SEM vs. SEO – What’s the difference?

Judy Vedder Search Engine Optimization

I’ve been working in the computer industry for over 20 years and the one thing that hasn’t changed is the use of acronyms.  I remember being a young engineer, discussing a project with my team and thinking how amazing it was that we all understood this strange language of acronyms intertwined with English.  An outsider listening in would probably understand little of the conversation and perhaps wonder if some of these “words” were from another language.

Today’s world is much different in many ways, including the fact that technology has become such an important part of our everyday lives and the use of acroynms is no longer limited to just us engineers.

However it doesn’t make it easier to understand if you’re not one of the people who are “in the know.”

I recently attended a seminar and a person in the audience asked what SEO was.  The speaker went on for over 20 minutes describing the ins and outs of SEO.  As time went on, I could see the frustration building in the woman who asked the question and I knew exactly why.  She just wanted to know what the 3 letters stood for.  Sometimes technical people overlook the simple answers and dive too deep into explanations.


To start at the simplest level,

S.E.M. stands for Search Engine Marketing

S.E.O. stands for Search Engine Optimization

Search Engine Marketing is a broader term that includes multiple means of marketing your web site online in an effort to increase your web site visibility in the search engines.  SEM includes both SEO and paid advertising.

Search Engine Optimization is free (unless you pay a consultant to do it for you.)  It involves getting the right keywords into both your copy and your web page metadata.  Link Building is also an important part of SEO.  The goal of Search Engine Optimization is to get your web pages to rank high in the organic (or non-paid) sections of the search results (aka SERP or Search Engine Result Pages!)

Paid advertising in the search engines is referred to as PPC or Pay Per Click.  Using PPC advertising, you can create an ad that displays only on pages related to your keyword choices and you only pay when someone clicks on your ad.  Some companies find PPC to be very effective while others claim that their organic results bring in better qualified leads.  I often recommend that clients analyze their organic results first and then try paid advertising only if they feel they are not getting the results they want from search engine traffic.

SEM also includes using social media tools to drive traffic to your web site.  The impact of social media on SEM is twofold: you can drive traffic directly from social media tools and your social media efforts can be picked up by the search engines, thereby reaching a larger audience.