Understanding SEO vs SEM

Aug 18, 2022 | SEO

Comparing SEO vs SEM as a marketing strategy is one of the first steps to developing the web presence of a business or brand.

The primary goal of planning a marketing budget is to deliver the strongest growth for the lowest cost. Then consider short-term gains and long-term profitability when allocating funds to grow revenue through a website. In other words, to weigh SEO vs. SEM.

What’s SEM?

Most people classify Search Engine Marketing (SEM) as a marketing strategy to increase traffic to a webpage through search engines. This can include paid, otherwise known as pay-per-click advertising, and non-paid, also known as organic SEO, efforts.

However, when talking about SEO vs SEM, most people will understand SEM as just the paid efforts on search engines.

So for the purposes of this comparison, we’ll refer to SEM as simply the paid efforts for search engine clicks/impressions.

Understanding Paid Search

The cost of paid search ads gets determined by an auction system used through PPC. In this auction, your bid is what you’re willing to pay per click for your ad. That amount becomes the maximum cost you’ll pay when someone clicks on your ad.
When you run a campaign in AdWords, you choose which keywords or phrases you want your ad to show up for.

You can also create audience lists that let you reach people interested in certain topics or categories of products, for example, “women’s watches” or “luxury cars”.

What’s SEO?

The word “SEO” is an acronym for search engine optimization. It refers to practices formulated to rank higher organically in search results on search engines. Its goal is to get more traction and visibility to a webpage without paying for clicks.

A search engine’s goals are to show the most engaging and relevant results to its users. SEO seeks to demonstrate to the search engine that your content is the best available result for users searching related subject matters.

Each search engine will have different algorithms. Therefore, the strategy of SEO will vary depending on which search engine you’re trying to optimize your content or business for.

SEO vs SEM: What’s the difference?

To analyze SEO vs SEM we need to understand the differences between them first. While both concentrate on getting traffic to webpages, SEO deals specifically with generating organic impressions, whereas SEM focuses on both organic and paid searches.

Even though the main simple distinction could be said as SEM being paid and SEO being organic, one should not get confused and believe SEO is free.

Clicks that a page would get organically through SEO don’t require payment to the search engine. However, there’s a lot of labor involved for SEO to start working. These results may take months or sometimes years, depending on how competitive the niche is.

To expedite the results, businesses may decide to use SEM (pay per click) to get immediate impressions while the SEO strategies are being developed.

SEO VS SEM: Pros and cons



Great for brand recognition
SEM helps to improve brand recognition because your site is listed at the top of your selected keyword web searches. You will also get more relevant traffic to your website, as visitors showed interest in the keyword related to your product or service. This makes it more likely that the click will generate conversions.
Needs a consistent Ad Budget
Traffic generated by PPC is dependent on payment. This means that the moment your Ad budget gets depleted, the traffic normally generated would drop to zero. However, it is possible to set a strict budget so you never end up spending more than planned.
Clearer ROI
Using paid ads can help you monitor your return on investment more easily. The moment you start a PPC campaign it’s easier to track its effect on sales.
Immediate traffic: The moment the campaign starts, the search engine will start showing your ad. This means immediate traffic to your website.
Needs professional knowledge
As mentioned previously, since the traffic to your page while using PPC is dependent on payment, it’s very important to know what you’re doing to avoid wasting your ad budget. Experimenting with it without being well versed in keywords, web marketing, and Adsense is riskier than hiring a professional marketing agency to guide you in the right direction.


Results are long-lasting
After a PPC campaign is finished, impressions will immediately drop to 0. But this is not the case with correctly developed SEO. Impressions will keep coming even if the page is not updated in weeks. This means that once the work is done, you can stop investing as much.
Takes time
It might take a lot of time (perhaps months or years) to see an ROI on your SEO budget. Ranking for keywords on search engines will surely take patience and effort. As a rule of thumb, the lower the search volume for a keyword, the faster it will be to rank for it since there’s less competition.
Can work with less Budget
Both SEM and SEO will require knowledge of keywords and marketing to work. Once you rank through SEO the impressions will keep being consistent without having to pay for PPC.
Requires Quality content
For search engines to determine your content deserves to be in their top rankings, you need quality content that provides value. Creating this content takes time, expertise, and budget for labor.


The bottom line is that with SEO you’re working to earn visibility on a search engine, while with SEM you’re paying directly for immediate visibility. SEM depends on budget, while SEO depends on content quality and relevance.

Ultimately, a combined approach that balances short-term gains with long-term growth is ideal. A few factors can determine which is the better option for your business, such as budget and competitors. Budget will affect what you invest in while competition will let you know what to do next.

Both approaches will need a knowledgeable expert in the field to ensure your marketing budget doesn’t go to waste.