SEO (search engine optimization) and SEM (search engine marketing) are two different types of digital marketing techniques that are sometimes confused. To understand the key differences between SEO and SEM, we first need to know what search marketing is.

What’s Search Marketing?

Search Marketing is considered being lower part of the sales funnel where marketers try to have their websites listed as high up on search engine results pages (also known as SERPs). There are generally two ways to do this, namely via SEO and / or SEM.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization and refers to various activities that a webmaster takes to improve the visibility of their websites in search engine results pages. These activities usually revolve around content building (i..e. creating a blog for your website) as well as keyword research, link building and technical activities such as improving site speed, crawlability etc.

Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

SEM stands for Search Engine Marketing. Unlike SEO where it takes time to build content, SEM would be in the form of advertising where an advertiser would run ads, and these ads will appear at the top of Search Engine’s results pages. Advertisers are charged when someone clicks on the ads.

Differences Between SEO and SEM

While both SEO and SEM look similar and appear in the same page, there are many key differences between the two. Digital Marketers need to understand this thoroughly so as to decide which option is right for your objective.

1) Marketing Cost

SEO is an organic way of getting search traffic, so in a way there is no advertising cost. I wouldn’t say its free because you’ll need spend a lot of time and effort to create content, backlinks and other tasks. However when you do eventually get listed in the search results you don’t have to pay each time someone clicks on the link. In most cases when you get displayed in the search results you should always remain there unless you do something drastic to your website and gets penalised by search engines.

SEM on the other hand is an advertisement. You’ll need to pay each time someone clicks on the link. Generally to rank higher up in the position you’ll have to pay more, buy increasing your bid for the respective keyword. The minute your budget runs out, your ads will stop appearing.

2) Sustainability

In the long run SEO would most likely be the better option. As mentioned above once you’re ranked in the search engine’s results, you’ll most likely always be there. Time to time your position may change, but the position shouldn’t fluctuate too much.

As your website continues to grow with more content, you’ll start ranking for more and more keywords thus driving more people to your website organically. In short your web traffic will continue to grow steadily as your build more content on your website.

SEM is not as sustainable since once you stop your advertising campaigns, your traffic will stop drastically to zero. SEM can be sustainable if you are making enough sales to cover the costs of advertising and still remain profitable, then you shouldn’t have a problem running your SEM campaigns.

3) Time And Effort

While SEO may seem like its the best option for most people, it isn’t a rosy picture. During the initial phase the time, effort (and maybe money) spent on content building to improve your SEO is way more than what SEM would require. To give you a sense, you’ll need to post quality content on your website on a regular basis – maybe 3 – 5 times a week. This needs to go on for months before having a chance to get ranked on Search Engines.

And that’s not all. You’ll need to ensure you’re ranking for the right keywords, as well as optimising your website such that it loads quickly and has the right text format for Search Engines to understand. These tasks are just the tip of the iceberg and there’s no guarantee you’ll get ranked on Search Engines after completing the entire checklist.

SEM on the other hand will pretty much start as quickly as 24 hours after you’ve setup your campaign on advertising platforms like Adwords.

4) Display of Search Results

Search results have both paid results and organic results. Paid results are usually at the top and at the bottom of the search engine results pages. These results are usually labelled as Ads, Promoted or Sponsored by search engines such as Google, Bing etc.

Organic results are what cover majority of the results pages. Many people are more likely to click on organic results than paid results when searching the web.

seo vs sem

When Should You Use SEM

SEM is suitable for promoting conversion-focused content such as sales pages. The goal here is to use paid campaigns to make sells. Thus promoting your product pages instead of just blog posts make more sense.

Don’t want to wait: SEM Results are immediate. You can set up your campaigns in the morning and make a sale in the evening.

You’re skilled in managing PPC Campaigns: For many people who haven’t tried Google Adwords, PPC (Pay Per Click) may seem very easy. However there are many things to consider from the keywords to ad copies and many other factors to run a successful campaign.

Have enough marketing budget: Well if you are going to run PPC campaigns, you need money. Your first campaigns are likely to be a disaster. But that’s not enough reason to quit. By having enough budget, you will be able to test and improve until you find your place in PPC world.

When Is SEO Right For You

SEO is an important approach to marketing that you need to utilize even when you are running paid campaigns. This is because it’s a more sustainable marketing method in the long run. Not only that it helps build authority and reputation for your brand too.

You’re willing to put in the work: You need quality content, quality backlinks as well as technical SEO to succeed with this approach.

You are willing to wait: SEO takes time to finally see the results. If you are willing to wait for months or even years, then SEO will work for you eventually. However, if yo want immediate results, then you are better off with PPC.

You are familiar with SEO: For SEO to work, you need to know what you are doing. If not, then you may be spending time creating content that will never rank. Good news is, anyone can learn SEO. All you need is to find a good course on aspects such as keyword research, link building and technical SEO.


Now since you know the differences between SEO and SEM, you need to determine what works for you at the moment. Should you invest the money you have in running search campaigns, or in building links to boost your organic visits? Our recommendation is to focus on SEO and SEM simultaneously if you have the time and the budget.