SEO vs SEM: What’re the Differences and Which One is Right for You

As a brand, all marketers try to gain more attention and web traffic to grow their business and revenues. Search engine optimization(SEO) is one of the essential tools to achieve the goal of high ranking in search engine results. A higher rank in SERPs gives you better visibility and users are more likely to click on your website URL. But before you venture into the field of SEO you must understand how to compare SEO vs SEM.

The intent of both the strategies is the same but you cannot treat them as the same. You need to have clarity on SEO vs SEM so that you have a definite and effective strategy for increasing visibility in search engine results.

Basics of Search Marketing(SM)

Any strategy that can get you better ranking in search engine results pages (SERPs) comes under Search Marketing. It includes all the efforts you take to better your visibility in search results so that you increase web traffic to your web site or specific pages on your web site. The 2 main components of Search Marketing are:

  • SEO – This employs organic strategies to appear in search
  • SEM – This employs paid strategies to appear in search

So primarily, SEO vs SEM is Organic Listing vs Paid Ads. 

With the evolution of the search industry and its changing terminologies, many consider SEM as an umbrella term for both PPC (pay per click) and SEO. But for you to have a clear marketing plan you must break these terms into different categories since these terms could mean different things to different marketers.

Your marketing partners must be clear on these terminologies so that all of you are on the same page while devising your campaign. We will see all the major differences as well as similarities in our SEO vs SEM vs PPC section in the later part of this article.

What is SEO?

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. This part of the search marketing uses organic tactics to get higher ranking in search results, mostly creating quality backlinks. Brands that use SEO do not have to pay for appearing higher in SERPs. They utilize a variety of techniques that make search engines rank them higher owing to their valuable content and domain authority. SEO techniques can be grouped under 3 categories as outlined below:

Ranking your website through SEO takes time, especially when the keywords you’re targeting has a good competition.

  1. On-Page SEO – This comprises of all the methods employed on the pages of your website. The many aspects of this strategy includes Keyword Research, Keyword Optimization, Inserting a good  Meta Description, Tags, Title, checking up Content Quality, and more. The various components of on-page SEO help search engines understand the content of your page and what your business does so that they can be ranked higher in the search engine results pages in accordance to the niche of your business.
  2. Off-Page SEO – This takes care of building a brand’s reputation online. This is done by having external links to web sites that have Domain Authority(DA) in your niche, Managing Local Listings, Managing Directory Profiles, and more. Off-Page is mostly getting good backlinks from authoritative websites, of your niche. Now, the backlinks can be of various types, you need to choose strategically. These strategies help in making your website appear trustworthy to the search engines. A reliable and reputed website would automatically gain a higher ranking in SERPs.
  3. Technical SEO – This is considered as a leg of on-page SEO. You would employ this technique to better your backend structure and foundation of your website. It aims at optimizing the non-content elements of your website like site canonical tags, speed, mobile-friendliness, indexing, crawlability, structured data, security, and site architecture. Let’s face it: No one likes a slow website!

What is SEM?

SEM stands for Search Engine Marketing and is a paid method of getting visibility in search engine results. It involves both setting up and optimizing ads along with setting aside a budget to pay for the placement of ads. Google ads (earlier known as Google Adwords) is the search provider that is widely used for SEM strategy. In this method, brands do keyword research for the best keywords in their niche (products, services, or industry) and run campaigns that target these keywords. When those keywords are searched by users, the ads which target these keywords appear either at the top or the bottom of SERPs. The various advertising services that can be used in different search engines are:

  • Google ads in Google
  • Bing ads in Bing
  • Search ads in Yahoo
  • Baidu advertising in Baidu

It depends on your budget, region, target audience, etc which services or a bunch of services you want to choose for your SEM goals. To implement SEM, you should formulate some core strategies like:

  • Determining your region and target audience
  • Analyzing your competitors in the market
  • Collecting search queries or keywords
  • Analyzing the collected queries and pick the ones that suit your business the most
  • Creating an ad campaign
  • Analyzing and optimizing your ad campaign


While discussing SEM vs SEO we will look both at their similarities and differences.

  • Similarities between SEO and SEM 
    • Help brands get high ranking in search results
    • Help in increased web traffic to your site
    • Both need testing and a continues optimization effort
    • For both, you need to know your audience in-depth
    • Both need ample research on keywords to find out the most popular terms
    • They both need to target keywords in their strategies.
  • SEO vs SEM – The main differences


  • In search placements, it has the “Ad” designation. It appears as an icon placed next to the result.
  • They have an ad extension
  • Each time user clicks on SEM result the website needs to pay
  • You can choose your target audience specifically with SEM
  • SEM can put your results ahead of others immediately. As soon as you launch your SEM campaign, your ads would start showing in SERPs.
  • You can turn the SEM ads on and off with just a click. This way it is great for testing and revising your ad copy, target audience, change landing page, etc,
  • This is a costly affair compared to SEO


  • It appears as an organic result with no “Ad” designation.
  • They have featured snippets
  • Nothing needs to be paid when an SEO result is clicked
  • There is no way to choose who sees your website in SEO
  • t needs time for SEO to take effect. 
  • Testing can not be accomplished through SEO. It is a time taking process with SEO to implement changes and monitor the difference in results.
  • SEO is cheaper than SEM

Depicted below is an example of how SEO vs SEM results look in Google

Which strategy to choose for my brand?

Now that you are aware of SEO vs SEM, it is time to understand which one is better for your business. To do that, let us consider a few parameters: 

  • Analyze your competition – If there is a lot of competition for your target keywords then SEM would be your choice for search marketing. Whereas if your website has lots of organic content gaps then you must focus on SEO.
  • How well do you know your industry – If you have been in the game for a long time and have a good knowledge of what your customers want then you must try to build a long-term SEO strategy to get value over time. But if you are unsure of your ideas, customers, competitors then SEM can provide you with a quick means of testing your ideas and picking which works.
  • Find out buying cycles of your customers – SEM is advisable if your customers buy in short intervals i.e., they know what they want, search for it, and buy them immediately. SEM would put your ads right at the top where customers can see it. But if your customers take time to research and compare products for weeks then SEO should be your choice since SEM will not bring you any benefits for longer buying cycles of customers.
  • Consider how old your online business is – If you have just started selling online then it is a good idea to implement SEM while you continue building your SEO strategies. Once you have built a reputation and a fair degree of hold in the market, you could let your SEO do the job of listing you higher up in SERPs.
Our Recommendation: For Best results, choose SEM and SEO both. How? If you need immediate leads and sales for your business, trying beginning with SEM, and keep your seo going in the back end. When your website is successfully ranked for your targeted keywords, you can stop your ads and save the money!


Here is a quick comparison between the 3 strategies:


  • This is the backbone of digital marketing
  • Helps in organically listing your website higher in SERPs
  • You can control how web traffic is driven to your site by using many tools and methods on your webpages
  • It is a low-cost SEM option


  • This is the umbrella under which all search marketing strategies fall
  • It can be defined as the process of increasing traffic to your web site by buying ads on search engines
  • It involves both free (SEO) and paid (PPC) tactics


  • In PPC or pay per click model, the advertiser pays for every click on their ad which brings a user to their website
  • The payment is done by the advertiser to the host of the platform where their ads are placed
  • It is a form of paid SEM and advertising done through Google ad, Bing, and other search engines.


Though the main objective of both strategies is to help brands appear in search results, the main difference between SEO and SEM lies in the way search results show them. SEO comes up in organic searches and is free while SEM is a paid search. SEM results are shown with Google Adwords sign in the search results. SEM combines the aspects of both SEO and PPC (paid per click).

Google Adwords is a well-known and effective platform to use for SEM. SEM advertising campaigns use Google Adwords for lead generation in B2B companies. Google shows SEM search results with the Google Adword sign. 

SEM can impact SEO or organic search results. Searchers are more likely to click on the organic listing but searchers who have earlier engaged with a website through paid search may be more inclined and engaged to click on the same site when they see it in the organic listing. About 2 to 3 percent of all clicks go to the paid searches while organic listing receives 47 to 57 percent of clicks. But what the user searches for also affects the CTR.

For example, if someone searches for dining room table lighting one would get rich image ads on Google with ads below that. The organic search results would come after these. In that case, 25 to 50 percent of clicks would go to paid searches. Another factor is that with paid ad links you boost your link profile, coverage, sharing, mentions, etc. This would eventually lead to a better organic ranking.

There are mainly 2 types of SEM strategy which is aimed at giving you better visibility in rankings. They are:

Search Engine Advertising – In this method, you pay search engines like Google, Bing, or Yahoo so that an ad will appear on top of their search results. These search engine ads typically appear at the very top of the search engine results page (SERPs), just above organic results. These ads have an “ad” label.

Paid submission – This is a method in which a company’s information and its website are listed in paid online directories. The editors of these directories manually review all the submissions and once approved these submitted websites are permanently listed. Paid submissions can increase the online citation of a company and that in turn affects its visibility in search engines. The owner of the websites must submit consistent information across all directories, the required information is called NAP that stands for name, address, and phone number. By doing so the accuracy of data for indexing a business by search engines is improved.

No, SEO comes under the organic listing. In SEO, one uses various techniques to get higher ranking in search engine results without having to pay for it.

SEM is about using paid advertisements to market your business in SERPs. An SEM campaign is an online ad campaign that can be created in Google ads or Bing ads along with other social media sites that allow it (like FB, Instagram, etc.). Though SEM’s focus is on search engine results, some marketers can also extend it to include news feeds on social media platforms. In order to create an SEM campaign, you need to take care of the following hierarchy:

  • Account
  • Campaign
  • Ad groups

To create a successful SEM campaign, one must follow some of the best practices. For example, let us say you have a spa center and you want to promote its features. So you must create different ad groups for each of its unique features. For example, one ad group for massage service while another ad group for your salon services. Some of the key elements of the SEM campaign are outlined below:

  • Check the trending keywords
  • Know your audience
  • Use advanced targeting options
  • Best practices for ad structure
  • Run ad experiments
  • Make use of ad extensions
  • Create a spectacular landing page

To assess the performance of your landing page, have your family and friends visit your page and get their feedback. 

When you want to decide between SEO vs SEM, you must consider your budget, business goals, and also whether you want long-term or short-term effects. SEO would get you targeted traffic in long-term while SEM would quickly attract potential customers.

There is no quick formula that would let you decide between the 2 strategies. The right approach could involve a combination of both SEM and SEO and not pondering on SEO vs SEM. After going through the similarities and difference of SEO vs SEM, we are sure you are now in a better position to decide between the two.

Also read: Total Guide to On Page SEO in 2020


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