SEO vs. SEM: What's the Difference and Which Do You Need?

Published: Jan 24, 2019
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Your business needs a strategy for online success no matter your niche.

You’ve probably heard of different ways to create that strategy, including search engine marketing (SEM) and search engine optimization (SEO). But what are the differences between them? And which should you use?

Some people use SEM and SEO interchangeably, which is inaccurate. They differ in terms of how they work, how much they cost, and their advantages and disadvantages.

But first, before determining which is best for your business, let’s break down the terminology to better understand what each is.

What is SEO?

Search engine optimization (SEO) is a method of bringing greater traffic to your website by improving organic search results. If you’re new to content marketing or promoting your business online, of course, that raises the question: “What are organic search results?”

Organic search results refer to instances in which your website appears on a search engine results page (SERP) for relevant keywords. Visitors who see your website among other search results and then decide to click—as opposed to clicking on paid ads—are known as organic traffic.

For instance, if you operate a personal injury law firm in Redmond, Washington, you’d want to rank well on SERPs for keywords such as:

  • personal injury Redmond
  • personal injury Seattle
  • personal injury Washington
  • car crash lawyer Redmond
  • workers compensation Seattle

Why? These keywords are relevant to your business, and any users searching them would likely make ideal customers.

When you make any search in Google, Bing, Yahoo, and any other search engine, you’d ideally want to be on page one of the SERP, as studies show that 91.5% of organic search clicks go to these results.

In other words, if your website isn’t ranking on page one of SERPs, your traffic isn’t as great as it could be. The lower your webpage's rank, the less visible your content is.

Google more results bar
Think of your own search habits. How often do you explore past Google’s first page of results?

Types of SEO

There are two types of SEO: on-page (also called "on-site") and off-page (also called "off-site") SEO.

On-page SEO refers to optimizing your web pages and blogs by means including:

  • Keyword research
  • Using keywords in a natural way without stuffing
  • Using keywords in titles, H2 tags, and metadata
  • Crafting keyword-targeted blogs and content that’s shareable and potentially viral

Off-page SEO entails getting backlinks to your site from other sites. You can cheat and pay for these, or swap links with other sites, but you’ll earn a Google penalty if you try and beat the system. Ways to achieve legitimate backlinks include:

  • Guest blogging on sites
  • Crafting content other sites will reference
  • Creating shareable infographics and other content
  • Marketing yourself as a source for media and bloggers
  • Sharing your content on social media

Advantages of SEO

  • Affordability –You don’t have to throw nearly as much money at SEO programs as you do for paid advertising campaigns. It’s more about skillfully developing targeted content that fulfills readers’ needs.
  • Builds trust – Creating relevant SEO-rich content establishes you as a trusted authority or voice in your business niche, which has its own benefits outside of generating traffic.
  • Sustainable – If your site successfully ranks for any of your target keywords, you can expect more regular traffic and lead generation, even when you’re asleep. For this reason, many people decide to build websites in hopes of generating passive income.

Disadvantages of SEO

  • Longer-term approach – You can begin improving your SEO immediately, but you won’t see results overnight. It takes time for search engines to index your content and even more time for your content to begin ranking on SERPs.
  • Complex – It’s not easy to dive into SEO if you’re a beginner; larger SEO strategies involve many moving parts, such as content and link-building. Moreover, since Google’s algorithm changes from time to time, you’ll have to keep an eye on your site’s performance and make adjustments here and there.
  • No guarantees – SEO can’t promise you traffic, and certainly not within any set period of time. It’s not a complete gamble, of course—but following all of the expert-recommended best SEO practices won’t necessarily make your content rank #1 for your desired keyword.

What is SEM?

Search engine marketing is an umbrella term that actually encompasses both SEO and paid search, also known as pay-per-click (PPC) marketing.

PPC marketing results in paid traffic to your site from services such as Google AdWords, from which you essentially buy traffic. Remember that by contrast, SEO involves optimizing your site to attract organic traffic.

When you search for a keyword on a search engine, as with the personal injury law firm example above, you’ll see two different types of results:

  • Paid results – On Google, paid space is at the top of the page, and on Bing, it’s at the top and side. Paid results are tagged with “ad” and are the result of PPC.
  • Organic results – Below the paid ads are the organic (i.e., unpaid) results generated by SEO.
Google search results page with paid and organic results
Paid results are clearly denoted on Google search results with an "Ad" text block.

Whether you choose paid search or SEO determines where your business appears on the SERP. When you utilize a paid search strategy with PPC, your website will appear at the top of the page among the paid ads, which usually have a different aesthetic compared to the organic results.

Ad positioning via PPC can be highly competitive, with many factors affecting where your ad appears, such as:

  • Which keywords you used when buying ads
  • The frequency of ads purchased by your company, as well as the frequency of your competitors' ads
  • The amount of money you spent relative to your competitors

On the other hand, when you use an SEO strategy, you work toward ranking higher on organic search results that appear below the paid listings. Generally speaking, organic ranking is determined by:

  • The quality of your website
  • The quality of your specific content
  • How many authoritative backlinks your content or website has
  • The quality of your product and/or service

Advantages of PPC

  • Fast results – You can sign up for a digital ad service such as Google AdWords and get started on marketing your business right away. Any changes you make to your ads will have almost immediate results, making it easy to see how your cost per lead is affected.
  • Agile and flexible – If the ads aren’t converting from clicks to sales, you can swap keywords and refine your approach.
  • Measurable results – You will know precisely how much you’re spending and the ROI you’re achieving because you can track results using analytics from your paid search results.

Disadvantages of PPC

  • Cost – With paid search, it costs money when a potential customer clicks or sees your ad (“cost per thousand,” or CPM). If those clicks don’t translate to sales, it’s not money well spent.
  • Lack of trust – People are increasingly desensitized to digital ads and may scroll past without clicking while organic search results are more trusted by web surfers.

SEO vs. SEM: Which is better?

In the end, there is no SEO versus SEM—the real debate is SEO versus paid search. SEO and paid search are both components of SEM, a general term including all search engine marketing activities.

The difference between paid search and SEO is spending money to push people to your website (via an ad service) rather than pulling them in organically with SEO tactics.

As for which is better…

It all depends on what you’re looking for.

Both strategies have their merits and drawbacks. Long-term, organic traffic is often worth more but is harder to earn than PPC. PPC, on the other hand, results in immediate visibility, though it tends to be quite costly.

Businesses that tend to benefit most from PPC marketing strategies include those with high margins (e.g., lawyers and automobile sellers) or high customer lifetime values (e.g., physicians and online degree programs). Just about every industry benefits from strong SEO, but it’s especially helpful for bloggers and companies working with limited budgets.

Nevertheless, a sound digital marketing strategy should include both elements.


The two complement each other. In fact, good SEO positively impacts your PPC campaigns. That’s because Google will recognize your website as being more relevant to users, and will in turn, lower the cost per click needed for ads to show for a particular keyword.

Paid advertising similarly benefits SEO-friendly websites in that seeing a paid ad tends to improve a website’s legitimacy in a user’s eyes. In other words, users are more likely to click on an organic search result if they’ve also seen it in an ad.

<div class="tip">Curious how long it'll take to see the fruits of your labor? Content marketing strategies generally take between six and twelve months to succeed.</div>


When your business is in the initial brand-building stage, utilizing the paid search component of SEM brings traffic and transactions immediately. It’s important that while this happens, you continue to deepen and enhance your site with SEO-rich content. As your brand becomes more established, your SEM efforts should evolve to strike a balance between these two critically important traffic-generating strategies.

This post was originally published by one of’s very own content writers, Rachel Stamper, in May 2018.


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