What is the difference between SEO and SEM?

I've heard of a fire engine, but what is a search engine?

I've heard of a fire engine, but what is a search engine?

The difference between SEO and SEM is that SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation while SEM stands for Search Engine Marketing.

Strictly speaking SEO means targeting just search engines.  It is concerned with getting your site as far up the Google, yahoo and Bing rankings for chosen keywords as possible.  Achieving that is done in many ways.

SEM on the other hand has several meanings in regular use.  Some think of it purely as PPC (pay per click) advertising campaigns.  These are the ads you see on the right of the search results in search engines, and occasionally occupying the top slots.  I like to think of it as much more than that though.

When I think of SEM the word marketing takes priority.  I like to think of Search Engine Marketing as encompassing SEO but taking into account the user experience.

Let me expand on that.  A site may be extremely well optimised from an SEO perspective, ranking well in the major search engines, but that does not mean that the site is a good user experience.

It is a mistake to put SEO ahead of user experience.  I’ll give you an example. The following is SEO optimised text

Car washing by the car washing experts.  At Car Washing Ireland we wash cars all day every day.  When it comes to car washing we are the number one car washing company in Ireland.  If your car needs car washing then you have found the right site.  Contact us and one of our mobile car washing units will be dispatched to you and one of our car washing experts will have your car gleaming.  You will be so impressed with our car washing that you will return to car washing ireland again and again.

Actually, that is terrible SEO.  I have exaggerated it hugely.  The point is that SEO optimised text is not necessarily particularly readable text.  If the quality of English is high, then you use different words or phrases to describe the same thing.  This is at odds with SEO, where you want to repeat your key phrases.

The object is to achieve good legible text that a user will read, while retaining a keyword density that is reasonably high (though not much above 5% of total text).  It would be entirely better for both SEO and the user experience to write the above text with far fewer instances of “Car Washing”.

SEM (Search Engine Marketing) is all about S......elling!

SEM (Search Engine Marketing) is all about S......elling!

SEM is more holistic.  It encompasses good SEO techniques for on page content (but not at the expense of the user experience).  It also covers Social Media as well as PPC advertising and even banner or button advertising.  Search Engine Marketing is about selling your site online.

A lot of SEO’s make the mistake of using the meta description purely to put in keywords.  Same goes for the page title.

In the case of the meta description it is fairly likely that google does not include that text in any meaningful way in its ranking algorithms.  I am not saying that you should not put keywords into the meta description or page title, but use them to better effect.

Better effect means using them to sell.  To stick with our car washing example, The title can be “Car washing Ireland”, the meta description could read “Get your car washed at home or at work.  We come to you.  Discount for online booking”.  No key words.  Just good descriptive text that helps sell the service.

The whole reason for this post was because I am writing about Social Media and somebody asked me “what has social media got to do with SEO training?”.

Well these days you can’t market your website online without at least paying lip service to social media.  And if you know your stuff (or get Social Media Training) then you can really make it work for you in a big way.  Look at what happened with the Susan Boyle clip on You Tube.  She became an overnight, international sensation, from a clip of an audition!  Wow.  That just does not happen with traditional media.

Why do companies invest thousands of euros in SEO training?  It’s all part of their marketing mix.  SEO is marketing.  Therefore, SEO is SEM and SEM includes SEO.  By the way.  I’ve just broken a rule there.  I’ve overused the phrases again (my site may pay for all this bad SEO!).  I was only playing with words, but be careful.  Remember we are dealing with dumb machines (no matter how good the algorithms are).  They do not see a bit of word play, but rather an attempt at keyword stuffing, which can hurt your ranking.

So, SEM is all about selling.  SEO is just about trying to get better ranking on Google et al.

One of these days I’ll learn to write short concise posts, but I hope that I’ve cleared up the difference between SEO and SEM somewhat.

About Ian Wortley


Ian is one of Irelands leading SEO consultants with over 8 years experience in the Irish market. Ian discovered his love of all things internet related in 2005 and has been living nearly exclusively online since then, causing much worry to friends and family, but getting great results for clients. Contact Ian: Phone: 01 6854806 Mobile: 086 3817149

4 thoughts on “What is the difference between SEO and SEM?

  1. Thanks for the SEO suggestions! I have a question, hoping someone here could answer it. I tried ‘on page seo’ on my blog, as well as getting backlinks. But I am still not getting any visible results! Do you have any other advice for backlinking? I tried what I could understand already. Thanks again!! :)

  2. Your site is very new. With Blogs you need to establish trust and this can take a few months. Keep updating regularly, have good content and the rest will happen. I have done very little indeed to promote this blog. I just try to post reasonably regularly and not overdo the seo. Simple as.

  3. This is such a great resource that you’re providing. I enjoy seeing websites that understand the value of providing a prime resource for free. I really loved reading your post. Thanks!

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