Understanding Online Marketing: SEO vs. SEM

Understanding Online Marketing: SEO vs. SEM

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) are two marketing channels businesses can use to reach their target audiences on search engines. Although often used interchangeably, these two practices cover different aspects of online marketing.

SEO is vital for brands that want to boost their online visibility and drive organic website traffic, and it can be challenging to manage it without knowing when to use it with or without SEM. But once you understand the differences and similarities between the two, you’ll get a grasp on how to apply them to reach your online marketing goals.

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In this article, we discuss what SEO and SEM are, how they differ, how they match, and how your business can benefit from each.

What Is SEO?

Off page SEO

Search Engine Optimization is the process in which search engines crawl the content to see how effectively it will draw traffic. That said, search engines will assess several things on a website, including keywords, link titles, and tags, and rank it for its ability to attract organic traffic based on different factors.

Here are some of the things search engines look for:

  • High-quality content: Quality content shows crawlers that your business offers legitimate products or services. Some of the ways they assess your content is through keywords and link building.
  • User experience: Crawlers look at whether your website’s design is easy to use and loads fast. If so, your website has better chances of ranking higher on search engine results pages (SERPs).
  • Link patterns: They also look at whether you’re linking to authority websites and where your inbound links are coming from.

When using SEO, marketers optimize their websites by working through on-page SEO, off-page SEO, and technical SEO to get the best results for a specific query they want to rank high on Google or other search engines like Bing.

On-Page SEO

On-page SEO is about optimizing elements on the web page that help crawlers understand the content in context. This includes title, H1, meta tag optimization, and image alt tags, to name a few.

Off-Page SEO

Off-page SEO helps build site authority through link building, PR, and other tactics. This practice focuses on improving the authority and trustworthiness of a website in search engines’ eyes and its users by connecting it to relevant, high-authority websites. That said, if crawlers see that users trust a website, they will be more likely to rank it higher.

Technical SEO

Technical SEO focuses on enhancing the technical structure of a website. It strives to improve website speed, crawlability, mobile-friendliness, structured data, indexing, and security, to name a few.

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What Is SEM?

Also known as PPC, Search Engine Marketing is a system that uses paid tactics to achieve visibility on search engines. Unlike tactics that help a website rank organically, SEM uses PPC advertising platforms, such as Google Ads, to reach target audiences. And it involves everything from setting up and optimizing paid ads to managing the account to boost conversions and returns.

SEM typically begins a campaign with thorough keyword research and competitor insights to create targeted campaigns that position their products or services in front of target audiences. SEM campaigns include:

  • Search Ads
  • Shopping Ads
  • Display Ads
  • Gmail Ads
  • YouTube Ads

When people search for terms the advertiser is running ads for, they’ll see a custom or shopping ad, typically at the top of SERPs. And the business pays each time the ad is clicked.

With SEO, it can take months or even years to see tangible results, but with SEM, you can see results in a short period. Moreover, you can control when the ads will show and who they will show to. This makes SEM excellent for accelerating traffic during quiet times, testing new strategies, and sending traffic to a sale.

SEO vs. SEM – The Differences and Similarities

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Both SEO and SEM help you rank higher in search results, but in different ways. Let’s explore their differences and similarities.


  • SEO produces cumulative results: SEO continues to add value over time, and the return on investment (ROI) is supposed to be incremental, leaving lasting results. But when you invest in SEM, your visibility will cease once you turn your ads off.
  • SEM can deliver immediate results: You can almost immediately see results when your SEM campaign is live, and your ads will instantly show in the SERPs, as long as they are approved. With SEO, however, it can take months to see organic results after implementing an SEO strategy.
  • SEM ads are marked as ads: Paid placements in the SERPs are distinguishable by the “Ad” icon as organic listings don’t have it. This means that paid and organic results look different. Moreover, paid ads include ad extensions that enable you to improve a standard search ad with website links, phone numbers, callouts, etc. While organic rankings offer rich snippets, ad extensions give you more control over when and how these are displayed.
  • With SEM, you pay for each click or impression: Depending on the type of campaign, an advertiser pays every time the user clicks on an ad (cost-per-click or CPC) or for cost-per-thousand-impressions (CPM) when using SEM. However, they pay nothing when the user clicks on an organic listing ranked because of SEO.

SEM is easy to test and adjust: PPC requires testing. Ad copy needs to be revised, new audiences targeted, and the landing page content will probably have to be changed for your tests to work. This can be done fast with the available data, with changes taking effect quickly and results back in a short time. Given the nature of the algorithm, you can’t test in the same way with SEO. While testing is a vital part of a good SEO strategy, it’s can’t be done as easily as with SEM.


While SEO and SEM differ in the ways they function, their goals are the same:

  • Boosting website’s visibility: Both SEO and SEM help improve the visibility of your website on the SERPs. Also, both options will help your website show up in search results through the use of targeting and optimizing for keywords.
  • Increasing relevant and quality traffic to the website: Both SEO and SEM encourage users to click through to your website. However, one is organic, while the other is paid.
  • Discovering and targeting relevant keywords: Both strategies use keyword research to understand what your competitors are targeting.
  • Testing and optimizing: SEO and SEM both require persistent monitoring and enhancement to succeed in the long run and achieve a favorable ROI.
  • Helping you understand your audience: You need to understand your audience for both strategies to be successful, and both help you do that thorough testing.

Note that SEO and SEM shouldn’t be seen as separate channels but as two parts of a larger online marketing strategy that drives visibility, traffic, and conversions.



SEO vs. SEM – Which Is Better for Your Business?

SEO vs. SEM - The Differences and Similarities

As you know by now, both SEO and SEM come with benefits and drawbacks, and not one is better or worse than the other. Instead, they are two complementary strategies you can use simultaneously to improve your website’s visibility, traffic, and conversions. However, in some cases, one may be a better option than the other and vice versa, depending on:

  • Your goal: If your goal is to drive long-term growth, go for SEO. But if you want to drive quick traffic to a sale, kickstart a slow month, or test a new offer, use SEM.
  • Your current performance: If your organic visibility is already strong, SEM could add even more visibility.
  • Your margins: Sometimes, when you consider high click costs and low product margins, it won’t make sense to run SEM. In such cases, SEO will likely drive more substantial returns. That’s why it’s a good idea to estimate the CPC you need to pay with the PPC keyword tool and understand what your conversion rate would need to be to achieve profits.
  • The lifetime value of your customer (LTV): Higher LTV accounts for higher click costs when running SEM. However, a lower LTV can mean that SEO is a better strategy.

Note that this doesn’t assume you should use only one of these channels. For most businesses, a winning search strategy relies on integrating SEO and SEM. Together, they offer many opportunities to drive growth from prospective customers looking for businesses like yours.

The Benefits of Properly Applied SEO and SEM

The Benefits of Properly Applied SEO and SEM

Both SEO and SEM heavily rely on keywords to drive traffic to websites. Although the tactics used for each differ, they both focus on traffic flows and how these relate to marketing activities. Users will search for something using search engines and find it through organic or paid results.

Most consumers search online before making a purchase. Therefore, having a strong presence in search is vital. And using a strategic combination of SEO and SEM can increase your visibility in the long run.

As we mentioned, SEO is for organic traffic, and SEM is for targeted paid ads. And while these strategies can and should be complementary, the website needs to be SEO-friendly first for SEM to be successful.

That said, SEO is the cornerstone for profitable SEM. When you set them up properly, you have greater chances of driving quality traffic and boosting your conversion rates. With an SEO-friendly website and properly targeted paid ads using the relevant keywords, you are more likely to show up at the top of paid searches. However, your SEO needs to be well-optimized so that Google and other search engines can see you as a credible site.

If you’re just starting out, you may want to prioritize PPC campaigns first because SEO can take some time to deliver tangible results. Even so, you shouldn’t ignore your SEO during the process.

The Bottom Line

While SEO and SEM are different practices that use different tactics, they both help you achieve the same goal, and that is to drive traffic and conversions to your website. Although SEO is focused on organic traffic, and SEM works through paid ads, integrating them to develop a winning digital strategy will give you the best chances of succeeding.
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