SEO vs SEM: Seven Distinctions Every Digital Marketer Needs to Know

Search engine optimization and search engine marketing are two terms you may hear used interchangeably when it comes to your brand’s marketing strategy, but understanding the difference between the two processes is vital to improve your website’s rankings on search engines, convert more followers, and improve your content to compete with top-named sites and blogs. 

With the right strategy, your website will rank at the top of search engines and drive the right people to your content. In this article, we’ll dive into SEO vs. SEM and talk about the main and important distinctions every digital marketer needs to know about working with these two marketing processes.

What is SEO vs SEM?

Search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) are both widely known concepts in marketing, and they both aim to increase your brand’s visibility on search engines such as Google. To understand SEO vs. SEM, we’ll start with a definition of the two processes.

SEO is a marketing process where you optimize your brand’s website to gain free traffic from search engines. Optimized websites are easy for search engine crawlers to understand, which can drastically increase your chances of ranking higher and reaching the first page of search engine results. SEO follows two main rules to make your website more search engine friendly:



There’s also a technical aspect to SEO, which can help improve your viewer’s experience and help search crawlers relate to your content. Technical SEO involves the architecture and structure of your website, whether your website is mobile user-friendly, and how quickly your page loads.

Both SEO and SEM help your brand by:

  • Appearing in search engine results
  • Ranking near the top page on search engines
  • Requiring you to optimize your website continuously
  • Helping you understand your audience well
  • Incorporating keywords and researching terms to uncover what your audience searches online
  • Driving traffic to your website
  • Gaining new followers

However, the main difference is in if you pay for the results or earn them organically.

SEM goes beyond SEO. It’s a subset of your overall Internet marketing strategy, as there are many other ways to increase your website’s traffic other than SEO and SEM. The main goal of SEM is to boost your website’s organic visibility on search engines, like SEO. However, the traffic can either be free or paid for, and usually includes advertising strategies as well.


Image from Amazon

By using PPC advertising and other tricks, you can automatically appear at the front of the search. All you have to do is buy the advertising space in the search engine results you want to rank for, and then pay for each click on your ad. Google AdWords is the most well-known paid search advertising agency, and it’s a great way to get fast results on Google’s search results. Other popular search engines, like Yahoo and Bing, also have a similar PPC system, but it’s not as widely used or successful.

So Why Is SEM Traffic So Important?

Because it’s a vital part of your overall marketing strategy that drives Internet traffic to your content. Search engines are a widely targeted and accepted way for people around the globe to find quick answers to their questions, and the more people you can get to click on a link to your website, the more likely you are to gain a new follower. Boosting your audience and relevant traffic is what makes SEM so valuable, and it results in a much higher return on investment (ROI) than other strategies, such as social media marketing.

7 Important Distinctions Between SEO and SEM

If you’re a digital marketer, you probably already know a thing or two about using SEO and SEM processes. The following list includes the most important distinctions between SEO and SEM that every digital marketer needs to know to create a lucrative marketing strategy.

1. SEO Optimizes, SEM Does More

SEM, or your overall search engine marketing strategy, includes tactics like SEO. However, it also uses other techniques to boost your website’s number of visitors and rank higher on search engines.

SEO is all about reaching better search engine rankings, while SEM is much more in-depth than optimizing your content to hit the best front-page rankings on search engine websites. SEM involves other methods, including SEO, to gain search engine visitors to your website, such as pay per click (PPC) advertising. While SEO helps you reach better rankings, PPC allows you to purchase that top ad space on a search engine directly on the front page.

2. SEO Continually Changes

While your overall marketing strategy is often tweaked and altered to help you progress, the SEO industry frequently changes. Each time search engines such as Google alter the way or order their algorithm displays certain websites, SEO strategies change as well. The industry fluctuates continually, and you must remain on top of industry trends to stand a chance.

3. SEO and SEM Are Equal

SEO and SEM are equally important, but the terms are not interchangeable. Marketers debate which technique is better, but that fact of the matter is that SEM won’t succeed without a successful and organic SEO practice. Organic clicks to your website are often considered the best because these people are more likely to enjoy your content and convert into your regular audience. Gaining organic traffic takes time, but it’s also a free method.

However, there are also times where PPC (a piece of SEM) works better than SEO. If you’re launching a new website, for example, you may want to pay for immediate visibility on search engines because it takes less time to reach your viewers. You might not gain the same amount of traffic in the long-run as you can with SEO, however, and the process can cost more than it’s worth if you don’t know what you’re doing or your site’s not optimized enough.

4. SEO and SEM Appear in Different Places on Search Engines

When comparing SEO and SEM, another main distinction is in how they appear in search results. SEM results can contain ad extensions, which allow you to add on to the information with a phone number, callout, or other additional information. 

SEO results, on the other hand, include a featured snippet. This featured snippet box appears on the search engine results page after the PPC ads and above the organic search results. The content shown includes information from your website that attempts to answer the user’s question.

5. SEM Allows You to Choose Who Sees Your Link on Search Engines

Because SEM results allow you to select a target audience, unlike SEO results, you can better connect with the people who are interested in your website, products, or content. SEM allows you to specify what your target audience is and select the people who want to see your search result ranking. This is done using filters for age, income, location, habits, etc.

6. SEM Is Better for Testing Purposes

You can run or turn off an SEM ad when you want, which makes SEM easier to test. This allows you to revise your advertising copy or complete strategy, target a new audience, or alter that landing page content to help reach your viewers while the ad runs. You simply pause the ad, make your tweaks, and map out the differences in your strategy to view immediate results. However, SEO doesn’t allow you to do this because the changes take way too long to monitor and compare.

7. SEO Provides Higher Click-Through Rates

When using a search engine, the first few organic search results near the top of the page contain the highest click-through rates (CTRs). These are the websites that receive the most clicks, so if you can reach the top of the results through SEO strategy, you could outperform any SEM paid ad in terms of traffic. However, if your website ranks on the second or third page, your SEM strategy may produce more CTRs than SEO.

SEO vs. SEM: Which is Right for My Brand?

Depending on your specific goals, either PPC or SEO tactics will produce more results. To create a viable overall SEM effort, you need to use both.

SEO helps add value to your website over the long-term, while SEM doesn’t. SEM only works as long as you’re willing to pay for each click to your website. As soon as the ad no longer runs, the SEM strategy is over. On the other hand, SEO strategy grows over time and produces long-lasting results.

New brands may see faster results with paid results through SEM, for example, but SEO drives more lucrative, long-term results that cost nothing. The best strategy for your brand may depend on:

  • What your industry competition is like – SEM has more competition when it comes to target keyword research while creating organic, informative content is competitive in SEO practice.
  • When do your customers buy – SEM customers tend to search for what they want to buy right now, while SEO customers may research before they’re ready to buy.
  • How old your website and business are – New businesses thrive with SEM strategies while older, better-established businesses already contain some authority online.
  • The current SEO of your website – If your website requires improvement to boost your organic results, SEM may produce results quicker while you optimize your website to perform better.
  • Your industries common cost per click – Industries vary, so SEO may be more lucrative if the cost in your industry is high.

Finally, when comparing SEO v SEM, think about your competition as well as what your audience wants. See how your website matches up to your competitors to ensure your strategies are the best.

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