What’s the difference between SEO and SEM?

Most businesses are now aware of the importance of building a solid online presence. For online users, this means greater opportunities to choose brands that share their values. On the other hand, for small businesses, getting noticed in such an overcrowded digital ecosystem is more difficult than ever.

Investing in an awesome site is now a norm, not a luxury. Just because you have a killer site doesn’t mean people will arrive by the hundreds. Instead, you need to have a solid digital marketing strategy to support your online presence.

Now, even though there are numerous practices you could implement, digital marketing usually comes down to two key aspects- organic and paid search.

What are they and which one to choose for your brand?

Over 70% of clicks go to organic searches that rank on the first page of Google.

Defining SEO and SEM

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of optimizing your site to rank high in the SERPs and generate organic traffic. Unlike SEM, you don’t pay for placement on Google’s search results pages. Instead, you need to combine different tactics to prove your site’s relevance and authority, including on-page SEO, technical SEO, and off-page SEO. Learn more about a proven 3-month SEO plan.

On the other hand, search engine marketing (SEM) uses paid ad listings to boost brand visibility in the SERPs. In other words, SEM is a pay-to-play game. Whenever a user clicks on your ad, you need to pay for it. However, it gives you greater visibility faster. Once you set up paid ads for your target keywords, you will show up in the SERPs without having to wait.


Google and SEO


Why Choose SEO over SEM?

Optimizing your site for organic search requires a holistic approach to your online presence. It’s not just about building links, blogging, or adding keywords to your content. To get Google to rank you higher, you need to combine these practices.

Just think about it. Without link building and keyword optimization, the awesome content you create would be invisible. On the other hand, without building quality content around your keywords, your links and keywords would be purposeless.



sem-strategySource: Pixabay


Now, here are a few benefits of SEO:

  • It brings value to people and search engines results.

SEO is not just about rankings, visibility, and traffic. Every link you build or every article you write contributes to building a solid brand image, increasing industry reputation, and inspiring customer loyalty.

  • SEO is less expensive.

Pay per Click (PPC) is generally more expensive than SEO. Recent research claims that the average CPC in Google AdWords is $2.32 on average, while most small businesses allocate roughly $10,000 monthly to paid search.

Now, when comparing the costs of PPC advertising and SEO, many marketers make a huge mistake saying that SEO is free.


free seo audit


The digital marketing ecosystem is highly competitive and, to get yourself noticed, your SEO strategy efforts need to be top-notch. No matter if you’re hiring a digital marketing agency or building an in-house team and equipping it with the right tools, SEO also requires substantial investments. Its costs range between $500 and $10,000, but stats show that most businesses spend less than $5000 monthly. However, the rankings and traffic you receive from organic search are free.

  • It is a long-term investment.

One of the major disadvantages of SEM is bringing short-term results. The moment you stop investing in it, your ads will be removed from the online landscape. You will not be seen in search engine results pages. This is not how SEO works. Look at the blogs by the authoritative names in digital marketing like Neil Patel or Rand Fishkin.

Some of their blog posts are years old now, but they still rank high in the SERPs. That’s because they’re still relevant and drive loads of high-quality links from reputable sites. So, even if you stop doing SEO, the links and content you’ve built will still drive you traffic and conversions.

  • SEO is more reliable and user-friendly.

Adobe found that 33% of users find ads intolerable. Moreover, the number of people installing ad blocking has significantly grown. On the other hand, SEO is an inbound marketing practice, meaning that its goal is to bring value to its users through quality content and links. Users know that Google ranks the most credible and relevant sites high in the SERPs and they are more likely to click on such organic results.


Why Choose SEM over SEO?

When observed from this point of view, SEO seems like an absolute winner. But, then why do brands invest in paid search?

Always keep in mind that 75% of searchers never scroll past the first page of Google. Therefore, if you’re not there, your site may go unnoticed. On the other hand, with SEO, you cannot expect overnight success. High rankings are a result of proper strategizing, a continuous investment in SEO, and earning numerous trust signals over time.


google-and-seoSource: Pixabay


But, what if you’re just starting off or you need to increase your visibility quickly?

This is where SEM shines. Here are the advantages of investing in it:

  • Increasing brand visibility instantly. The moment you create your PPC campaigns around your target keywords, your ad will show up in front of users searching for these keywords. Sure, greater exposure in the SERPs will boost your brand awareness by 80%.
  • Boosting the CTR. Paid ads have a prominent location and it’s not surprising the first three ads drive 41% of clicks. Another research even claims that paid ads can increase website traffic by 300%.
  • Promoting time-sensitive content, such as a recent event, new services or products. Waiting to rank high organically, you may miss out on an opportunity to create the buzz around your new offers. By creating highly targeted ads and setting clear expiration dates, you will not only increase the visibility of your offers instantly but also add the feel of urgency to it.
  • Enhancing conversions. PPC has amazing targeting options and helps you drive highly qualified traffic to your site. Moreover, people clicking on ads are generally more interested in your offers and closer to making a purchase. Unbounce says that PPC visitors are 50% more likely to buy from you than organic visitors.


Guide for PPC Campaign


Taking the Integrated Approach

In a competitive digital sphere, putting yourself in front of the right audiences is more difficult than ever. Precisely because of that, we need to stop observing digital marketing as a set of individual practices and take a more holistic approach to it.

SEO and SEM have the same intent to increase your visibility in the SERPs and help you generate quality leads and make more sales. They’re basically two sides of the coin and, by merging them together, you will manage to dominate search results both in the short and long term. Learn how to start your 3-month SEO plan.

What are your thoughts on SEO and SEM?

Have something to say and want to add to the discussion you may do so @mmgtweets.

And don’t forget to share this with a friend.

elaine bennettElaine Bennett, Digital Marketing Specialist, is a marketing specialist and a blogger, currently based in Sydney. Topics that she covers include marketing, branding, entrepreneurship, and SMBs. She’s especially interested in social media and technology. Loves coffee, music and video games.


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