The Difference Between SEO & SEM

Posted: January 30, 2013

Originally posted here on USSCO Speaks blog.

It’s hard to keep track of all the digital marketing buzzwords that are flying around the internet today. Especially, if those words are thrown into acronyms that further decode their meaning. For those of you just starting to dabble in online marketing, we wanted to provide a quick explanation as to the difference between SEO and SEM.

First off, what do they stand for? That would certainly help. SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization, and it refers to the process of increasing your website’s search engine ranking for a specific keyword or set of keywords. Said another way, search engines look for specific things on and off of your website that determines whether or not it’s relevant for a specific query, and SEO is the goal of doing those things.

So then what is SEM? Search engine…? Marketing? Exactly. Search engine marketing is the strategy to increase your traffic and sales through the search engine channel. Search engine marketing includes the tactic SEO and the tactic Paid Search. Paid Search refers to those “sponsored” advertisements you see at the top and right side of Google, Bing, and the rest. Businesses are in a bidding war for every click that drives them to their website. The more relevant your website landing page to the query and the more you pay, the higher you’ll appear on the search engine results page (SERP).

Should you even care? Well, yes, because 93% of all online experiences begin with a search engine (Forrester Research, 2006). That means that your customers and prospects are likely finding or not finding you by first visiting sites like and They type in a search query such as “brown leather office chair” and start visiting the websites that appear. What’s even more important is that you want to appear first. That’s because 97% of searchers never look beyond the first three results. It’s more likely that they’ll change their search query before hitting that “next >” button at the bottom of the page.

A few years ago those top coveted results of the search engines were known as the “Google Golden Triangle” as they get all of the attention and clicks. That triangle has become even more competitive as Google and Bing have introduced other content such as news, images, videos, and social feeds. That and every sixty seconds 70 domain names are registered and 60 new blogs are created, makes it even harder to compete.

The best thing you can do as a company is to get in the game. If you’ve got a website, then you need to understand how people come to it. Take a look at your website analytics. You can set up an account with Google Analytics for free. See how many people are coming from search engines and what they’re searching for. Try out some paid search advertising and follow the SEO best practices [PDF].

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