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SEO vs SEM: What's The Deal?

SEO and SEM are two sides of the same coin. The goal of both is to drive traffic to your site for more conversions; they simply do it differently. This guide covers what makes them different — along with actionable ways to integrate SEO and SEM for high-ROI campaigns.

So, you want explosive digital results? The fact of the matter is that you need to dominate Google, and you need to do it fast.

Ultimately, you have two ways to do this: through search engine optimization (SEO) or search engine marketing (SEM). The tricky bit is knowing which one will serve your website traffic goals better. So, in this guide, we'll cover off the basics, including:

  • What each of these strategies are

  • The main types of techniques

  • How they work

  • Where they differ

  • And how to use them together.

What is search marketing?

Search marketing relates to any tactic that helps a brand get attention by appearing on search engine results pages (SERPs). 

There are two major categories within search marketing:

  • SEO, which uses organic strategies to appear in search

  • SEM, which uses paid strategies to appear in search


The main difference between SEO vs SEM is that SEO is an organic strategy, whereas SEM is paid.



What is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?

Search engine optimization (SEO) is a digital marketing tactic used to increase the quality and quantity of organic search traffic to your website. The goal of SEO is to rank your website in organic search results.



That leads to another question...

What exactly is organic search traffic? 

Any unpaid traffic from the search engine results pages (SERPS). In other words, users who click on the natural search results on Google, not paid ads, are organic search traffic.


Google’s search results are divided into two main categories: the paid search results and the organic search results. The top result is a paid ad, while the two below are organic results. SEO is where you focus 100% on ranking in the organic results.

Bottom line, you don’t just want any traffic; you want to attract people who are genuinely interested in your products and services and are likely to become customers.

That’s why the quality of traffic is an essential element of the SEO definition. Once you’re getting a high quality of traffic clicking through from the SERPs, you want to increase the quantity of traffic

That’s where the magic happens – the more high-quality (AKA ready-to-convert) traffic you can drive to your website, the more chance of conversions. 

What are the main types of SEO?

The SEO industry is continually changing due to the frequent changes made to Google’s algorithm. In fact, the search giant has admitted to rolling out 500 to 600 algorithm tweaks per year.

Nonetheless, the one aspect of SEO that stays constant is the combination of on-page and off-page efforts. And these are broken down into white-hat SEO strategies that form to create the best possible user experience.

In the sections below, we'll dive into what each of these categories are, and how you'll need to use them in your own campaign.

On-Page SEO

On-page SEO optimizes each web page to target a keyword and create a memorable experience between the user and the content they're viewing. Factors in this bucket include:

  • Keyword research

  • Content optimization

  • Image optimization through alt tags

  • Meta description and title tag optimization

  • H1 tag and header tags

  • URL optimization

  • Internal linking


(Image Source: Mangools) 

Technical SEO

Technical SEO optimizes elements of a website that are not directly content-related – think about the backend structure and architecture of the site, for example. If a search engine has a hard time crawling through your site - due to technical hiccups - they're less likely to rank you for search queries, especially if these errors impact the user experience.

Optimizing technical elements includes:

  • Improving site speed

  • Ensuring mobile-friendliness

  • Enhancing URL structure

  • Implementing XML sitemaps

  • Checking Robots.txt

  • Rolling out appropriate page redirects

  • Monitoring and eliminating duplicate content

  • Ensuring structured data is in place

  • Implementing hreflang tags where needed

  • Actioning HTTPS and general website security


(Image Source: Quora)

Content Marketing SEO

Content marketing SEO essentially focuses on crafting pieces of quality material that are based on providing value to the audience. While the nature is not to prioritise keywords and write around them only, they do keep these on-page SEO aspects in mind, so as to better climb search rankings in a more natural way.

Web pages can optimize their content marketing SEO by including the following aspects into the overall strategy:

  • Keyword research

  • Page updates and optimization

  • Blog post creation

  • How-to guides

  • Infographics

  • Video content

  • Live videos or tutorials


scaling-content(Image Source: Propelrr)

Off-page SEO

One of the biggest parts of off-page SEO is link-building, which is focused on increasing your site’s authority and reputation by having high-authority websites point back to yours.


(Image Source: Backlinko)

As you obtain more and more and more links back to your website through off-page SEO tactics, Google increasingly views your page as a trustworthy source, and therefore gives you a better position in search engine result pages.

This is one of the most critical parts of search optimization, and should always be done with quality in mind. But it also includes positioning your business in external platforms to help create more visibility and link-building opportunities, especially through placements across local listings, directories, and forums.

The more you can provide to Google that you're worthy of exposure on search engines, the more you'll get the results you're after.

Learn SEO from the Ultimate A-Z SEO guide for incredible ROI

Why does SEO matter?

Put it this way:

Internet Live Stats claims that there are over 66,000 searches per second on Google every day. 

Then take into consideration how SEO shapes the buying experience. 

A massive 93% of all online experiences begin with a search engine, while 92% of all clicks take place on page one of Google.

And that's not all. 

More than 40% of online revenue comes from organic search traffic.

So, if you’re not doing what you can to get on page 1 of Google, you’re missing out on a huge amount of traffic. 

Now you know what SEO is, let’s take a look at SEM…


What is Search Engine Marketing (SEM)?

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is an umbrella term to describe any tactic that helps your site get attention on search engines results pages and increases your website traffic. 

SEM includes many of the PAID strategies to appear in search, such as Pay Per Click (PPC) ads and paid ads on Google-specific platforms (Google My Business, Google Shopping, etc.)

While SEO focuses 100% on ranking in the organic results, SEM uses PPC and paid ads in order to get traffic from search engines and gain visibility in the SERPs. The main difference between SEO vs SEM is that SEO is an unpaid strategy, whereas SEM is a paid strategy. 

You might have heard that SEM also includes SEO, but that depends on the definition you use. Some digital marketers consider SEM to be an umbrella term that consists of both paid and organic tactics.

What components does SEM use?

As noted above, SEM includes the use of paid search, such as PPC advertisements and SMM (social media marketing). Most of the time, SEM strictly refers to paid campaigns and strategies, but if you use a combination of SEO and paid search, that falls under SEM efforts.

How does SEM work?

You bid for your ads to be displayed on the search advertising platform.

For example, if you sell webcams, you might bid for “webcam”.



Google Ads (formerly Google AdWords) is the most popular internet advertising platform with 37.2% of the digital ad market, compared to Facebook’s 19.6%.

You conduct keyword research (as with SEO) before creating ad campaigns that target the most profitable keywords for your niche, products or services. 

Then, when users search for those keywords, they see your ads at the top or bottom of results pages.

Every time a user clicks on the ad, you pay the bid amount. 

Why does SEM matter?

SEM makes sure you are visible at the exact moment your target audience is searching for what you offer. Whether it’s paid or organic search results, on local search or Google Shopping – you’re right there ready for your potential customers to click. 

benefits-of-sem(Image Source: SlidePlayer)

With paid search platforms like Google Ads, you are paying to be at the top of the search engine. 

Here’s why that matters for your brand:

64.6% of searchers click on Google Ads when they’re specifically looking to buy a product online.

On top of that: 

The top 3 paid advertising spots win 46% of the clicks on the page.

No wonder it’s such a popular marketing channel! 

According to SocialMediaToday, more than 7 million advertisers invested a total of $10.1 billion in PPC ads in 2017 alone.

Chances are, your competitors are amongst them. 

What's the difference between SEO and SEM?

The main difference between both digital channels is that organic search optimization focuses on gaining natural, 'free' traffic by focusing on search queries across a long-term strategy. On the other hand, an AEM strategy is designed to reel in traffic instantly through shorter, pay-per-click campaigns.

webcam-search-result-google 2

In the example above, sites such as Myer and Big W have taken out pay-per-click Google Shopping ads focusing on the keyword ‘food processor’. Because they are bidding to appear for this keyword, the highest offer receives an ad at the top of paid search results.

The SEO equivalent of this would be to use on-page SEO, technical SEO and off-page elements to rank organically for the 'food processor' keyword, without paying for ad placements.

In the following sections, we'll examine these differences in closer detail.

The differences of SEO vs. SEM at a glance:

To put it into perspective, these marketing campaigns have their own fundamentals and specifics. You will need to consider these when weighing up which one is right for you. These factors are further broken down below for better clarity.


The best part about pay-per-click campaigns through SEM channels is that you can set an allocated budget and keep in full control of it. You only pay for each click you receive, so there's no wasted budget on audiences who aren't interested (if you do your targeting right). SEO, on the other hand, does require more of an investment for the longer term, meaning you'll need to be patient to see your money work hard for you. But trust us: it's worth it.

How long it takes to see results

If you're itching at the bit to get clicks and conversions, SEM is a better choice for you. It will give you rapid, instant results as soon as your campaign is live. In comparison, SEO can take a minimum of three to six months to see hard-hitting returns. The difference is that your SEO results will stick, while SEM's will only last as long as your campaign is live.

Keyword research

Both require in-depth keyword research to understand how people are searching for your goods and services and what competitors are doing. Search volume, keyword difficulty, and intent all matter here, but SEM will also require you to look at the cost of each keyword you target - some are more expensive than others, because of competitiveness.

Additionally, SEO tends to have more long-tail queries involved, meaning content will become a big part of your strategy overall.

Testing and targeting

The good news is that SEM makes it super-easy to A/B test your performance and monitor whether it's working as intended. When it's not, you can quickly make tweaks and keep your campaign on track. On the other hand, SEO means you have to monitor longer-term results, which can take a while to come in. It's also not as easy to identify what's causing a campaign to stall or struggle to bring in results, which means a lot of problem-solving needs to be done.

Finally, you can hyper-target your audiences through PPC campaigns, while SEO doesn't guarantee you'll get traffic from those who don't fit the bill.


In order to remain sustainable, an SEO strategy needs to be updated and refreshed to adhere to constantly changing algorithm updates. In comparison, SEM tactics generally aren't affected by this, but you will have to keep an eye on your quality score and ad relevance.

The truth is, no digital marketing campaign can be set up and forgotten - you'll need to keep them in check to remain available and cost-effective.

Which is better?

SEM strategies allow you to put your results in front of audiences with just a few clicks. However, this comes at a monetary cost, with your business having to fork over precious ad budget to see yourself at the top of search results. While the results are instant, you do have to have a good spend to put towards outbidding your competitors.

seo-vs-ppcImage Source: Mangools

On the other hand, SEO is something that you acquire over time., but it can take months of implementing a strategy before a website begins to rank on search engines. While you might think of this technique as a fruitless endeavor, keep in mind that the only real cost of this marketing channel is the time you spend on it. (And any additional resources.)

At a glance, here is are scenarios where one strategy gains the upper hand over the other:

SEO advantages:

  • Brings in value over time.

  • You do not pay for each click received.

  • Longer-lasting value.

  • 'Free' traffic.

SEM advantages:

  • Better for A/B testing.

  • Instant results.

  • Hyper-target audiences.

  • Competitive bidding. 


How to use SEO and SEM together

Learning how to use SEO and SEM together will improve the exposure and SERP results of your website. When done correctly, the two complement each other extremely well.

Here are a few ways to use SEO and SEM together. 

1. Get rapid results AND long-term ROI

One major reason to use SEM and SEO at the same time is that they both work to different time scales. 

SEM is a brilliant option if you want rapid results. You can literally have an ad showing to your target audience within hours.

SEO, on the other hand, takes more time. But SEO provides long-term sustainable results for revenue growth. As a rule of thumb, a targeted, organic SEO strategy will start to produce uplifts of traffic and conversions within 6 months, however, you’ll need at least 8 to 12 months to produce high-ROI results. 

One proven approach is to use SEM to drive traffic to your website fast while building your SEO foundations for long term success.

2. Use SEM as keyword research for SEO

The speed of SEM makes it an incredible tool for testing out keywords. 

Simply tap into data from your search campaigns to find strong performing PPC keywords. Then, optimize the keywords for organic results. Plus, keyword planner on Google Ads is a fantastic tool to source search volumes too!

webcam-search-result-google 3

3. Use SEM as a testing ground for web content and pages

Use SEM as a testing ground for site content, then apply learnings to your website. 

For example, before your update headlines and meta descriptions across your site, see which text drives the best engagement rates.

Simply split-test different ad copy variations in your PPC campaigns and see which gets the best click-through rates (CTR).

Do the same for your landing pages. Creating high converting landing pages takes a hefty investment in time and budget. So, make sure it’s not in vain by testing your major elements first – such as headlines, calls to action, messages and more. 

4. Reduce SEM keyword bids when organic search ranks well

Every dollar counts in your paid search ads. You want to ensure no budget goes to waste. That’s where using SEO and SEM together can help. 

SEM can show you keywords with a high cost per click on search engines, a high conversion rate and a low Return on Ad Spend (ROAS). 

At the same time, organic tells you which keywords your site ranks well for organically.

So, by sharing insights across the two channels, you can pull back on spending in areas where SEM drives a low ROAS and cost per click, but the website ranks well organically. Plus, you can increase focus on organic optimization for high-value keywords that are too expensive to compete for in SEM.

How to use SEM data for SEO

Check the 'Paid & Organic' report in Google Ads.

First, you need to link Google AdWords to Google Search Console – the platform for monitoring organic rankings and performance. 

Once the two platforms are linked, your Paid & Organic report is ready to go. 

This will help you better understand how paid ads and organic search results work together to help you reach your target audience.

Note: It only draws on stats from paid text ads, not Shopping ads or click-to-download ads.

Go to Google Ads > Reports > Predefined Reports > Basic > Paid & Organic

Then use the search result type and performance metrics to answer the following:

  • Are any organic keywords generating traffic that could be supported by paid ads? Look for queries where you only appear in organic search with no text ads.

  • Are any keywords performing well on Google Ads that I don’t rank for in organic search results?

  • Is it profitable to bid or not bid for certain search terms?

  • How does investing in paid text ad results impact my results high-value queries for organic results?

What about cannibalization?

Cannibalization of SEO web pages has long been a fear of search marketers. You put in all the effort into ranking high on Google, then your SEM campaign comes along and ruins it all. 



SEO and SEM: The killer digital marketing duo

Overwhelmed by the options? We understand!

Getting traffic from search engines, whether it’s through a successful SEM strategy or keyword researched SEO strategy, can be a little daunting. That’s why we recommend working with a digital marketing team that can handle all the stresses that come with SEO and PPC and craft a perfect strategy that suits your needs.

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Whether you want to further optimize your ad and PPC campaigns or just need that extra boost with high-quality link building to get traffic, we can build a custom marketing strategy that’ll reach your goals in no time.

Claim your Digital Audit today and our Online Marketing Gurus will analyze your site, competition, online presence and goals. Then they'll provide a comprehensive audit that outlines the best digital strategy to hit your goals.

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