There are many unfamiliar terms in the world of websites, including SEM and SEO. What are they, and what’s the difference between them? Find out here.

The world of websites can be complicated and confusing, littered with terminology you may have never heard of before. Two of the most important terms in the digital realm are the acronyms SEM and SEO. When incorporated into your business strategy, SEM and SEO can be just the thing your brand needs to reach the next level.

Search Engine Optimization: Explained 

SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, is  defined by Moz as “the practice of increasing the quantity and quality of traffic to your website through organic search engine results.”

The “SE” in SEO

The SE portion of SEO includes anything related to search engines, such as traffic quality and quantity.

Traffic quality refers to attracting the right kind of visitors to your website. As a real estate agent, you want home buyers or sellers to visit your site. You want them to browse your listings, read your educational blogs, and ultimately hire you.

If your website is drawing people looking for something completely unrelated to real estate, or a field of real estate that you do not specialize in, you are drawing poor-quality traffic. But if your website is attracting people who can learn from you and want to hire you, your traffic quality is top-notch.

On the other hand, traffic quantity refers to how many people are visiting your website in general. If your SEO efforts are paying off, your name will come up as a match in the SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages). The more people who click on your name, the more people visit your website, and, hopefully, the more your client base will grow.

The “O” in SEO

The O portion of SEO refers to anything related to optimization. This is the practice website owners follow to gain more traffic and is broken down into three different categories:

• On-page

• Off-page

• Technical

On-page SEO refers to the practice of optimizing individual pages on a website. This practice includes using keyword research and generating quality content. 

Off-page SEO refers to the practice of building a website’s authority in the eyes of search engines. This is often done through link-building strategies.

Technical SEO refers to the practice of optimizing the parts of a website that don’t include content, such as structured data, crawlability, site speed, and mobile-friendliness—just to name a few examples.

How SEO Works 

SEO works the same whether you’re using Google, Bing, or another search engine. Every search engine has crawlers that scan all of the webpages available to them on the Internet. The crawlers then bring this information back to a database, where they index them. From there, algorithms match a user’s search query to the information stored in the database.

Search Engine Marketing: Explained 

SEM, or search engine marketing, is when website owners utilize paid search strategies to gain more visibility in the SERPs and more traffic to their website. These tactics include the use of a budget that pays for visible advertisements related to a searcher’s query. This is known as PPC (pay-per-click) or paid search.

Real estate agents who are in highly competitive regions often benefit greatly from SEM. With so many other agents in the area, paid search campaigns can help you stand out from the crowd.

How SEM Works 

Search engine marketing works through purchased keywords and advertising. Website owners (or their staff, or a PPC agency) allocate a budget to bid on keywords that searchers may use in their search queries. SEM works well regardless of budget size. These paid keywords then appear alongside the searcher’s results in the form of an ad.

These ads come in multiple formats, including:

• Text-based advertisements

• Visual-based advertisements, such as PLAs (product listing ads) or Shopping ads

The major benefit behind SEM is that it gives real estate agents the chance to market their services directly in front of searchers who are ready to start their home buying journey or sell their property.

Understanding the Ad Auction 

Ad auctions are the driving force behind search engine marketing on Google. This process occurs every time a user Googles a certain keyword or phrase.

Website owners enter the ad auction by bidding on certain keywords. If Google agrees that the keywords are in a user’s search, the website owner’s ads are entered into the auction. However, not all ads appear on every search. This is due to two main factors: maximum bid and Quality Score.

A maximum bid is the highest amount a website owner will go to pay for a click.

The Quality Score is determined based on the overall quality of an advertisement. Google calculates the Quality Score during the ad auction to determine where the advertisement will be placed. This is known as the ad rank.

What is the Difference Between SEO and SEM?

The main difference between SEO and SEM is this: SEO is free and relies on organic search strategies, while SEM comes with a cost and relies on paid advertising. Additionally, SEO takes time to take effect, while SEM is instant.

Search engine optimization is a practice website owners use to rank higher in the SERPs and draw more traffic to their website. Their ranking is the consequence of ensuring the website performs well, features quality and original content, and includes keywords that are relevant to a user’s query. The spot a website earns in the SERPs is the natural result of ranking organically and is therefore free.

Search engine marketing is a practice website owners use to rank higher in the SERPs through paid advertising.

Other differences between SEO and SEM include:

• The search results of SEM appear to a user as an advertisement, while the results of SEO efforts do not.

• SEM results feature ad extensions, while SEO results have featured snippets.

• The website owner pays each time someone clicks on their ad. Website owners pay nothing when a user clicks on their webpage.

• SEO efforts add value to a website over time. SEM efforts are immediate and offer no long-lasting value.

Interestingly, there are quite a few ways that SEO and SEM are similar. For instance:

• SEO and SEM help a real estate agent appear—and rank higher—in the search results.

• The purpose of SEO and SEM is to bring greater quality and quantity of traffic to an agent’s website.

• In order to succeed in SEO and SEM, you must know your audience. Strategies for both marketing methods rely on effectively speaking to, and gaining the interest of, an agent’s clientele.

• SEO and SEM both rely on keyword research. This includes the understanding of which terms a user searches when looking for the agent’s services.

• SEO and SEM are not one-and-done strategies. Each method needs to be analyzed, tested, and optimized continually to ensure success.


SEO and SEM are quality marketing strategies that offer benefits to many businesses, including real estate agents. Deciding on which one to use (or even both simultaneously) is up to the agent. If you are looking to grow your website’s value over time and avoid paying for ad placements, SEO is the way to go. If you want to rise to the top of the SERPs immediately and gain an instant improvement in traffic, SEM is the way to go.