SEO vs. SEM: Learn How To Use SEO and SEM for Your Website

A red magnifying glass on a red background next to a blue magnifying glass on a blue background.

Search engines provide a consistent source of online traffic. In fact, an analysis of 3.25 billion websites found that in most industries, more than half of all website traffic comes from search engines. Two digital marketing strategies can help you take advantage of users’ search behaviors: search engine optimization and search engine marketing

Both methods can increase online visibility and growth, but they operate differently. Learn what sets search engine optimization and search engine marketing apart and how each can boost brand awareness and increase sales. 

What is SEO?

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the practice of tailoring your website’s content and structure to rank higher on search engine results pages (SERPs). The goal of all SEO efforts is to increase organic search traffic to your website.

To give users the information they need, search engines like Google and Bing use complex algorithms to assess how relevant a website’s content is to a users’ search intent. A good SEO strategy entails conducting in-depth keyword research to identify relevant search terms that align with your content and target audience. Then, you create valuable, high-quality content that can earn your web pages a spot on the organic search results.

To optimize your website’s on-page SEO, use relevant keywords in meta descriptions, headings, and body text. For off-page SEO, focus on building a strong network of high-authority backlinks to enhance your site’s credibility. And finally, improve your technical SEO by prioritizing mobile optimization, improving site speed, and ensuring your website offers an overall positive user experience

What is SEM?

Search engine marketing (SEM) is a digital marketing strategy that involves using paid ads to promote websites and increase their visibility in SERPs. 

Google Ads (formerly Google Adwords) is the most common paid search platform for an SEM strategy. On Google search, Google search ads typically appear above organic results, marked with the word “Sponsored” or “Ad.”

To run this kind of paid advertising, select relevant keywords and set your budget. Google runs real-time auctions that consider bid amounts and quality scores (how useful your ad is) to determine which ads show up in paid search results and where they appear. Google operates on a pay-per-click (PPC) model, in which advertisers only pay a fee when a user clicks on their ad. 

What are the differences between SEO and SEM?

SEO and SEM are both search marketing strategies that aim to generate traffic and reach a website’s target audience by appearing high on Google’s search results pages. The key difference is that SEO focuses on organic search rankings, while SEM generates paid traffic. Each calls for a distinct approach. 

Allocation of money 

SEM strategies require a marketing budget to purchase paid advertising. For SEO, you don’t pay a search engine for your rank, but there is an investment in the employees or contractors who create SEO content, and you’ll likely also need paid keyword research tools. 

When to expect results

As for time frame, SEO is generally a more long-term investment than SEM. It can take months or years to establish your website’s credibility and climb the organic search rankings. SEM, on the other hand, can offer more immediate results with the purchase of search ads. 

Expertise required

While the same teams can sometimes handle both SEO and SEM, each field is expansive enough to warrant specific experts. An SEO team’s expertise lies in being able to find viable keywords and produce well-written content that is informative and can help a company rank on a search engine. A SEM team is also knowledgeable on keyword research but must know how to target keywords that give a company the best bang for its buck.

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How to choose between SEO and SEM for your business

  1. Define your goals
  2. Consider your budget
  3. Assess your time frame
  4. Research the competition
  5. Play to your strengths
  6. Test and experiment

Your goals, budget, timeline, and competition can influence whether you use SEO or SEM. Here’s what to consider: 

1. Define your goals

Determine your primary objectives. Are you looking to increase brand awareness? A solid SEO strategy can help your brand become a trusted resource in your industry, while SEM is useful for an immediate boost in brand exposure, especially if you’re running time-sensitive promotions or events. 

Similarly, if your intention is to increase sales, SEM and PPC campaigns are effective at getting potential customers to your site quickly. SEO, on the other hand, is typically slower moving, but because it’s a more long-term strategy that you nurture, leads gained through organic rankings can turn into loyal customers. 

2. Consider your budget

Your financial resources will influence whether you choose SEO or SEM. SEM strategies require a marketing budget to pay for search ads. SEO costs are more indirect. While organic traffic is free, you will have to invest resources into creating and optimizing content.

3. Assess your time frame 

With SEO, it typically takes six months or more to see substantial improvements in organic search rankings and organic traffic. But over time, businesses can establish a strong and lasting online presence. 

Conversely, SEM offers more immediate results. Your PPC ad can appear in paid search results and increase your website traffic within hours of launching your SEM campaign. However, the minute you stop spending on PPC ads, that traffic will stop.

4. Research the competition

If your competition is vying for organic rankings on similar, high-volume keywords, SEO alone may not drive traffic as well as Google Ads. However, if you can find any high-volume keywords with low competition that your competitors have yet to use, you can fill that gap, making SEO a relatively inexpensive and effective option.

Conduct in-depth keyword research to determine if the results are more informational (a better fit for SEO) or transactional (a better for SEM). Looking at keyword difficulty and where your competitors rank can also help you decide what approach to take with different keywords and campaigns. 

5. Play to your strengths

If you have a team of writers who can produce high-quality, informative, and long-form content, then you could benefit from developing an SEO strategy. On the other hand, if you have a strong digital marketing campaign and can craft persuasive ad copy, SEM might be a better option. 

6. Test and experiment

Consider running small SEO and SEM campaigns at the same time to test the waters and gather data. Use a keyword tracker tool and an analytics platform like Google Analytics to regularly monitor performance, analyze data, and adjust your strategy to optimize results and determine which method is more effective for you. 


Can you use both SEO and SEM?

The choice between SEO and SEM is not an either/or decision. Often, the best approach is to integrate both SEO and SEM into your digital marketing strategy. With both, you can get immediate visibility and targeted campaigns through SEM and sustainable, long-term growth through SEO.

Is Google Ads considered SEM?

Yes, Google Ads is the most popular of the paid search platforms, which also include Amazon Ads and Bing Ads.

Which strategy is more long-term: SEO or SEM?

SEO is more of a long-term strategy than SEM. It can take months or years to improve your organic results rankings, but the investment can eventually result in a strong and sustainable web presence.

Does SEM guarantee immediate results?

SEM does not guarantee results, but if you can get your paid ads high on search engine results pages immediately, it’s typically quicker to drive traffic than SEO.

Are keywords important for both SEO and SEM campaigns?

Yes, choosing relevant keywords is an important part of both SEO and SEM campaigns. Whether you are paying to show up on search engine results pages or are going for organic rankings, your target audience will find you via a Google search for your keywords.