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The Search Industry has so many acronyms and terms that those new to search often find it extremely confusing. Add to this that the fact that SEM and SEO are often used interchangeably. Clarity is sometimes difficult.

How do SEO and SEM differ?

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization (also known as Google Optimization). This is the process of optimizing your website for search engines. The goal is to improve organic or natural qualified traffic to your site and to rank higher in a search engine results page (SERP). In other words, getting found in a web search without paying Google or the other search engines to achieve this.


SEM is short for Search Engine Marketing. This is a broad term that captures the entire field of search engine visibility. Generally the primary service is focused on Paid Search Marketing. SEM companies provide Pay-Per-Click (PPC) services (such as Google AdWords). While the goal is also to improve the client’s search visibility in a SERP, the results are on the Paid side of search.

Depending on which strategy you use, higher placement is the goal for either unpaid or paid search results.

And…. this is where it gets confusing!

A Search Engine Optimization Company, of course, offers SEO services but may also provide AdWords advertising. Why? To help (temporarily) overcome low rankings for organic keywords in Google (we provide this service). Whereas a Search Engine Marketing firm may offer a wide range of SEM services but not necessarily SEO (or site optimization). And… in some cases, they offer this service and outsource it to a SEO agency.

Understanding the meaning of these terms – and what various companies offer, will help you in the selection process when you require search visibility support.