How SEO Differs from SEM (And How Each Can Save Your Business)

This is a sponsored post written by me on behalf of Bing Network. All opinions are 100% mine.

Search engine optimization and search engine marketing (SEO and SEM) are both incredible resources, but which one can save your business?

What’s the difference?

While the terms are closely related, mistaking one for the other could quite literally cost your company thousands. SEO and SEM both have to do with the ways in which your business appears in Internet users’ search results. SEO is exactly what it sounds like: optimizing your Web pages for normal search engine use, so links to your website surface organically. Through SEM, every link to your site in a Web user’s search results has been paid for with the intention of active advertising.

If you’re a little old-fashioned, think of it this way. SEO links are like word-of-mouth marketing; you can’t control exactly how many people talk about your business, but you can influence that number (and what they say about your product or service) just a bit by putting out the right information. SEM links are more like print advertisements—you get to choose exactly how many ads to publish, where you’d like to publish them, and what they say. With the power of the Internet, you can even choose which demographics view the ads, and you can pull them down ahead of time if their performance isn’t up to standard.

Below, SEO links are those that pop up organically after a keyword search: links to Blogtrepreneur and SgLinks. The SEM link is the one at the top, with the “Ad” label next to it.

How do SEO and SEM actually work?

How can you leverage each to direct traffic to your website and save your business?

SEO is, according to many, a technique. It’s an art to perfect—a long one at that—and most experts recommend that you don’t waste your time attempting to master it alone. There are hundreds of businesses out there with the sole intent of increasing clients’ websites’ SEO, but if you’re bootstrapping your business, paying a professional often isn’t an option. Instead, you can start by shortening your Web pages’ load times, appropriately indexing your website, and properly categorizing content. Find out how to do this (and more) in our article The Power of Search Marketing.

SEM isn’t exactly a walk in the park, either, but the time spent on SEM may pay off more for the average beginner than on SEO. Just like with print ads, business owners have to compete for adspace; SEM slots are filled through bids for specific spaces and timeframes. Businesses propose payments for a particular slot, then the ad company (in our case, Bing Ads), picks a “winner” based on bid amount, ad quality, and the business’s goals in placing the ad. Due to the last couple of factors, a lower bid may be chosen over a high one if its ad quality is deemed to be superior.

SEM is a paid route of advertisement, but don’t worry—as the business owner, you only pay for clicks your links actually get, not links the ad company thinks you’ll get. As such, if your campaign fails, you’re not out as much money as you’d likely be with a print ad or a commercial. You can also adjust or cancel a campaign early if necessary.

Which is right for your business?

Because SEO is a more passive approach to advertising, it’s best for companies who aren’t frantic about building traffic right away. It’s also great for startups who don’t have the revenue yet to pay for ads, or those who want to test general reception before beginning paid campaigns. Every business should build its website’s SEO to a certain extent to make sure the site can be found online, but those with the above goals should tune in a little further if they want to truly make a difference traffic-wise.

SEM is a fantastic approach for companies in need of a more immediate boost in traffic. It’s also great for larger businesses who have mastered SEO and exhausted the amount of traffic they can earn from it, and as a result would like to take online advertising a step further. Finally, if a business’s products or services are aimed at a particularly specific demographic, SEM can help to narrow down ad placement and reach its target audience more directly than SEO can.

Both SEO and SEM can be beneficial to a business in need of advertising, but sometimes one pays off more than the other. Which have you leveraged to help save your business?

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Matthew Toren

Matthew Toren is a serial entrepreneur, mentor, investor and co-founder of He is co-author, with his brother Adam, of, and Small Business, BIG Vision: Lessons on How to Dominate Your Market from Self-Made Entrepreneurs Who Did it Right (Wiley).