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

By: — May 17, 2018

two different colored doors

This article was written by Rachel Stamper, one of’s very own content writers.

Your business needs a strategy for online success no matter your niche and should consider encompassing both search engine marketing (SEM) and search engine optimization (SEO). Although SEM and SEO can be used separately, incorporating them together is a sounder approach to digital success in every industry whether consumer-facing or B2B.

Some people use SEM and SEO interchangeably, which is inaccurate. They are quite different, utilize an entirely different skill set to master, have different costs, and each brings distinct advantages and disadvantages. First, let’s break down the terminology and then consider which is best for your business when you have finite marketing dollars to spend.

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 are where your website appears on a search engine results page (SERP) for relevant keywords. For instance, if you operate a personal injury law firm in Redmond, Washington, you would 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

When you enter the terms in Google, Bing, Yahoo, and other search engines, ideally, you want to be on page one of the SERP, as studies show that 91.5% of organic search clicks go to page one results. Less than 9% of web surfers explore page two or beyond. If you’re not on page one, you need SEO strategies to improve your organic search results. “Organic” refers to traffic from people using search engines and clicking on results that are not paid ads.

Google more results bar

The lower your webpage’s rank, the less visible your content is.

Some SEO case studies show stunning five-figure percentage growth in boosting organic search traffic from thoughtfully developed and properly implemented strategies.

Types of SEO

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

open book on table

On-page and off-page SEO refer to two different approaches to optimizing your website for greater search engine visibility.

On-page SEO is where you optimize your web pages and blogs for maximum SERP visibility by means including:

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 only earn a Google penalty if you try and beat the system. Ways to achieve legitimate backlinks include:

  • Guest blogging on sites (although Google increasingly frowns upon it)
  • Crafting content other sites will reference
  • Creating shareable infographics and other content
  • Marketing yourself as a source for media and bloggers

Advantages of SEO

  • Affordability– You don’t have to throw nearly as much money at SEO programs as you do SEM programs. It’s more about skillfully developing targeted content.
  • 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.

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 reward you.
  • No guarantees – There is no promise of a certain quantity of traffic you’ll achieve within a set time when you implement an SEO strategy.

What is SEM?

Search engine marketing is an umbrella term that encompasses both SEO and paid search, also known as Pay Per Click (PPC). PPC is paid traffic to your site from services such as Google AdWords, from which you buy traffic. In contrast, SEO is 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, there are two components of the SERP:

  • 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.

Paid search versus SEO determines where your business appears on the SERP. When you utilize a paid search strategy with PPC, you’ll 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 marketing your business right away.
  • 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.


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. Both strategies have a cost and value. Long-term, organic traffic is often worth more but is harder to earn. A sound digital marketing strategy should include both elements.

Big 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.


When your business is in the initial brand-building stage, utilizing the paid search component of SEM brings traffic and transactions immediately, while you 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.'s Free Content Outsourcing Ebook Cover

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