SEO vs. SEM: What’s the Difference and How to Get Benefit From Them?

For digital marketing newcomers, the terms SEO and SEM can be incredibly confusing.

Both have “Search” and “Engine” in them. Do you not “manage” the things you “optimise”? Fear not, we here at Clearwater have found an apt way to summarise the difference between these two separate but very related elements of the digital marketing mix.

How, you ask? By comparing it to online dating of course. Analogies are often the best way to explain concepts to clients, and what better one to use than the ways you can sprucing up your online dating profile.

What is SEO in a nutshell?

Search Engine Optimisation in a nutshell is the strategy of convincing search engines to put your website at the top of the pyramid of search results for consumers to see, which in turn, helps drive consumers to your website. The traffic to your website that’s guided there via SEO tactics is also known as ‘Organic Traffic’, which is arguably the most valuable type of traffic, because it is absolutely free, and incorporates work and updates on your website that is ultimately just ensuring that you are the best option for your target market.

The relationship between SEO and Search Engines is kind of like the relationship between dating websites and your personal dating profile. It’s the website’s responsibility to match you with other potential love interests based on your profile, and it’s your responsibility to create your profile with the intention of being honest, keeping it up to date, and having all the necessary and interesting information about you that a potential partner would need.

On a website, a number of on-page and off-page elements such as content, meta titles, backlinks, internal links, et cetera, are all considered by Search Engine bots when determining whether to rank a site on a keyword. In terms of online dating, your best photos and interests are kind of like ranking signals.

The Google Bot, or potential love interests, picks up on these signals and decides if it’s going to rank you on relevant search terms, or swipe right on you in this instance. If you have a combination of the right elements, you will surely find some eligible matches, and the dating website will be able to do its job properly and help everyone find love. SEO works the same way; it’s just matching online businesses with appropriate consumers.

What is SEM in a nutshell?

Search Engine Marketing used to be an umbrella term that incorporated both SEO and Paid Search Marketing strategies, but over time the acronym SEM evolved to predominantly represent the paid side of a digital marketing campaign.


SEM is a search optimisation strategy that unlike SEO uses paid digital marketing activities such as Paid Search Ads and Pay-Per-Click (PPC) to increase visibility in popular search engines. Google Ads is arguably the most known paid marketing activity used in SEM. When you use a search engine, you will often find that the first couple of search results that come up have the word Ad next to the listing, indicating that this website has paid for their listing to show up first for these specific search results.

One of the major benefits that come with Paid Search is that while SEO is incredibly important for a website and can produce good results when attempting to rank number one in search engines, paid search can guarantee that position. It is also necessary to consider the dramatic increase in the use of mobile phones and tablets when using search engines, and with the decrease in screen size, the prime real estate at the top of those search results is worth all that much more.

Coming back to the dating website analogy mentioned in our previous paragraph, dating websites also (similarly to SEM) offer their clients the opportunity to have their profiles “Boosted” on the site, propping it up above other profiles to increase visibility and matches, for a price.

What is the difference between SEO and SEM?

After all of this, we need to ask ourselves: what is the real difference between SEO and SEM? While one term centres around earned traffic, the other relies on paid results. Thankfully, there is more than one way to get to that number one spot online, and while it’s true that the end goal for both SEM and SEO is search visibility for websites, the approach and tools in their arsenal are quite unique.

It’s the difference between having a great profile that attracts users right away and having a profile that gets a bit of a boost for visibility to make sure it’s being seen.

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Should I use both SEO and SEM together?

The great thing about SEO and SEM is that they are most certainly not mutually exclusive, and they complement each other rather than work against one another. They both involve keywords in their processes, both respectively work towards the same goal, and they are both only as good as the website you put out there.

It is entirely possible (and encouraged) to have a holistic view of your online presence and digital marketing campaign and incorporating both search optimising strategies will ensure your consistent online search visibility. We’ve seen time and time again that the clickthrough rate of having both the top paid position and organic position is significantly higher than only having one of these in isolation.

Back to our dating analogy, if you have a great online dating profile that has the right pictures and description but want to give your profile a bit of a boost with paid traffic, you’re going to be very sought after indeed!

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