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What is the Difference between SEO and SEM?

seo semThere are so many Internet marketing acronyms these days it’s hard not to get them mixed up. One thing you must be clear on is that SEO and SEM are two totally different things. Although many Internet marketers specialize in offering both these services, they don’t always need to go together.


The real meaning of SEO is search engine optimization. SEO is everything you do to optimize your website so that search engines can find and rank it accordingly on SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages). SEO also ties in with all the off-site things you do to build your website’s ranking such as building links, writing meta tags and implementing keywords. SEO is any action you take to improve your online search engine ranking that does not involve paid advertising.

A Common Misuse

The most common misuse of the term SEO is when Internet marketing experts refer to themselves as SEOs. The more accurate term is that they are SEO experts. Many service providers use the term as their job title because it rolls off the tongue easier than internet marketer or website optimization specialist, or other terms that would more precisely describe the services they provide.


SEM means search engine marketing. Search engine marketing is when site owners purchase advertising on the Internet to attract new visitors to their website. Yes, it is a part of SEO in the sense that it builds traffic, but the big distinction is that it is not natural SEO; site owners buy traffic instead of earning it. SEM consists of purchasing banners ads, AdWord ads and using other per-per-click or pay-per-impression advertising services on the Internet. SEM is a targeted marketing campaign that site owners invest in order to entice visitors to visit their website.

Search Arbitrage

One of the most common methods of SEM is search arbitrage. It’s especially popular for websites that host advertisements. For example, the site owner or client pays $.25 per click for a Google AdWords ad with the hope that they will interest visitors into checking out their website where they have Google AdSense ads worth $.50 or more per click. The goal of search arbitrage, when done correctly, is to earn more revenue from the advertisements hosted on your website than what you pay to advertise your website. Some Internet marketers promote SEM and search arbitrage as a way to help new websites quickly build a following.

Google estimates that over 80% of most websites’ traffic comes for organic search clicks. An organic search click is when someone finds the website on Google’s SERPs and visits the link. Since most website traffic comes from search results, SEO is far more important than SEM. However, SEO does take a considerable amount of time to build and many site owners look towards SEM as a “quick-fix” to help boost their website’s SEO. Before you invest in either service, look at the differences between the two and assess which will be most useful for your website.


About the Author: Tony Smith is a full-time writer with a passion for internet marketing and branding. He also enjoys writing about technology, healthcare, billing and coding careers, and finance.

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