SEO vs SEM: What’s the Difference and How Do They Work Together

April 15, 2022

Have you ever searched for Google SEO? Google SEM? PPC? What are they? Well, there are many unfamiliar terms in the world of digital marketing, but any digital marketing professional should have a solid understanding of SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and SEM (Search Engine Marketing). Questions that we often see people asking: What’s the difference between SEO and SEM and how do they work together? 

What is SEO?

SEO, also known as "Search Engine Optimization", is a part of search engine marketing, which is a process of getting traffic from free, organic search results in search engines. The main goal is to improve your website position in order to increase your visibility when people search for services or products that are related to your business on Google, Yahoo, Bing, and other search engines. Brands and businesses did not pay for placement in these search results; instead, they used a variety of tactics that allowed search engines to display their content near the top of search engine result pages (SERPs) because the result is relatable and valuable to the audience.

Search engines such as Google use bots and crawlers to crawl pages on the web from site to site, gathering information about those pages and positioning them in an index. Consider the index to be a huge library where a librarian is able to assist you in finding exactly what you are looking for. 

However, SEO still involves a wide range of different operations and activities, both on your own site and around the internet. These activities are often grouped into two categories.

  1. On-page SEO refers to optimization efforts that can be made directly on your website. These tactics include content creation, keyword research, keyword optimization, publishing a new blog post or improving page speed. On-page optimization in SEO helps search engines understand a page’s content and, as a result, give it higher rankings. For example, one of the best practices is to include your main keyword in the meta description, title tag, and webpage URL. 

  1. Off-page SEO refers to actions taken outside of your own website to impact your search engine results pages (SERPs) rankings. Acquiring high-quality backlinks from other websites, as well as managing local listings and directory profiles are examples of off-page SEO tactics. When many websites connect to a brand’s website, it indicates to search engines that the brand’s website is trustworthy, which then boosts its search rankings. 

What is SEM?

Search engine advertising is a component of search engine marketing and hence an important part of online marketing. SEM, also known as “Search Engine Marketing”, is the act of increasing search visibility in the search results and driving more targeted traffic to a website through the use of paid strategies.There are many paid strategies to appear in search, such as Pay Per Click (PPC) and paid ads on Google networks (Google Shopping, Google My Business, etc.). Using paid ads allows you to set a campaign budget, run cost-effective ad campaigns, utilize multiple ad types, create compelling ad copy, and analyze data to determine the value and profitability of the ads. It also includes the ability to optimize campaign and ad performance by modifying the campaigns on an ongoing basis. The optimizing process usually has to do with keyword placement and usage, which is one of the reasons why executing it correctly can require some additional experience and technique from the professionals.

When you create a SEM campaign, you are not promised that your ad is going to appear every time someone searches for your target keyword. All ad campaigns compete for the same audience, and your competitors may be targeting the same users as you.

An ad auction is how Google decides which ads to show to a particular user, based on three factors. 

  1. Maximum bid: the maximum amount that you are willing to pay for a click on your ad.
  2. Quality Score: Google Ad’s formula for determining the relevancy of your ad, or how valuable it will be to the user. There is no clear formula for Quality Score, although it is believed to be based on criteria such as your click-through rate (CTR), keyword relevancy to the ad group, landing page relevance to keywords, and historical ad performance.
  3. Ad extensions: these are the extra details you provide in your ad, including everything from your copy to your images and videos. When you optimize your ad extension, you boost your business’s chances of delivering relevant ads that can possibly improve your click-through rate (CTR).

What is the difference between SEO and SEM?

The main difference between SEO and SEM is that search engine optimization focuses on acquiring organic, free traffic by focusing on search queries over the course of a long-term strategy. On the other hand, search engine marketing is designed to bring in traffic quickly using pay-per-click campaigns. 


Let’s use Google ads as an example. You pay nothing for SEO Google, but pay-per-click on SEM Google. Because SEM results are paid placements, your business is charged each time a user clicks on the search result. As a result, you have to allocate a budget to keep running SEM ads and leverage this type of PPC lead generation. On the other hand, you are never charged when a user clicks on an organic search result. 

The impact of SEM is instant and immediate. SEO is a time-consuming process. With only a few clicks, you can start putting your results in front of audiences through SEM paid ads. Your ads appear in the SERPs as soon as you launch a campaign. You can switch the ads on or off at any time to increase their visibility or to stop showing them. On the contrary, SEO is something that you acquire over time, usually over a long period of time. It can take months for a brand to start ranking in search engines after executing an SEO strategy. 

SEM search placements have an “Ad” designation, but SEO placements do not. Paid ads that appear as a result of SEM strategies are often categorized as an ad, with the icon appearing next to the placement, whereas the organic search results do not. 

This is also one of the reasons why SEO often has a higher click-through rate (CTR) than SEM, provided that you can get to the top. The first few organic search results usually have the highest CTRS. As a result, if you can get to the top, you can certainly outperform SEM ads. However, if you appear on the second page of the search results or lower, SEM is more likely to generate more clicks. 

SEM campaigns allow you to select a target audience; SEO does not. You can only specify your target audience through SEM by setting filters based on demographics, location, lifestyles, and more. However, you are not able to specifically choose who to target or who can see your search results with SEO. 

SEO provides value over time; SEM does not. SEM is only active as long as you continue to run and pay for your campaign. Your SEM strategy ends the moment you turn off your ads. However, SEO strategy develops and builds over time, leaving long-term results.

Why SEO & SEM are complementary?

People often compare SEO vs SEM, but how well do they work together? Are they complementing each other? Or are they better off on their own? 

Learning how to combine SEO and SEM will enhance your website’s exposure and SERPs. Both SEO and SEM significantly rely on keywords to drive traffic to web pages. Despite the differences in marketing strategies, both are focused on traffic flows and how they are connected to marketing activities. People will use search engines to look for something specific, and they will be able to find it through organic results (SEO) or paid results (SEM). 

SEO is the foundation for good SEM, when both are in place and set up properly, you will have a higher chance of attracting high-quality visitors and improving conversion rates. Once you have an SEO-friendly website and paid ads that are correctly targeted using the right keywords, you have a better chance of appearing at the top of the paid searches. However, you must have your SEO in place in order for Google to view you as a trustworthy and credible website. 

If your website is still new, you can prioritize your PPC campaign first because SEO rankings might take time to build, but do not neglect your SEO during this process. Hence, stop comparing SEO vs SEM and learn how to leverage both of them together to increase your business revenue.


SEO SEM, SEM SEO, SEO vs SEM..there is no quick formula or method when comparing SEO and SEM. Wondering whether SEO or SEM is right for you? Sometimes the best approach is to combine SEO and SEM strategies, but it all depends on your unique business goals and objectives. 

Nevertheless, now that you have a glimpse of the differences between SEO and SEM and how they work together, you will be better equipped to determine how each might assist your brand in achieving its marketing goals. Keen to learn more about SEO and SEM? Check out the Growth Marketing Bootcamp which covers both subjects! 

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