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SEO vs SEM: Which Is Better For Your Business?

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? 

You need to be on Google.

Over 3.5 billion Google searches are made every day, according to Internet Live Stats.

The question is, what's the best way of getting your brand in the search results? 

Any SEO agency will tell you that Search Engine Optimization (SEO) gets long-term organic traffic to your site, while Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is all about faster, paid results.

So, which should you invest in – SEO or SEM? 

The truth is, digital is all about getting channels to work together. 

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.

Knowing when to use each marketing strategy can be the difference between a digital marketing campaign that soars or sinks. 

So, what is Search Marketing? What’s the difference between Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM)? How do they work together? And which should you invest in for your business?

Let’s dive in...

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 sem

(Image Source: Alexa

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.


(Image Source: Backlinko)

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.

compare insurance search results  

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. Nonetheless, the one aspect of SEO that stays constant is that it’s made up of On-Page and Off-Page activities. Your SEO strategy comes down to providing search engines (and let’s face it, we’re mostly talking about Google) with what they need to give the best user experience. 

The four main types of White hat SEO techniques can, therefore, be grouped like this: 

On-Page SEO

On-page SEO optimizes each web page to target a keyword and appeal to search engines and users. While you might think creating a well-designed page is all you need to attract customers, without on-page SEO, you won’t be able to grab the attention of search engines such as Google, Bing, and others that seek to understand how and where best to place your site on search results.

On-page SEO strategies 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


Technical SEO

Technical SEO optimizes elements of a website that are not content-related – think about the backend structure and architecture of the site. While it might not seem relevant to climbing the ranks of search results, if a search engine has a hard time crawling through your site, they probably won’t rank you highly on their search results.

What’s more, if search engines like Google do index your site, but finds multiple issues that can affect the users experience from mobile usability to site security, don’t expect your website to rank highly either. Get the fundamentals down in technical SEO and you’ll get a major edge on your competitors.

Technical SEO strategies include:

  • Site speed

  • Mobile-friendliness

  • URL structure

  • XML sitemaps

  • Robots.txt

  • Page redirects

  • Duplicate content

  • Structured data

  • Hreflang

  • HTTPS and general website security


Content Marketing SEO

Content marketing SEO essentially focuses on crafting pieces of quality content guided by keyword research that helps your site rank for popular search terms. Through content a website is capable of catapulting their brand awareness online through pieces that capture the attention of both Google and users across the internet. What’s more, keyword targeted content optimizations throughout a site can further bolster and elevate rankings on your most important web pages.

Content SEO strategies include:

  • Keyword research

  • Page updates and optimization

  • Blog posts

  • Guides

  • Infographics

  • Videos

  • Live videos

Off-page SEO

Off-page SEO builds your site’s authority and reputation by creating links connecting to your site through other high-quality websites.

off-page seo authority

(Image Source: Backlinko)

As you obtain more and more links going back to your site, Google increasingly views your page as a trustworthy source that users online will visit. As such, you’ll be rewarded with higher rankings and increased organic traffic.

Off-page SEO techniques include:

  • Link building

  • Local listings

  • Directory profiles

  • Forums 

Ultimately, all of these SEO techniques should aim to show search engines how your site ticks three important boxes: 

  • Relevancy: Google looks for pages most closely related to your keyword.

  • Authority: This is how Google determines if the content is accurate and trustworthy.

  • Usefulness: Content must be deemed useful to rank at the top of the search results.

REMEMBER – Google’s ultimate goal is to provide the best user experience.

That’s why you’ll notice that Google ranks tons of content-rich, fast and high authority sites at the top of SERPs. 

These are the pages that users want to see.

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”.

webcam search result google


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. 

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. 

SEO vs SEM: What’s the difference?

In essence, the main difference between both digital channels is that while SEO is focused on improving a website to increase organic traffic for free, SEM aims to gain both organic and paid traffic through monetary means.

food processor - serp example

In the example above, sites such as Myer and Big W have taken out shopping ads under the keyword ‘food processor’ to place at the top, while The Good Guys and KitchenAid have ranked highly through keyword optimised SEO.

Both are unique elements of search marketing and figuring out the key differences between SEM and SEO can prove vital in figuring out which strategy to invest in first. But besides being organic vs paid strategies, what are some of the major differences between SEO and SEM? Let’s break it down.

1. The impact of SEM is immediate, whereas SEO takes time

SEM ads 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 place yourself at the top of search results. So while you’ll see instant results, you’ll need the budget to keep it going for the long term.

On the other hand, SEO is something that you acquire over time. It can take months of implementing an SEO strategy before a website begins to rank on search engines. While you might think of SEO as a fruitless endeavour, keep in mind that the only real cost of this marketing channel is the time you spend on it. In reality, SEO is an easy way to obtain consistent traffic over a long period of time, all without spending a single cent.

2. SEM is better for testing than SEO

Since you can turn SEM ads off and on, it’s great for testing. You can change your ad copy, target new audiences, and choose landing page content to test and see the difference in your strategies immediately. You cannot test to this extent with SEO.

3. SEO adds value over time, whereas SEM does not

SEM is only active as long as you pay for the results to show, whereas an SEO strategy evolves over time and leaves lasting results.

4. SEM clicks are paid, whereas clicks generated from SEO are not 

SEM results cost money for placements, whereas SEO results are unpaid. You pay each time a user clicks on an SEM result. Conversely, you pay nothing when a user clicks on an organic (SEO) result. 

5. SEM results show for a select audience, whereas SEO results do not

While all search marketing strategies aim to connect with a select audience, you can only specify an audience through SEM. Through SEO, on the other hand, you cannot choose who will see your search results.


SEO vs SEM: What are the similarities?

Both SEO and SEM do the following:

  • Help your brand appear in the search results for your target audience and search terms

    Both SEO and SEM aim to help a brand appear in top positions on SERPs for terms related to the brand’s niche, industry, business, or offerings.

  • Drive more targeted traffic to your website and content

    Both SEO and SEM are used to gain visibility on SERPs and drive traffic to a website. 

  • Use keyword research to find popular search queries amongst your audience

    The first step for both SEO and SEM is conducting keyword research to identify the best keywords to target. This includes determining top keywords that your ideal audience searches for, while also looking at keyword competition to see the terms other brands are targeting (and ranking for).


In short, SEO and SEM do the same thing, but in different ways. 

So, stop thinking about SEO vs SEM.

Instead, look at ways you can take advantage of their different strengths and bring together for even BETTER results.


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 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!

keyword volumes google ads planner

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 get 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 SEM and SEO together can help. 

SEM can show you keywords with a high cost per click, 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. 


Increase focus on organic optimization for high-value keywords that are too expensive to compete for in SEM.

How to do it:

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 - cannibalization

But actually, experts have found that there’s a rise in combined paid and organic click-thru when BOTH mediums appeared in the SERPs together, rather than choosing one over the other.


SEO vs SEM: Which is better for your business?

It depends. 

For instant traffic and advertising, nothing beats SEM. SEO, in comparison, is more about acquiring, monitoring and optimizing for organic (unpaid) search traffic. 

Yes, you could just choose one. Some businesses opt for SEM strategies to start out, then focus on SEO down the track. Other brands only use SEO and others invest solely in SEM. 

But you’ll soon find out you’ll perform better when SEO and PPC together. Nevertheless, you’ll need to consider your budget, objectives and KPIs before formulating a plan that sticks.


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.

Give it to the Gurus.

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 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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