Is there a difference between SEM, SEO, and PPC?

Whether you’re brand new to marketing or a seasoned professional, there’s definitely been a time in your career where you asked yourself, “What exactly is the difference between SEM, SEO, and PPC?” 

There’s a lot of marketing jargon that can get confusing if you aren’t familiar with the topics, so we totally understand the confusion with these three acronyms. The truth is, most people get too caught up in how they’re separate practices. Instead, you should be using them together. 

Before we get into why they work best when utilizing all three, let’s clearly define what they all are, and why they’re important to your marketing strategy. 

Search Engine Optimization

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) involves increasing traffic to a website by optimizing content through organic results. Organic means you aren’t paying for these outcomes, they’re coming naturally because of the work you’re doing to increase your ranking on the search engine results page (SERP). Your goal is for your website to reach the coveted #1 position on the SERP so that you’re more visible than the competitors and users are more likely to click on your page. 

SEO can be broken down into three parts that are all equally important for improving your rankings:

  1. On-Page SEO

On-page SEO, sometimes referred to as on-site SEO, is everything you do on the page itself to optimize for the SERPs. One very important aspect of on-page SEO is to find a target keyword for every page after completing keyword research and then optimizing the page with that keyword. This lets both the search engine and the searcher know what the page is about. Once you’ve specified a target keyword, you should sprinkle that throughout the content, create a concise yet descriptive URL, utilize image alt tags, and write eye-catching headings, subheadings, title tags and meta descriptions that contain your keyword. 

For more information on on-page SEO, check out our blog “On-Page SEO Checklist: 8 Ways to Optimize (That Work!)” 

  1. Off-Page SEO

Off-page SEO is everything you do to increase your rankings that isn’t on the page itself. This includes things like building your backlinks (links that point from another site to yours), claiming a Google My Business listing, and earning positive reviews from existing clients, to name a few. 

  1. Technical SEO

Technical SEO involves utilizing tools to test and track the health of your website. This includes checking for any backend errors, optimizing site speed, making sure your pages are able to be crawled by search engine bots, having a properly formatted XML sitemap, and much more. 

All of these are important ranking factors because they contribute to the user experience, so search engines reward sites that perform well because they give searchers what they’re looking for. For example, pages that take a long time to load won’t be ranked highly because users will most likely become frustrated and click away. Search engines like Google want their searchers to find exactly what they need because it reflects well on them, so sites that are very fast, easy-to-use, and full of great content rank better on SERPs. 

To learn more about technical SEO, check out our blog “7 Steps to Perform a Technical SEO Audit for Beginners

Realistically, organic search tactics take 3 to 6 months (and sometimes longer!) to start seeing results, so if you’re looking for a quick fix, this won’t be the answer. But while SEO may be a waiting game, the wait is more than worth it — 51 percent of web traffic comes from organic search results. 


Pay-per-click (PPC) is a form of online advertising where companies can pay search engines like Google to display their ads, but they only have to pay for the ads if they’re actually clicked on by users. This is, in a sense, the opposite of search engine optimization because you’re paying for traffic instead of earning it organically. 

This doesn’t mean PPC is a shortcut or an easy way to the top of the SERP. It’s actually pretty helpful if you can spare the cash! For example, if a keyword that’s extremely relevant to your industry is very difficult to rank for organically — paying for an advertisement could be your best shot at being seen by people searching for it. Being the first name a user sees when they enter a query is the ultimate goal; 33 percent of traffic goes to the #1 spot on the results page. But how often do you actually look past the first page of Google when searching for something? We’re willing to bet it’s pretty rare, so paying for an ad is sometimes your best bet when it comes to visibility. 

The cost of keywords varies depending on how much competition there is, or how many other sites are trying to rank for them. Using tools like SEMrush, you can experiment with their Keyword Magic Tool to test out different keywords. There they’ll provide insights on those keywords such as keyword difficulty, volume, cost per click, and results in the SERP. 

While paying $5 per click for a keyword might seem steep for some, but for most, it pays off. Say that $5 click leads to a $500 sale — a sale that wouldn’t have been made without that advertisement. We’d say you got your money’s worth. 

While SEO can be considered a ‘long game’, PPC is more of a ‘short game’ approach. Once you pay for those ads, they go live on search engines, immediately producing results. 

Search Engine Marketing

Search engine marketing (SEM) is an umbrella term to encompass all organic and paid digital marketing tactics. So when someone asks “what’s the difference between SEM, SEO, and PPC?”, you can say that SEO and PPC are both a part of SEM. SEM has become a crucial part of any integrated marketing strategy because of the sheer amount of traffic that is brought to a site through Google searches. In fact, 93 percent of all online experiences start with a search engine, so you should be focused on performing well on the SERP.

How do you decide between SEM, SEO, and PPC?

After learning a little more about SEM, SEO, and PPC, you’re probably wondering which of these will benefit you the most. The answer? All of them. While many people focus on how these fields differ, we should really start recognizing how they relate. 

Individually, SEO and PPC are both great ways to drive traffic to your site, but utilizing both strategies together is the best way to build a comprehensive marketing plan. SEM is a model of internet marketing that works the most efficiently when each piece of the puzzle is being used to achieve goals, so don’t try to decide between each one. Use them all! 

For more information on SEM, SEO, and PPC, check out our free, downloadable SEO Guidebook to learn more about best practices. If you need any additional help, we’d be happy to discuss our services with you if you’re interested in implementing an integrated marketing strategy for your business model.