People looking to increase their online presence have been urged to pay attention to their SEO and SEM practices. Entire industries have sprung up around offering clients web optimization services to increase their audience. But for many people, SEO and SEM are vague concepts that have little relation to getting customers in the door of their brick-and-mortar business.

If you’re confused about the differences between SEO vs. SEM and how they can effect your business, you’re not alone. According to Search Engine Watch, SEM has meant different things in the past. To make things easier, we’re going to use the definition of SEM that separates it completely from SEO.

What are SEO and SEM?

SEO stands for search engine optimization. Basically, it refers to the free things you do on your website to get a higher search engine ranking. SEM is search engine marketing. Although you could ask 100 people what it means and get 100 different answers, we’re going to use SEM to mean the paid things you can do to get a higher search engine ranking. So, SEO is free, SEM is paid. Good so far?

What Is SEO?

As we mentioned, SEO refers to the different free ways you can update your website so search engines find it more easily. This includes using specific keywords and search terms related to your business, having meta descriptions (the explanation that shows up in a search result on Google), posting regularly if you have a blog, formatting clean URLs (so they read well and don’t have long strings of numbers and letters), having backlinks, promoting your site on social media and adding videos or photos to your page. Although you can technically pay someone to do all this for you, you can also do it yourself for free—you aren’t charged anything to add keywords to your site, for example.

If you have an organic bakery, set up your website with keywords such as “organic bakery Philadelphia,” “organic muffins Philadelphia” and so on, write blog posts about the benefits of eating organically and link to those posts on social media—doing so will ensure that your website will be properly optimized.

What Is SEM?

SEM is paid search advertising that is done to increase your search engine ranking and get people to your site. So if you buy Facebook advertising or geotargeting initiatives, that’s SEM. So are enhanced campaigns, AdWords and pay-per-click/cost-per-click campaigns. Depending on your finances, SEM can be a great way to draw more people to your site, and consequently, more customers to your store. But the great thing about digital marketing is you don’t have to do that if you don’t want to. SEO can get you great search engine results without spending a dime.

Why Do They Matter?

Let’s say someone in Philadelphia wants some organic muffins but doesn’t know where to find them. This person types “organic bakery Philadelphia” into a search engine. If you’re the only organic bakery in Philadelphia and you have a website, yours might come up first in the returned results (although it might also compete with large national chains, even if they don’t have a store in Philadelphia).

But chances are you’re not the only organic bakery in Philadelphia, so you’re competing with the other organic bakeries to have yours at the top of the search results. SEO and SEM therefore matter—the higher your search engine ranking, the more views of your website you’ll get and the more likely people will be to visit your bakery.

Want more information about SEO? Check out our SEO webinar.

Barb Dittert is a contributor to the Connectivity blog and a Content Marketing Specialist for Volume Nine SEO.