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What’s the Difference between SEM and SEO?

Key Takeaways

The article focuses on differentiating between Search Engine Marketing (SEM) and Search Engine Optimization (SEO), providing insights into their roles in driving website traffic.

It begins by framing online marketing branches, introducing SEM as a part of online marketing and SEO as a subset within SEM. For SEM, it highlights its marketing functions within search engines to enhance brand visibility and click-through rates, mentioning strategies like SEO, Search Engine Ads, social media, online reviews, Wikipedia, and Google-specific tools.

It underlines SEM’s significance in creating first impressions and improving click-through rates to owned media sites or sales platforms.

In contrast, the article defines SEO as a subset of SEM and details various activities and tools aimed at enhancing website and specific page rankings within search engines.

It elaborates on on-site and off-site SEO strategies, targeted and foundational SEO, emphasizing content quality, user experience, and backlinks as pivotal for SEO success.

The article concludes by stressing the synergy between SEM and SEO strategies in achieving high rankings and driving traffic to websites, offering a glossary of terms related to SEM and SEO.

The article also hints at bonus content available in the slides, including a table outlining the differences between SEM and SEO and the importance of driving traffic to websites.

Less than 1 min read min read

Are you interested to know the difference between SEM and SEO? Also, what their different roles are in driving traffic to your website? Well, you’re in luck and in the right place…

Here’s a quick presentation on Google Slides with some nice, easy-to-understand graphics that make everything a lot clearer.

Press play or click through the slides below. There’s only 13 of them!

Take a look through the slides and get a clear picture without reading on, or keep reading to see what’s covered in paragraph format…

Online Marketing: Where do SEM & SEO fit in?

Online marketing can be broken down into various different branches. These include social media marketing, email marketing, and search engine marketing (SEM). Basically, SEM is a branch of online marketing and SEO is a sub-branch of that.

Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

Short definition of SEM:

‘SEM is the marketing of your brand, product or website within search engines in order to gain more impressions and click-throughs.’

Examples of strategies, tools and activities:

  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
  • Search Engine Ads (SEA)
  • Social Media (YouTube & Twitter are especially important for SEM)
  • Online Reviews
  • Wikipedia
  • Google Specific (MyBusiness, Knowledge Panel, Sitelinks, Position Zero)

SEM is important for when someone searches for your brand, company or product. Good SEM gives a great first impression and improves click-through-rates to your owned media sites or sales platforms.

For a comprehensive guide to SEM, please read ‘What is SEM? Search Engine Marketing Fundamentals’

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

SEO is a subset of SEM. It includes all the activities and tools you would use to improve your website and specific pages of your website’s rankings within search engines.

Examples of strategies, tools and activities:

  • On-Site or On-Page SEO (everything that can be tweaked on your page to improve SEO. This includes (but not limited to) developing the content, keyword strategy, user experience and speed of the page, and meta-tagging)
  • Off-Site or Off-Page SEO (everything that happens away from your page. The main thing here is building links to your page from relevant and authoritative sites)
  • Targeted SEO (this is when you are trying to rank for certain target keywords. This is content-driven. You pick the keywords and then develop a content and keyword strategy around that)
  • Foundational SEO (this is when you are optimizing your page or website in order to lay the foundations for SEO success. This is when you do some optimizations of your site to improve the speed and user experience and add functionality like AMP (accelerated mobile pages) or schema to improve visibility in search engine results.

SEO is important for branded keywords but it is especially important for your target industry keywords.


‘Ultimately, the most important aspects of SEO are quality of content and user experience on your website. Then you need backlinks from relevant sites.’


If you sprinkle a little stardust on these two things using SEM and SEO strategies, you’ll have a great chance of ranking high and driving traffic to your website.

For bonus content, including a table outlining the differences between SEM and SEO, as well as info on why driving traffic to your site is so important, check out the slides.

SEM & SEO Glossary

SEASearch Engine Advertising e.g. Google or Bing ads.
Offsite SEOLink-building and other activities that don’t take place on your website.
Onsite SEOAll SEO activities that take place on your website, e.g. content, keywords, tagging, speed optimization.
Foundational SEOAlso known as ‘technical SEO’, these are activities that improve the foundations of your website in terms of speed, usability, and performance.
Targeted SEOBuilding content to rank for a targeted keyword or keyword phrase.
Knowledge PanelThis appears on desktop Google searches on the right hand side and gives extra information usually about a brand, product, company or person such as Wikipedia info, and info from social media.
SitelinksSitelinks appear in search rankings underneath your main URL link and offer other popular pages for searchers to click to.
Position ZeroPosition zero is a relatively new aspect to Google searches. Usually you appear here if you answer a query wholey yet succinctly and have a high enough page authority. It is above the usual 1st ranking. The new holy grail of SEO?

Further Research

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