What Is The Difference Between SEO and SEM?

What Is The Difference Between SEO and SEM?

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Both SEO and SEM are marketing strategy methods to increase your business’s online visibility, search engine ranking, and website traffic.

In both cases, you should know your audience – both existing and potential new audience markets, to make the most of your marketing efforts. A good digital marketing strategy will maximize the benefits that each of these tools have to offer.

What Is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?

SEO is a marketing method to increase organic visibility in search engines, when people search for specific keywords that relate to your product or service. Organic means simply that a person actively searched for a target keyword, and the list of results naturally appears based on the search engine’s ranking algorithm, including relevance ranking.

Since Google dominates, with over 90% of searches going through it, the Google algorithm is critical in SEO. It ranks pages based on hundreds of factors, including how high-quality the content is, to ensure a searcher gets quality results and answers, and avoiding keyword spamming.

Using keywords strategically increases a website’s search engine ranking for greater visibility to an individual searching for specific keywords. To increase web traffic and lead generation through SEO, an optimized website is needed, plus a creative strategy beyond your web pages, such as optimizing blogs and social media content.

To fully optimize for the full benefit of SEO, a range of techniques are used, including on-page SEO for your actual website, off-page SEO for any other online content which can increase your website backlink performance. Technical SEO addresses the structure of your web pages to ensure Google and other search engines can find them.

Content marketing with SEO content material that is well written, authoritative, and trustworthy can rank well in Google’s algorithms and boost visibility. Combining a well-researched keyword strategy and high-quality content on subjects of interest to your target audience encourages click throughs and helps your website itself rank better with backlinking. Videos, images, and other visual content are also invaluable to SEO success.

What Is Search Engine Marketing (SEM)?

Search engine marketing (SEM) involves paying for your visibility, through paid search platforms.

Why Are Facebook Engagement Metrics Necessary?

Buying pay-per-click (PPC) ads from Google Ads, Bing Ads, or another search engine, means your business is at the top of results. Each time a searcher clicks on the ad, you pay for it, with the cost per click (CPC) varying, based on bidding.

You can set a budget, use a variety of ad types, and adjust and optimize your ad campaign as necessary. You receive data to help determine the success to see if adjustments are required.

SEO vs. SEM Similarities

SEO and SEM target keywords to drive traffic to a website, ideally resulting in leads and sales. They both increase brand awareness and familiarity with your business, and increase traffic, whether it is targeted traffic, paid traffic, or general organic search traffic.

Difference Between SEO and SEM

The key difference is that SEO optimizes a website or content to reach traffic from organic search results. For greater visibility to potential customers, a site needs to place higher in search results for related keywords. To place higher, careful optimization of keywords is necessary.

SEM, however, looks to get this visibility instead by paying for a visible placement on results. SEM “cheats” the system, since these paid ads automatically boost your website to the top of results, through the pay per click system.

There are some other differences in how these two work and perform.

Speed of Campaign and Length of Benefit of SEO vs. SEM

SEM can generate results almost immediately, while SEO takes a few months to ramp up. If you need quick results for your business, or have a time sensitive event or activity, SEM is a good solution; the benefits of SEM can halt just as quickly once the ads are no longer up.

SEO offers an ongoing, lasting way to generate traffic and leads. A solid SEO base naturally drives people to your website through organic traffic. Websites can place at the top of organic search results for years, generating leads and potential income with minimal additional effort. Organic traffic creates backlinks, which positively influences rank. As rank increases, a site gets more backlinks, creating a continuous cycle or reinforcing a dominant web page’s position.

ROI of SEO vs. SEM

SEO has more of an initial investment, with developing and implementing the strategy and content, but then continues to provide results with nearly no additional investment. It offers compounding returns, for a better ROI. Pages in the top three positions sustain themselves with little to no additional effort, generating more traffic for you consistently over time. However, maintaining an online presence helps reach and maintain this dominance.

SEM works more quickly and offers a rapid increase in revenue. However, as soon as the SEM campaigns stop, the increased revenue does, as well. Over a couple of years, the ongoing revenue from SEO offers a more cost-effective result and ROI.

Trust and Click-Through Rate SEO vs. SEM

According to WordPress, SEO has a higher click through rate and trust factor, as more users are aware that those spots showing at the top are paid-for ads, and show a preference for what is seen as more trustworthy content.

People click on SEO content because they are looking for information or it fits their search intent. Providing quality content, with enticing titles, and eye-catching images, that meets the search queries’ intent is rewarded with more clicks and a higher rating, which it is more trusted.

Audience and Purpose of SEO vs. SEM

SEO involves increasing the visibility of your web page and content, to drive potential customers to it, but SEM can directly improve sales, especially for smaller businesses. SEO also does not specifically target an audience; customers find you when they search for keywords and your web page shows on the search engine result pages. Through targeted ads, SEM allows you to target your audience directly.

SEO vs. SEM Testability

It takes a few months to determine the impact and efficacy of your SEO program and whether a keyword and content strategy works, or if more keyword research and planning is needed. With ad analytics, SEM is a good way to gain insights more quickly.

Dominating Search Engines

With SEO, you can take up a larger portion of search engine results, with images, videos, and more content in general, in a range of formats, including on-page SEO and off-page SEO, while SEM is restricted to the paid-for ad position, site links, and extensions.


Because of the requirements involved in generating the content, there is usually less competition in SEO, meaning that there may be more easily-won opportunities with this strategy. SEM has greater competition for paid keywords, driving costs up and making this strategy more difficult.

Capitalize On Both Strategies For Optimum Results

Barker Social specializes in digital marketing and content creation, and can set you up with a marketing campaign that will give your business the best return on investment possible. We can help you combine SEO and SEM to maximize the benefits of both strategies, and increase your online visibility in today’s competitive markets.

Todd Foster

As a dedicated Digital Marketing Strategist at Barker Social, I am passionate about helping businesses unlock their full potential online. With a focus on results-driven strategies, I aim to deliver measurable success for our clients.