What is SEO?

SEO is a process in which businesses optimise their websites to rank well on search engine result pages. SEO aims to increase traffic flow through non-paid, organic processes. Through various mechanisms, a business may ensure that a search engine can find its website easily, making it visible to users. Many factors may affect the visibility of a website, including the quality of its content, keywords, usability and link patterns. SEO is typically a long-term strategy that achieves visibility over months or years.

Related: 12 SEO Careers to Consider (With Salary Information)

Features of SEO

Here are some key areas to address when using SEO:

On-page SEO

This area of SEO helps you develop a website that provides targeted content and engages users. It requires knowledge of the keywords your target audience may use in their search engine and how to structure the contents of your web page. For instance, a common practice is to include your keyword in your title tag, meta description and web page URL. You might also consider factors such as image optimisation, internal linking, website speed and mobile compatibility.

Related: How to Hire an SEO Expert (With Step-by-Step Instructions)

Off-page SEO

Off-page SEO refers to the trust a search engine has in your website. For a website to gain trust and authority, it typically requires high-quality backlinks. This means that other websites provide links to your website, giving it more authority. If a search engine trusts the usefulness of your site, you can expect it to rank higher in search results. A search engine may also assess your site's authority through other off-page signals, such as social media sharing.

Technical SEO

Technical SEO seeks to optimise elements unrelated to written or visual content, such as site architecture and speed. It ensures the page is easy to use, secure and free of technical errors. Optimising the technical elements means that a search engine can more easily crawl through and index the pages of your website. A search engine is more likely to share a fast-loading site without technical errors.

Content marketing SEO

This refers to your website's written and visual material. Optimised content means having high-quality material that provides value to your target audience. This doesn't only mean including keywords but constructing meaningful and targeted content your audience may benefit from. Website readers are more likely to share a site with strong content, which can increase your online visibility and authority. Components of content marketing SEO may include keyword research, page updates, blog posts, how-to guides and videos.

Related: How to Write a Blog (With Tips on Writing a Blog Post)

User interaction

Knowing how customers interact with your website can signal how well it's meeting their needs. For instance, if your website has a high bounce rate, this may indicate issues with your content, user experience or layout. A bounce rate refers to the number of visitors who leave a page without taking an action, such as clicking on a link, completing a form or purchasing a product or service. A search engine may likely prioritise websites responding to customers' needs.

What is SEM?

SEM is a broader term incorporating SEO as one element of its strategy. In addition to SEO, it uses paid methods to increase traffic flow. This could be search engine ads or social media marketing campaigns. A common SEO technique is pay-per-click (PPC), which allows companies to reach their audience by paying a fee. This type of optimisation typically sees a company display its product or service as an ad at the top of a search engine's page list. Unlike SEO, SEM can create a high-ranking website within hours and can quickly increase customer flow.


  • How to Write an Effective SEO Analyst Resume (With Example)

  • What Is Digital Marketing? (FAQ Plus Types of Strategies)

Features of SEM

Here are some key areas to address when using SEM:

Keyword bidding

Paid ads on most search engines require you to participate in bidding. For PPC, it's typical to bid an amount of money on a specific keyword. When someone puts your keyword into their search engine, your ad may appear near the top of the page. How well your ad ranks may depend on how much you've bid, with the highest bidder usually receiving the highest-ranking position. When a user clicks on your ad, you pay the amount you bid, which is the cost per click.

Quality score

Quality score is a metric that search engines may use to assess the effectiveness of using ads. By examining factors such as your click-through rate, your ad's relevance and the landing page's quality and usability, search engines may give you a score between one and ten. A high score indicates the ad and landing page meets key criteria and can effectively respond to the user's needs. It also means you're more likely to receive a discount for each click and a better ad position.

Related: 7 Usability Testing Tools (With Definition and Benefits)

Advertisement copy

Writing strong ad copy can be important to achieving successful SEM. Depending on what you're advertising, use several techniques to produce interesting ad copy to compete with similar websites. For instance, you may enhance your meta description by using powerful verbs, appealing to emotions or including compelling facts. If your ad gets lots of clicks, your quality score is likely to improve, decreasing your costs for each ad.

Related: How to Become a Copywriter (With Skills and FAQs)


As with SEO, SEM requires research for profitable keywords. This allows you to target keywords in your ad campaign that are likely to help your audience find your product or service. For instance, if you're selling gardening equipment, bid for the keyword lawn mower. While a lawn mower may have other names, such as grass cutter, keyword research can help to find what potential customers are most likely to search for.

Related: A Guide to Using Data Analyst Resume Keywords

Key differences between SEO and SEM

When choosing a suitable method to increase your online presence, you might consider some of the major differences between SEO and SEM:

Time and effort

A significant difference between SEO and SEM is the time and effort required to succeed. While SEM involves initial keyword research, SEO requires ongoing maintenance. A properly optimised website may involve technical and creative input from many people and may require you to complete your own research if you have limited resources. It may also require regular alterations to adhere to changing algorithm updates. If you're using SEM, it's possible to spend minimal time on maintenance. You may monitor your quality score occasionally and stay aware of your ad relevance.

Related: How to Build a Website (And Why Having One Is Important)


A benefit of SEM is that its effectiveness is simple to test and monitor. It's relatively easy to tell if an ad attracts customers and encourages them to purchase goods or services. If it's not functioning successfully, you may adjust your keywords or improve the content of your ad copy. As SEO is a longer-term strategy, its success can be more difficult to assess. It may take longer for you to determine your website's effectiveness and can take more problem-solving to identify potential issues.

Related: A/B Testing Examples (Including Definition and Benefits)

Speed of results

While you may get almost instant clicks using SEM, SEO can take much longer to establish. Using SEO, it may take a new website anywhere between a few months and a few years to reach a top-ranking page. Even if you've optimised every element of your website, it can take time to develop your online reputation, as you build up backlinks and improve click rates. Though the speed of SEM can be an advantage, it may only last while you continue paying. If you have time to create an optimised web page, it's likely to get consistently high visibility.

Explore more articles