What is the Difference Between SEO and SEM?

SEO vs SEM. The essential differentiator would be that Search Engine Optimization (SEO) focuses on website optimization to attract organic traffic.

While the aim of Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is to gain traffic and exposure both through organic and paid search.

There are two main categories to Google search results: paid search results and organic meaning free. SEO’s objective is to drive traffic from the organic search results on your website.

You can also get traffic to your website via pay per click (PPC) method, which is basically the search results’ paid field.

SEO concentrates 100% on the organic results ranking. SEM is when you tap both SEO and PPC to search engine traffic. Thus, it encompasses both SEO and PPC.

With that cleared up, let us look at some of the key differences between SEM and SEO.


seo vs sem

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

SEO is the system through which you can optimize your website for free traffic from search engines, AKA organic traffic.

SEO is necessary as the majority of traffic on search engines is going to the top 5 websites on the Search Engine Result Page (SERP).

Thus, your website has to be in the top 5 positions if you want to receive traffic from search engines without having to pay for it.

Search engine crawlers can quickly understand the context of SEO optimized website, which raises the likelihood of a higher ranking of the SERPS.

SEO Overview

There are 3 key SEO types: on-page SEO, off-page SEO and technical SEOs. 

All the back end and technical process of optimizing your website so that search engine bots can easily crawl and index your website is called technical SEO

Technical SEO’s key components

  • Submitting XML Sitemap to Search Engines
  • Canonicalization of website URLs
  • Increasing your page load speed
  • Ensuring the website is mobile-friendly
  • Maintaining an optimum website structure
  • Security of the website 

On-page SEO refers to guidelines that can be applied to individual pages and content to be optimized for certain high performing keywords. 

On-page SEO’s key components are: 

  • Optimizing the page titles 
  • Optimizing Meta Description 
  • Optimization of website URLs
  • Optimizing images (by using ALT text) 
  • Optimization of header tags including H1, H2, and H3
  • Optimizing website content with appropriate keywords

Off-Page SEO is all about collecting referrals from other websites (backlinks) with the aim of convincing search engines to trust your website.

While this might feel a little fishy for beginners, try to think of it as a ranking method.

The site with the most number of high-quality backlinks is ranked higher than the others. This is also why off-page SEO is also called link building.

To be clear, it’s not all about how many links you have. It’s also about the source of those links that determine the quality of any link.

Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

SEM is a digital marketing technique that aims to make your website more visible to search engines, either by using SEO to receive organic traffic or by driving paid traffic via PPC (Pay Per Click) marketing. By default, SEM includes SEO and Paid marketing.

So, everything I just mentioned for SEO also applies to SEM. Now that we have that cleared, let me shed some light on PPC as well.

Pay Per Click (PPC)

Regardless of posting your ads on Google Ads, Bing Ads or any other search engine ads to gain paid traffic, PPC is all about your bidding efforts.

Basically, you make your bids on a particular keyword, and your ad is displayed on the top of the SERP when someone searches for that keyword.

The classifications of the ads are typically proportional to the bid you offer.

Thus, you’ll appear above all the other ads if you’re the highest bidder, and you pay whatever amount you bid when someone clicks on your ad.

If anyone clicks on your ad, the price you pay is known as the cost-per-click (CPC).

Quality Score

Google’s Advertising metric is quite important for determining the quality score for your ads.

It’s simply Google’s way to find out if your ad suits something that anyone searches.

Google determines the quality score based on multiple factors, including the click-through-rate (CTR), your landing page’s performance, conversion rate, and the overall quality score for your Google Ad account.

A high-quality score makes you eligible to receive a discount per click.

Ad Copy

Composing an excellent ad copy is a vital part of PPC. This is because great copy means a high CTR, which indicates a good quality score.

As a result, the same click is charged less. The reverse is true, as well. Your quality score will be in trouble if your copy does not drive people to click, making your PPC a very costly endeavor for your business.

Now that you know the difference between SEO and SEM, let’s understand how much each of them will cost your marketing budget.

SEO vs SEM : How Much They Cost

Typically, organic SEO is one of the most optimum marketing strategies for sustainable results.

The best part of websites with a high organic ranking is that they enjoy round the clock free traffic and better industry brand, and other SEO benefits.

Websites using PPC may still receive search engine targeted traffic, but they must pay for it. The traffic falls once they end the paying campaigns.

In this regard, it is important to note that while traffic in SEOs is typically thought to be free, it still requires time, energy and money for common keywords to get the highest organic results.

Like all sectors, the search field is highly competitive, and you need to invest heavily to gain a top spot.

Additionally, you will also need to regularly produce high-quality content, which also adds to the expense; hire an SEO expert to support the SEO process to optimize your website effectively.

So, what do you think? SEO or SEM, which one is more cost-effective? And the answer is SEO.

There might be an initial investment, but once your website starts ranking high for your targeted keywords, you can continue to enjoy free traffic for a long time without having to worry about your advertising budgets.

Next, let’s learn what is more time consuming? SEO or SEM?

SEO vs. SEM : How Long It Takes to See Results

Another big difference between SEO and SEM is that, while PPC is almost immediate, it takes much time for SEO to work and produce results.

So, it depends on the overall digital marketing targets, which is better.

If you want to get traffic quickly, you can begin with SEM (paid search advertising) and simultaneously work on your SEO as well.

If you’d like to establish a reliable and long-lasting online business without depending on inorganic traffic, SEO is the way to go.

SEO vs SEM : Which is easier to learn?

While both SEO and SEM will require you to dedicate time and effort to master, in my experience, it is comparatively easier to become a PPC expert than an SEO expert.

This is because, compared to SEO, PPC has fewer rules and regulations, which allows you to easily jump to experimenting with PPC campaigns as soon as you learn how to use a PPC platform.

With a small budget, you can run pilot projects, evaluate the outcomes, and extend your budget and build more campaigns.

Plus, with the advent of Artificial Intelligence on SEM platforms, your work is simpler because the AI algorithm can automatically perform many complex tasks such as manual bidding for ad placement.

On the other hand, to learn SEO, you’ll have to understand how search engines function and how ranking works.

If you consider that hundreds of guidelines are used by search engines when determining the order, the results will appear for a given search term, and you will understand that it’s a massive amount of work.

Now that you understand the difference between SEO and SEM, let’s look at some of the most Frequently Asked Questions about SEO and SEM.

Why is SEM traffic Important?

Search Engine Marketing traffic is considered the most significant Internet traffic source because it is targeted (either by organic SEO or Paid Search Advertising).

It is generally agreed that individuals use search engines to find a workable solution to their problems, answer a query, or learn a new skill or find information.

So, the chances of them converting are more if the searcher clicks on a website from the search results or clicks on an ad.

The website and the displayed ads’ placement make the traffic received from SEM more useful than any other traffic source.

In order to use targeted traffic, Facebook and Twitter aim to refine their advertisement platforms. However, traffic received directly from search engines still has a stronger Return on investment.

Does SEM help SEO?

Contrary to popular belief, SEM does not aid SEO efforts. As a matter of fact, it does not help or hurt your SEO efforts if you use PPC to target specific keywords and get search engine traffic.

SEO rankings depend on hundreds of variables, including content, page speed, domain authority etc. However, PPC campaigns are not included in those factors.

What to Focus On, SEO or PPC?

Should you rely only on SEO for your digital marketing efforts? Or you should merge SEO and PPC and start a well-focused search marketing campaign. 

When to Concentrate Just on SEO 

You have a minimal budget: You probably want to concentrate on SEO if you’re a startup or small company with a scarce marketing budget. For months or years, you cannot see an ROI on your SEO budget. Yet, it makes more sense than spending on PPC ads that might only run for a week.

Rank For information keywords: Search Terms such as ‘What is X’ or ‘How to X’ is known as informational keywords. Although these kinds of search queries do not convert super well, they get a lot of search volume. If you feel like creating some excellent content on topics most searched on Google, SEO is definitely a great decision. 

You Can Wait: It takes time for SEO and content marketing to start showing results. So if you can think long term and wait for 6-12 months to see legit traffic from Google search start pouring in, go with SEO.

When to Focus on PPC 

You have a clear ad budget: One of the good things about PPC ads would be that you can set and stick to a strict budget. It’s unlikely, that way, to spend more than you intended. 

That being said, if you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s easy to burn through that budget quickly. The chances are that if you’re just getting started with paid advertising, then you will not know what you are doing.

That means that to find out what blend of keyword targeting, ad copy, landing pages and bidding work much better for you, you need a standard monthly budget. 

You can handle an AdWords account: PPC does sound super easy to understand and work on. You bid on keywords, and you get traffic! Done.

However, in reality, it’s not easy to handle a Google Ads account. In order to make decisions about how to get the best out of your ads, you need to consider the effect of the keyword targeting ads, quality score, ROI, conversion rates, etc. process all of this info, which helps you make a better decision for your PPC efforts.

You can launch and test landing pages: One of the first things you’re going to learn about PPC is that each ad demands targeted landing pages. Or for each ad category, at least.

However, you’ll need a way to easily launch lots of distinguished web pages to get the most out of PPC. Plus, you will also need to run A/B tests to determine which landing page is working better.

When should you simultaneously pursue SEO and PPC? 

Let me tell you a personal story about the time I launched my website. I was the only employee, writing my blogs for and about SEO and managing my PPC.

This turned out to be too much for me to handle alone. But if you feel like you have the resources to tackle both SEO and PPC, go for it. However, I would select one or the other.


There are two elements of Search Engine Marketing: SEO and PPC. Even though SEO is theoretically part of SEM, most people are talking about PPC to get search engine traffic when referring to SEM.

Search engine marketing or SEM is typically a vital medium for digital marketing. It will help if you use both SEO and PPC if you want to build an online business.

While PPC will get you quicker results, it requires you to keep paying for the traffic you get on the website. Stop paying, and the traffic stops too.

On the other hand, SEO takes longer to produce results and demands a greater initial investment. To have highly targeted traffic, both processes seek to improve the visibility of a website in search engines.

What did you think of this blog?

Did it help you understand the difference between SEO and SEM?

What digital marketing technique will you be using in your business?

Let me know in the comments.

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2 thoughts on “What is the Difference Between SEO and SEM?”

  1. Nice breakdown Viken. SEO is definitely a more long term approach to building quality, organic traffic. Put in the time now. Follow the basics. Sweet, organic, targeted traffic flows to you over the long haul.



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