SEO vs Search Engine Marketing: What is the Difference? How Does It Affect You?
SEO and SEM are often mistakenly referred to interchangeably. They can be used by businesses to reach their target audience on search engines like Google and Bing.
Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is a crucial tactic for brands who want to increase their online visibility and drive traffic to their websites. It can be pretty challenging to manage if you don’t know how to combine SEO with Search Engine Marketing (SEM).
Although they may sound similar, they are actually two different ways to be visible in the SERPs (search engine result pages).
Once you have been shown the difference, it will be easy to see. This guide will give you a clear understanding of each definition and its differences.
What is the difference between SEO and SEM?
Understanding the terminology and meaning of each term is essential before you plan your strategy to improve your company’s online visibility. It can lead to failure and hinder the approval of budgets and strategies.
Let’s simplify this into simple terms for laymen.
These are the two main areas of search marketing:
- SEO: A method that makes the keyword organic to show up in search results.
- SEM: a paid approach to appearing in search results.
It is essential to know that SEM definitions are often contradicted and disputed. According to Backlinko, SEM can be defined as the broadest channel of search, which includes both paid and organic searches.
SEO refers to organic search. SEM, however, is paid.
However, this has not always been the case.
Actually, Danny Sullivan, formerly of Search Engine Land, was the first to use the term SEM to describe any business’s efforts in driving traffic from search engines.
However, many industry professionals have changed their perceptions over time, and now SEM is understood to mean search engine advertising. Organic efforts are almost exclusively covered under SEO.
Let’s not forget how fast both these channels have advanced since 2001, 19 years ago. They are moving further apart and faster than ever. Also, SEO and PPC often work in separate departments within businesses today. These teams would have been smaller in the early 2000s and could have probably operated together.
SEM, for us, is the umbrella term that covers search advertising techniques, while organic identifies with SEO.
Let’s take a more in-depth look at each of these tactics and precisely what makes them different.
What is SEO?
Jason Barnard’s video gives a detailed explanation of SEO (search engine optimization).
Jason summarizes SEO perfectly as follows:
SEO is the art and science of persuading search engines such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo, to recommend your content to their users as the best solution to their problem.
— Jason Barnard
SEO’s Four Core Pillars
Marketers optimize their websites with SEO. This includes technical SEO, off-page SEO and content creation. The goal is to get the best attainable result for a specific query ranking high on Googe.
Let’s take a more in-depth look at each one of these core pillars:
- Technical SEO Technical SEO is focused on improving the technical structure and security of websites. You can find out more at
- Onpage SEO – Search engines can understand your web pages by optimizing certain elements, such as title, H1, meta tag optimization and image alt tags.
- Content – Google considers content to be one of the most crucial ranking factors. Without great content that matches searcher intent, it is difficult to rank high in the search results. Content is more than just copywriting. A solid strategy must be in place.
- Offpage SEO This is authority building. It includes link building and other strategies. This strategy aims to increase trustworthiness and authority in search engines and users by linking it to relevant and high-authority sites. Search engines will rank websites higher if they see that users trust them. Link building, PR and similar strategies are often the best ways to build authority and trust.
A combination of all four pillars is necessary for an SEO strategy to succeed. This often requires working with experts in each of these areas to develop a solid plan that propels your success.
What is SEM?
Search Engine Marketing uses paid strategies to increase visibility in search engines. This is also known as PPC (pay per click).
Instead of using techniques that rank websites organically, SEM uses PPC advertising platforms such as Google Ads or Bing Ads to reach your target audience.
It is a tactic that involves everything, from optimizing paid ads to managing the account to increase conversions.
SEMs usually start a campaign by conducting keyword research and competitor insight (which can be done with tools such as the PPC advertising toolkit). This allows them to create targeted campaigns that put their products and/or services in front of a specific audience.
These campaigns include
- Search Ads (text ads).
- Display ads
- Shopping ads
- Gmail Ads
- YouTube Ads
These are just a few of the many formats that Google Ads offers. They can all help you reach your target audience.
Users will often see custom ads when they search for terms the advertiser has used to run ads against. In some cases, they may even see shopping ads. The business is paid for each click on the ad.
SEO can take several months before you see any actual results. With SEM, however, you can drive clicks and converts in a matter of days.
You have complete control over the time ads are shown, and to whom they show. This channel is perfect for testing new strategies, sending traffic towards a sale, or speeding up traffic during quieter times.
SEO and SEM should not be considered as separate channels. Instead, they should be considered part of a larger digital strategy to drive visibility, traffic, and conversions through search engines.
SEM vs Search Engine Optimization: What are the commonalities?
Let’s now look at the commonalities between these channels, which are often confused.
SEO and SEM both:
- Increase the visibility of your website on search engines. Both methods will help you rank higher in the SERPs by optimizing and targeting keywords.
- Get more relevant and high-quality traffic to your website. Both strategies encourage users to click through to your site, but one is paid and the other organic.
- This tool will help you to gain a better understanding of your audience. Both strategies will be successful if you have a deep understanding of your audience.
- Keyword research is a great way to find and target the right keywords. Both require keyword research to determine the target audience of your competitors.
- Continuous testing and optimisation are required. Both need to be monitored and adjusted continuously to be long-term successful and provide a solid ROI.
What are the differences between SEO and SEM?
Let’s take a look at the differences.
SEM sees clearly marked ads on the SERPs
The “Ad” icon can be used to distinguish paid placements in SERPs. This icon is not present in organic listings, so paid, and organic results will look different.
Paid ads allow you to add ad extensions to a standard text search (text) ad. These extensions include site links, callouts and phone numbers.
However, organic rankings can provide rich snippets. You have more control over when and how they are displayed with ad extensions.
With SEM, you pay for every click or impression.
An advertiser is charged for every click a user makes on an SEM ad (CPC = cost-per-click), or CPM = cost-per-thousand-impressions, depending on which campaign you have created. They don’t pay for users who click on organic listings that have been ranked by SEO.
SEO Can Provide Almost Instant Results. SEO can’t.
When an SEM campaign (paid) is live, you can see the results in a matter of seconds. Once your ads are approved, and your bids are adequate, they will appear in search results immediately.
SEO can be slow if you don’t have any competition. After launching an SEO strategy, it can take several months for organic results to appear.
SEO Delivers Cumulative Results
This is another vital point. SEO adds value over time, and your return should be cumulative. Your strategy will grow over time and leave lasting results.
This is not true if you invest in SEM. Your visibility will cease as soon as your ads are removed.
SEM is easier to test and refine than SEO
Paid advertising requires testing. You will have to revise your ad copy, target new audiences, and modify the landing page content to make your tests work.
With the available data, this is possible quickly. Changes can be made promptly, and results returned in no time.
Because of the nature and complexity of the algorithm, you can’t test the same way as SEO. Testing is still an essential part of any solid SEO strategy. However, it is not as common as what PPC allows.
SEO vs Search Engine Marketing – Which Should You Use
This is the simple answer to your question. (As much as we hate to do this as a response to an SEO-related query).
It all depends on:
- It is essential to know what your goal is. You should choose SEM if you want to get quick traffic to your site, launch a new offer or boost sales. SEO is a good option if you are looking to increase your long-term growth.
- Your current performance. SEM can be an excellent way for you to increase your organic visibility.
- Your margins. SEM can be a waste of money in some instances. SEO is more likely to deliver more substantial returns in such cases. It is worth looking at the CPC (cost per click) that you will need to pay using the PPC keyword search tool to make a profit.
- Think about the lifetime value of your client/customer. Higher LTV (Customer Lifetime Value) is associated with higher click costs when using SEM. SEO may be a more effective strategy if the LTV is lower.
This assumes you will only use one of these channels.
Realistically, most businesses will need to integrate both SEO and SEM into their search strategies.
These two powerful marketing channels can be combined to create wealth for potential customers looking for similar businesses.
Combining SEO with SEM
Combining SEO and SEM allows you to combine the channels and:
- Get data insights from your SEM strategy and boost your SEO strategy. This includes valuable insights into conversion rates, keyword performance, traffic opportunities, and other information. SEM can be seen as a test-bed for SEO.
- Remarketing campaigns can help your SEO efforts to make more impact on customers who didn’t convert. These people can be targeted with display ads, search ads, and many other methods.
- Combine these two strategies to take control of the SERPs. Make sure you are visible in both the organic listings and the ads space.
Your Competitor’s SEO & SEM
It is crucial to keep an eye on your competitors’ activities. The Competitive Research Toolkit can help you gain insight into your competitors’ advertising strategies and SEO performance using the following tools.
- Organic Research
- Backlink Analytics and Backlink Gap
- Keyword Gap
- Position tracking
Look at what your competitors rank for organically. Consider what type of paid activity they are involved in and which keywords they use to drive traffic to their website. Then, devise a strategy that will outperform their SERP placements.
Your ability to learn about the strategies of your competitors will make yours more effective.
Too often, SEO and SEM can be seen as entirely different channels that cannot be used together or confused as one and the exact same.
You need to understand the importance of each one as part of your overall marketing strategy. Then, figure out how you can utilise them together to achieve success and gain a competitive advantage.