SEO vs SEM vs PPC: What are the Differences?


  • SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization and represents the efforts to acquire free, organic traffic.
  • PPC stands for Pay Per Click advertising and represents the effort to acquire paid traffic.
  • SEM stands for Search Engine Marketing and represents the effort to acquire both organic SEO traffic and paid PPC traffic
  • SEM is often mis-labeled and misunderstood to be synonymous with PPC almost to the point that it has been redefined.

The Confusion

Sometimes acronyms have minds of their own! When it comes to these three acronyms, their meaning and the branch of internet marketing they envelope have changed quite a bit, mostly due to misusage. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow and kind of understand that even though a term really doesn’t mean the usage you’re seeing, it’s close enough. But, the below descriptions and differences are a more traditional, accurate definition of each term/acronym.


SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. In general, SEO is meant to define the science and art of optimizing a website for search engines with the intent of ranking higher in the organic SERPS (search engine results pages) which leads to more free or un-paid traffic.

SEO can be broken down into different sub-practices and focus areas such as on-site optimization and off-site optimization.

On-Site optimization is focused on META Information, website structure, and content development, organization, and optimization for the most part.

Off-Site optimization used to be primarily focused on link-building, but now includes un-paid content syndication via social media and link building for the most part.


PPC stands for Pay Per Click advertising. In general PPC is meant to define the science and art of acquiring paid traffic for a website. This includes activities such as placing ads on Google, Bing, Yahoo, and other search engines through platforms such as Google AdWords. It also includes paid native advertising placements on networks such as Outbrain and Taboola. There are many other facets of PPC advertising, but all have one thing in common, they are paid, not free or organic.


SEM stands for Search Engine Marketing. In general, SEM is meant to define and envelope both SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and PPC (Pay Per Click) into one umbrella.

Over the years, the term SEM has almost become synonymous with PPC unfortunately. Depending on who you’re talking to and how long they’ve been in the internet marketing world, they may use these terms exclusively or interchangeably. By definition, SEM and PPC are meant to describe different ideas though.

One key difference between SEM and PPC is that SEM includes SEO (organic, free traffic) whereas PPC does not. Another key difference is that SEM only refers to Search Engine Marketing. So when it comes to paid or PPC traffic under SEM, you are referring only to the search engine portion of PPC, example: Google AdWords. SEM would not, by definition, envelope paid activities such as Native Advertising and Paid Social Media Ads.

Synonymous terms like Internet Marketing or Digital Marketing would cover all of the above, with Digital Marketing being the newer, modern version of the two.