SEO vs SEM Guide: Differences, Similarities & Benefits

What is the difference between SEO and SEM?
The difference between SEO and SEM is that the former aims to get more traffic through organic search results while the latter buys ads in order to appear in SERP. SEO costs lower is more sustainable, and provides higher quality CTR. On the other hand, SEM takes effect faster, provides various formats for search results, and allows for more focused targeting.

Search engines, the world’s biggest digital libraries, are attracting more visitors each day and businesses want some of them. That’s why there is no shortage of brands launching search marketing campaigns to improve their site’s traffic. There are two types of search marketing endeavors and using the right one is a key factor for the campaign’s success. Therefore, knowing about SEO vs SEM is an important step in digital marketing.

According to our collection of digital marketing data, appearing on the first page of Google’s search results yields way more traffic than all the other pages combined. That’s the reason why companies are adamant about bringing their brand in the first Search Engine Results Page (SERP). To achieve this, they use SEO and SEM.

This article discusses what the terms SEO and SEM mean and what they do. We also examine how they connect with each other and how they differ from one another. This could serve as a resource material in learning SEO and SEM for beginners and know-a-bit alike.

SEO and SEM differences

Google is one of the most marketable places in the world, having an average of 3.5 billion searches per day. This proves that search engines are something you’d want to take advantage of in terms of marketing. In fact, even the lesser-known search engines, such as Bing and, are still worth looking into as they also have a fair share of daily users.

However, while the Internet has made the world smaller, this digital space is still not small enough that you can expect your customers to bump into your business online by accident. There are over 1.7 billion websites worldwide as of October 2019 according to Internet Live Stats. With this many choices, digital marketers must actively draw the traffic to their site before others do. That’s where SEO and SEM come into action.


What is SEO and SEM in Digital Marketing?

Search engines are where most online journeys begin. Google is the most famous search engine and most visited site in the world. It’s not a coincidence but rather, a testament of how many people use the service of search engines. No wonder marketers are avidly using these to attract customers.

SEO and SEM are the two main ways by which marketers ensure that their brands are visible in SERP. Whichever you use, or both, you should optimize your strategy with any of the top SEO software solutions that can perform both organic and search and social media PPC. But first, let’s define the difference between SEO and SEM.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

SEO is the collection of techniques and practices that aim to bring websites to the front row of organic SERP. It refers to the optimization of sites in such a way that people will find them faster on the search results. The more successful a brand’s SEO campaign is, the higher its placement is on organic search results. That’s why many businesses employ the service of search engine optimization platforms for this endeavor.

Search engines usually consider hundreds of factors to determine the rank of a site. This means that there are also hundreds of strategies that marketers employ to achieve a higher rank. They are, however, grouped into three main categories: off-page, on-page, and technical SEO:

  1. Off-Page SEO consists of promoting the site by connecting it to other authoritative and quality sites. This mainly consists of link building or getting natural backlinks from highly-reputed websites. It also includes employing the service of an influencer, social media sharing, guest posting, etc.
  2. On-Page SEO is the optimization of the site so that search engines can find it and recommend it to users. Its primary focus lies in contents. This includes keyword targeting, creation of shareable contents, and using header tags, title tag, and meta descriptions.
  3. Technical SEO, as the name implies, is optimizing the technical aspect of the site. The goal is to improve the search engine and user experience alike by enhancing the website’s structure. Examples of technical SEO’s domain include image optimization, mobile responsiveness, site navigation, speed, and optimization of URL.

Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

SEM is a marketing system that uses paid advertisements in order to increase the visibility of a site on SERPs. Basically, brands buy an ad so that search engines would show their sites at the top of search results. This type of marketing is also referred to as pay-per-click (PPC) ads, paid advertisements, and paid search ads.

SEM comes in various formats as well, including text-based and product listing ads. Text-based ads show all information – contents, contacts, links, etc. – strictly through texts. Product listing ads, a.k.a. shopping ads can be more visual. It may include the picture of the advertised products together with relevant information such as their price and description.

The entire SEM system doesn’t just contain the process of placing ads for Google, or other search engines. It covers the whole campaign: setting a budget, researching the relevant factors like keywords and demography, bidding, and deployment. Another important part of SEM is monitoring the success of a campaign in order to adjust things accordingly. One good way to do this is to use reliable search marketing tools.

Similarities Between SEO and SEM

While SEO and SEM aren’t terms that can be used interchangeably, they are alike in many ways. For instance, they share a similar goal: drive more traffic to a site. Each has their own way of making sure that brands appear in major positions when looked up through search engines. They’re both designed to increase click-through-rates (CTR) so that more users will visit the site.

Apart from the objective, there are other similarities between SEO and SEM. One good example is their use of keywords to target the search intent of users. In order for SEO and SEM campaigns to succeed, you must first know your audience. Because finding out what they need is the key to determining which terms they’d be searching for. The content of a site can then be tailored around those relevant keywords.

Another thing that SEO and SEM share in common is that they both require monitoring and optimization. You can’t simply deploy either of them and then just expect them to do the job on their own. Both of their performance must be monitored in order to see how well they’re driving your traffic. This process is a lot slower in SEO though. Continuous optimization of keywords, content, etc. is also crucial to a campaign’s success because it keeps your site from being outdated.

SEO and SEM both:

  • Drive traffic to websites
  • Increase CTR
  • Use keyword targeting
  • Need customer understanding
  • Require continuous monitoring
  • Demand optimization to keep updated

Why is SEO and SEM Important?

For all the differences between SEO and SEM, they both play important roles in success of today’s businesses. Over half the population of the world is online, making the Internet a serious market to consider. There’s no way companies are just going to let such big opportunities pass.

As shown in the chart provided, growing traffic through the web is one of the top marketing priorities of businesses. There’s a variety of ways to do that but SEO and SEM are the forefronts on the field. When played right, these cards will allow you to reap plenty of benefits, which we will discuss below.

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Top Marketing Priorities of Companies in 2018

Top Marketing Priorities of Companies in 2018
Converting Leads into Customers: 69%

Converting Leads into Customers

Top Marketing Priorities of Companies in 2018
Growing Traffic to Websites: 54%

Growing Traffic to Websites

Top Marketing Priorities of Companies in 2018
Increasing Revenue Gained From Existing Customers: 44%

Increasing Revenue Gained From Existing Customers


Source: HubSpot Research

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Increased Traffic

A good web marketing campaign will allow your site to rank higher on search results. The implication of this to your traffic is great. Be it paid or organic result, consumers usually select the sites on the first page of the SERP. This provides a brand with more opportunity to showcase their products and services because more people will see them.

Better Conversion

One good thing about SEO and SEM is that they allow search engines to find sites with the right target audience in mind. That’s because search engines use complex algorithms in order to ensure that the displayed results are relevant to the user. This is good news for your business since it means that many of your site visitors have buying intent. Thus, more clicks means more customers.

Brand Awareness

It doesn’t matter how good your products or services are if you’re not known by your audience. SEO and SEM help businesses get the recognition they deserve. It doesn’t even have to be a visit, just appearing in search pages is already a benefit in itself. When your brand is showing in lots of search results, more people become aware that you exist. That, in turn, will inform them of what services you cater or products you offer.

Which is Better: SEO or SEM?

We’ve tackled their similarities so now it’s time to discuss how SEO and SEM differ from each other. What is the difference between SEO and SEM? Is there a one-size-fits-all marketing strategy? Do they differ in every aspect? Will there be one clear winner if we’re to pit them against each other? Let’s look at a blow-by-blow comparison of SEO vs SEM differences to find out.


The SEM term pay-per-click is a clue in itself. You pay every time a user clicks on your paid search result. The initial cost might not be noticeable but its compounding cost over time is definitely going to take a toll. Plus, the amount of bid on an ad is one of the factors in determining the rank of a page. This means you’ll probably have to spend more to get a better outcome.

SEO, on the other hand, while not free isn’t nearly as costly when compared to SEM. It’s true that you’ll have to spend a certain amount on a competitive SEO campaign. However, there are good reasons to invest money in SEO. Enhancing reputation, profitability, brand value, and others make the price worth it. Plus, when a campaign is successful, you’ll spend less money and effort in maintaining your position.

Point: SEO

Time to Take Effect

SEM can do something only SEO dreams of: to shoot your site to the top overnight. That’s because as soon as an ad is paid for and deployed, it’ll start appearing on SERP. It can also be adjusted at any given time so that it would rank even higher.

SEO is the slow and steady counterpart here. It’ll typically take a few months for results to start showing up. And within those months, the continuous implementation of good SEO strategies is necessary for the campaign to produce good results.

Point: SEM

CTR Quality

With money being a factor in paid ads showing up on search results, users tend to trust organic results more. This means that more clicks go to organic search results and that includes the ones with buying intent.

The top organic results have the highest quality click-through-rates. While getting at the top is no easy task, this makes all the effort worth it. People trust search engines like Google and by extension, have faith in whatever site they see at the top. Since users tend to favor organic results, sites that appear on the first page usually perform better than their SEM counterparts.

Point: SEO

Impact of Organic Results

Search Results

SEM provides the option to add extra features to appear in search results including call, site link, and other ad extensions. Furthermore, product listings can be a lot better in paid campaigns. That’s because search engines, such as Google, allow the use of images for their PPC ads. Not only that, but you can also include other relevant information regarding your product like price, review, discount, etc. This is a good avenue for increasing CTR.

Search results in SEO are shown in plain text. Therefore, SEO marketers must rely on title and meta description in order to attract a click. However, Google features a snippet for quality sites that answer the queries of the user. Though it’s still in the form of pure text.

Point: SEM


While SEM allows you to get to the top, you’re only there for as long as you can afford it. If budget isn’t a concern then this type of campaign will do just fine for you. However, if you’re working with a set marketing budget, you might want to reconsider. After all, when you stop paying, you’ll stop showing up in SERP.

In SEO, when you reach the desired page rank for your site, it takes less effort to maintain it. That’s thanks to compounding effects where value is added over time which helps solidify your position. So as long as you continue doing optimization, even at a low extent, you’ll most likely maintain your rank. In fact, it’s one of the disadvantages of being new to the industry. Those sites dominating the top positions seem impossible to knockdown. However, just think of it this way, with enough effort, that could be you.

Point: SEO


SEM usually provides an option to ensure that your ad is laser-targeted to the right audience. There are filters available that lets you select who you want your ad to be visible to. The filters include location, age, device, language and more. This is a necessity in SEM because each click costs money and therefore, you want clicks with high conversion chance.

SEO consists of strategies carefully crafted in order to ensure that the right audience would interact with the site. So to some extent, it’s made to be visible to the targeted users. However, it isn’t usually the case. SEO does not have the level of control that SEM has and thus, has a broader audience. This might sound good, but it’s actually contributing to being buried beneath other more general search results. Also, you’d always want to attract the right visitors.

Point: SEM

Return of Investment (ROI)

SEM requires continuous spending to keep the campaign running. This means that the results you’ll get are only there as long as you’re feeding search engines money. For this reason, the cost per lead of paid advertising is a lot higher than that of SEO.

SEO has a better chance of coughing up higher ROI compared to SEM as long as it’s properly optimized. While it does cost money, it’s comparably lower and thus, you’ll run into lower risk when deploying an SEO campaign. Plus, because cost per lead is lower, the return of investment is then higher.

Point: SEO

SEM Ads Cost Per Click


SEM provides more control over most aspects of the ad so campaigns can be tweaked to get a more successful outcome. This means that you can tailor your message for a more localized or personalized user experience. You can even include images and other more engaging and useful elements. The budget is also under the control of the marketer. This allows them to spend more money on successful campaigns and cut loose on unsuccessful ones. And because practically all aspects of the ad can be controlled, SEM is perfect for testing which ones are working and which aren’t.

On the other hand, SEO’s control capability pales in comparison with SEM. First of all, the format with which it delivers a message is adherent, therefore limited, to the search engine. SEO marketers are also only restricted to text-based search results. And most of all, it takes time for the campaign’s impact on surface making SEO not ideal for testing.

Point: SEM

SEO vs SEM in a Nutshell

  • SEO is more cost-friendly
  • SEM takes effect in a much shorter time
  • SEO is more sustainable in the long run
  • SEM displays more than just standard texts
  • SEO has a higher quality CTR
  • SEM allows ads to show to a very specific audience
  • SEO has a better chance of higher ROI
  • SEM provides an amazing level of control over many elements of ads

Which Search Marketing Tactic is Ideal for You?

So one burning question remains, which of the two is better for your business? The answer lies in the difference between SEO and SEM. You must also take into consideration your budget, business needs, and others.

Do you have the budget? Consider SEM. Established brand with tons of monthly site visitors? Focus on your SEO. Are you new to the field? SEM might help you kick start your brand recognition. Do the target keywords you use not belong to very competitive fields? Try dominating the keyword in SEO then.

As seen in the comparison above, however, SEO and SEM seem to complement each other. What SEO lacks, SEM picks up and vice versa. This means that if you have the budget for it, SEM plus SEO is the ideal way to go.

That’s right, they don’t have to be used exclusively from each other. In fact, great results might come to those who combine the agility of SEM with the longevity of SEO. To help you make your campaign even more effective, you might also want to take a look at our compilation of 2020 SEO trends. This will help you stay up-to-date on how other companies are using SEO and SEM for their campaigns.

James Anthony

By James Anthony

A senior FinancesOnline writer on SaaS and B2B topics, James Anthony passion is keeping abreast of the industry’s cutting-edge practices (other than writing personal blog posts on why Firefly needs to be renewed). He has written extensively on these two subjects, being a firm believer in SaaS to PaaS migration and how this inevitable transition would impact economies of scale. With reviews and analyses spanning a breadth of topics from software to learning models, James is one of FinancesOnline’s most creative resources on and off the office.

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