Difference between SEO and SEM

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Most business owners understand the importance of having a presence in search engine results. Yet, there are more ways than one to bolster your presence in search engine results. As a web design Singapore company, we often get asked: ‘What is the difference between SEO and SEM?’ and we’re going to answer that today.

What is SEM?

Search Engine Marketing (SEM), is advertising on search engines to achieve the marketing goal of driving traffic to the desired page. Because audiences are already looking for something when they use search engines, they are more likely to convert when clicking on a link. For this reason, SEM traffic is commonly viewed as a key source for internet traffic. Some examples of SEM include the text ads that appear at the top of search engine result pages or shopping ads that feature a product and related information like its price.

What is SEO?

Search Engine Optimization (SEO), attempts to improve the visibility of a page by optimizing it such that it increases its ranking on the SERP (search engine result page) and appears more frequently in organic search results.

There are 2 main types of SEO – on-site and off-site SEO. On-site SEO is the optimization of your site to help it rank higher in search results and therefore drive more traffic to it. It includes the content of a page, title tags (the title of a page that is displayed on search engine result pages), and accurately formatted URLs, amongst other things. Search engine takes all these into account to determine if your site has good content that is relevant to a user’s query.

Off-site SEO complements on-site SEO to help search engine ascertain the quality of a site by the number of other sites that link to it, and how reputable those sites are. The idea is that if multiple reputable sites link to yours on a given topic, it is a good indicator that your site is a trusted authority on the matter.

The Difference Between SEO & SEM

So, what is the difference between SEO and SEM? The confusion is understandable as marketers sometimes use them interchangeably. This is so as SEM was once used to include all efforts directed at increasing traffic through the use of search engines. Following from this definition, SEO was considered a subset of SEM as it sought to increase traffic via search engines.

However, in more recent times, search industry professionals have come to distinguish the two, with SEM to refer specifically to paid marketing activities and SEO referring to efforts to drive traffic through search engines organically.

This distinction reflects the nature of both strategies: SEO is a long-term strategy and takes time for results to show, while SEM can be used to achieve results in a much shorter span of time – you simply pay to appear at the top of the search results.

Accordingly, the moment you stop paying, your site stops appearing in search results. Thus, the optimal solution is to invest in both SEO and SEM to ensure your site turns up in both paid and organic results.


To answer the question, the fundamental difference between SEM and SEO lies in that one is paid, and allows for results to be achieved almost immediately, while the other is a long-term strategy that strives for organic traffic.

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