SEO vs SEM: What’s the Difference?

Understanding the difference between SEO vs SEM will help you craft better-paid and organic search marketing campaigns.

8.5 billion.

That’s how many searches there are — just on Google — every single day. This number is small, considering the sheer breadth of searches that happen on other websites, like YouTube and Facebook. And it proves an important point: Your business needs to excel at search engine optimization and may need to consider a search engine marketing strategy. While these two terms have quite a bit in common, there are also substantial differences between them. Here’s more on what these terms mean and how you can excel at both of them. 

What Is Search Marketing?

As you can imagine, search marketing is an extremely broad umbrella term used in the world of digital marketing. It is used to describe efforts by marketers and website designers to get people to visit websites and find specific types of content. There are many ways to engage in forms of search marketing, including search engine marketing (SEM) and search engine optimization (SEO). These types of efforts, which are part of organic search, are hugely important to increasing your website ranking which in turn helps your business. There are also many other strategies that can be used to drive traffic to web pages, such as pay-per-click campaigns, social media campaigns, and more. 

What is important to understand is that search marketing needs to be folded in with your overall marketing strategy in order for it to be successful. The content you create needs to be on-brand and in line with the overall trends in your market in order to make a dent. 

What Is SEO?

SEO is short for search engine optimization. It is the process by which a website will boost its visibility with search engines, including platforms like Google search, Yahoo, and Bing. Increasing your web page SEO and becoming more visible toward the top of search engine results pages can ensure that more people find your website. The goal of any SEO ad campaign is to make your website appear at the top of any search rankings — or at least on the first page of the results — thus ensuring that you are found by any relevant search queries.

A robust SEO strategy can involve numerous tactics, including:

  • Conducting keyword research to gain insight into what sort of searches your customers are looking for. Learning the specific keywords that your customers are searching for can allow you to alter content so that it reflects their needs. Sites like Google Adwords, Ahrefs, and others can help with this process.  
  • Building an extensive list of backlinks with other websites, thus increasing the number of pages your website is found on and making your content appear more relevant to others who are looking for it. This link-building can be done collaboratively, with other websites, and creates a “win-win” with others.
  • Creating frequently updated, high-quality content that is relevant to your line of work and can pull in users. This strategy — known as content marketing — can be very time-intensive, as you must constantly churn out new content and information for your website. 
  • Ensuring that you have your metadata properly filled out, including your meta descriptions, title tags, alt descriptions, and headings — and that they contain the keywords you want to target. This can not only make it more likely that you will have good SEO but also increase the chances of your content being found in featured snippets by Google. These placements are key in getting people to your site. 
  • Building authority and relevance for your website, as well as properly improving your site speed and the overall user experience. Doing so can keep searchers on your website for longer, thus boosting your SEO. 
  • Improving on-page SEO, which means improving the content that is actually on your pages, such as metadata and keywords.
  • Improving off-page SEO, which refers to increasing your backlinks and other things that happen off of your page.

What Is SEM?

SEM stands for search engine marketing. SEM involves using paid ads to boost your website’s visibility. Unlike SEO — which usually involves organic changes to your website — SEM involves actually paying for ads that will pull people into your website. The ads that a business pays for usually appear at the top of search engine results pages (SERPs). As such, a business won’t have higher rankings — that only happens with SEO. Instead, a business will appear in a separate portion of the search results. The ad copy will vary, depending on the product or page you are advertising. 

SEM can involve many tactics, including:

  • Paying for Google Ads or Bing Ads
  • Paying for specific product ads that appear in a website’s carousel
  • Paying for banner ads or ads that pay-per-impression (PPI), pay-per-click (PPC), or pay based on another click-through rate (CTR).

When used properly, a SEM campaign can be a critical component of any digital strategy and be folded in with any broad-based marketing campaign. However, there is a real cost associated with enacting SEM strategies. As such, the resources that can be spent by any business on SEM may be limited. 

What Is PPC?

PPC is short for pay-per-click. This is a specific type of search ad in which you will pay based on the number of people that actually click on an ad. This type of ad is very popular as part of a SEM campaign. PPC ads can be used on web pages, as part of ad networks, or on social media. Depending on how you use PPC campaigns, they can be highly effective at increasing your website traffic. They can also be extremely targeted, especially when you use them in conjunction with social media: PPC ads can be seen by people of highly specific demographics, thus enabling you to make highly targeted ads that are seen by a target audience that is very likely to be interested in your product or service. 

The cost of a PPC campaign is known as the CPC, or cost-per-click. Your goal is to keep the CPC low, thus enabling you to create a campaign that can be seen and potentially clicked on by as many people as possible. 

What Is the Difference Between SEO and SEM?

When it comes to SEO vs. SEM, the main difference to us boils down to organic and paid efforts. Meaning, a lot of SEO magic comes from organic efforts to improve a website’s visibility over a long period of time. SEM certainly involves some of this, however, SEM can also include paid campaigns which can have a more immediate (although potentially less long-lasting) impact.

SEO can be a largely internal process or one that you engage in with a vendor who manages your website. It involves research into appropriate keywords and may involve the creation of interesting, relevant content that can successfully bring people to your page. However, the only expenses you will have will be based on internal factors, like how much it costs to update your website, monitor trends, and create relevant content. You will not pay for clicks or views.

SEM is different: In search engine marketing, you are paying for views, impressions, and click-throughs. This means that you are shelling out cold, hard cash in order to bring people to your website.

What Are the Similarities Between SEO and SEM?

SEO and SEM have many things in common. Most importantly, both have the same goal: to increase the number of people who are visiting your website, thus increasing the pool of people who will buy your product or service. SEO and SEM are both highly useful tools. They also both involve having a total understanding of who your customers are, what they are looking for, and how you can reach them.

SEO and SEM are both components of your marketing strategy and building brand awareness. If you do not have a marketing plan, both SEO and SEM will be tough — after all, you will need to understand who you are and who your customers are before you can figure out better ways of finding them. 

It must be emphasized that SEO and SEM are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are complementary. You can engage in SEO improvements and SEM ad campaigns at the same time in order to make sure that you are covering both areas. This can create a broader impact and increase your web traffic across the board. 

What Is Better? SEO or SEM?

There isn’t necessarily a “better” when it comes to SEO or SEM. The real question is what is better for you and your business. Every business will have different needs and resources. Some will have the technical expertise to properly manage SEO efforts. Others will have people on staff who can find cheap buys on Google Ads that can increase traffic and user clicks. 

This question is impossible to answer without developing a full marketing campaign and plan. As such, one of the most critical things your business will want to do is determine the answers to a variety of key marketing questions, including understanding what you want to accomplish and what resources you have available to meet your goals. 

How Much Does SEO Cost?

SEO is a way of increasing your organic traffic and organic search results. This means that you don’t actually pay any provider for appearing higher in search results unless you’re using an agency to help you execute an SEO marketing plan.

However, that is not to say that SEO is free. Indeed, that is almost certainly not the case. SEO is expensive but in a different way. Consider the various tools that you must incorporate in order to increase your SEO. These include:

  • Professional expertise and web design
  • Writers, copy editors, or social media experts who can create content that is relevant and will pull users in
  • Staff who can conduct research into what keywords work to increase your technical SEO and who understand the way web crawlers and search engine algorithms operate
  • Staff to regularly monitor website traffic, trends, and other important metrics

How Much Does SEM Cost?

One of the best things about search engine marketing is its extreme flexibility. Most ad networks allow you to place ads for extremely low numbers. Facebook allows you to spend as little as $1 a day. At the same time, you can ramp up your costs, potentially spending thousands and thousands of dollars a day on a good ad.

The final cost of a SEM campaign ultimately is determined by a variety of factors, including:

  • How much it costs you to put ad copy together, including designing an ad or creating any relevant graphics.
  • The metric you are using to determine the cost, such as PPC or PPI.
  • How popular of a search term you are attempting to place an ad for, with popular terms charging more. Most search engines have a bidding mechanism, allowing you to “bid” a certain amount for a particular search term.
  • Your overall budget and if that budget is fully utilized. For example, you could say that you were willing to spend $10 a day on an ad. However, if only enough clicks occurred that you were charged $6, you would only pay the $6. 

How Much Time Does It Take to See Results With SEO?

This can vary. Some SEO strategies work faster than others. For example, take creating high-quality blog content. If you create a blog entry that is relevant to users, they may find it easier, and search engines may immediately pick up on the new content, resulting in more clicks.

On the other hand, some changes take a longer time to be felt. For example, changes to your metadata may boost your SEO, but this will only happen after search engines have registered the changes to your website.

Finally, keep in mind that changes to SEO are not static. A blog entry or Facebook status that is highly relevant today may become completely forgotten about tomorrow, with your users shifting their internet consumption to new search terms. As such, part of your job when it comes to SEO must be to monitor changes to traffic patterns. 

How Much Time Does It Take to See Results With SEM?

This is an advantage of SEM: The time it takes is much quicker than with SEO. This is because SEM will start working as soon as an ad launches and can be seen by others. Once this happens, people will immediately be able to find your ads and start clicking, resulting in an increase in traffic to your website. 

This is not to say that this traffic increase will be permanent. It certainly can be, though, if you provide people with interesting, useful content. However, if you don’t produce content that people appreciate or find value in, they may not return to your website. As such, while boosts to traffic with SEM can be effective, they are not guaranteed to be long-lasting. That’s different than increases to your website’s SEO, in which changes tend to be more durable.  

What Should I Focus On — SEO or SEM?

Again, there is no set answer here. Answers depend on what tools you have available to you and what your specific marketing goals are. All other things being equal — and if you have no money available to improve your search engine marketing — then starting with search engine optimization is a better bet. This is because SEO can be relatively inexpensive, particularly when compared to SEM.

You may have staff available that can conduct appropriate research and examine keywords that your customers are typing in, thus enabling you to better customize your website for SEO purposes.

Once you have done this — and once you have begun to see results — you can consider engaging in ad campaigns that will drive more traffic and increase your website conversion rates. 

What Are Some Tools for SEM?

SEM is not a matter of creating an ad and just letting it run. You have to balance a variety of factors, including how expensive an ad will be, what networks to place it in, and what your best copy will be for your product. Fortunately, there are a variety of tools available that can help you accomplish this goal. These include: 

  • Semrush: Semrush checks a slew of relevant information in terms of SEM, including search results, website health, and more. It will also provide you with an analysis of your ad and make recommendations for potential changes based on the information you are attempting to find.
  • Google Trends: Google Trends is a free tool offered by Google that shows the relevance of certain trends, allowing you to determine what is popular and what isn’t. You can use this tool to get a better idea of what keywords or long-tail keywords may be effective in advertisements that you are looking to launch.
  • Keyword Planner: Keyword Planner is another Google tool. It allows you to figure out what ad will work best on Google services. This includes helping you find new keywords that may drive traffic to your website, find costs and plan for your budget, see monthly searches, and manage all of your ad campaigns from one spot. 

How to Monitor Your Competitor’s SEO and SEM

There are many potential strategies you can utilize to keep an eye on the SEO and SEM tactics being used by your competition. These include:

  • Searching keywords that you use and seeing where your competitors rank
  • Scanning your competitors’ websites to find relevant keywords
  • Examining the metadata of your competitors’ websites, thus enabling you to get a better idea of what terms they use to rank in searches
  • Using free tools — like BuzzSumo — to find what social content your competitors are using and what websites they are attempting to promote via social media
  • Monitoring your competitors’ social media on a regular basis to see what they are talking about

As you can see, there are extensive differences between SEO and SEM, and while there are also a large number of overlaps, you should be sure that you understand the differences between the two. Once you have a good grasp on what these concepts are and how you can properly utilize them, start slow, conduct your research, and make sure that everything you want to do is in line with your overall marketing strategy.