SEM vs SEO: What’s the Difference?

  • Samuel Darwin
  • May 20, 2022

Gaining website traffic for your business requires an effective marketing strategy. While preparing your marketing strategies, you will have come across two common terms: Search Engine Marketing and Search Engine Optimization. This article will explain them both and help you determine your search query SEM vs SEO.

What is SEM?

Search Engine Marketing or SEM focuses on driving traffic to your website via organic and paid searches. The biggest drawback in SEM is that you may have to have knowledge of tools like Google ads. If you are not proficient with such tools, hiring a search engine marketing professional is recommended.

SEM results are always on the top of search engine results with an “ad” tag attached. The following are examples of how the SEM process is carried out:

  • Paid ads.
  • Targeting particular keywords.
  • Preparing advertising campaigns within an allocated marketing budget.
  • Consider Key performance indicators like click-through rates and cost-per-click as your metrics.

What is SEO?

Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, focuses solely on driving traffic to your website via organic search results. SEO practices do not require you to understand technical jargon but a basic understanding of how search engines work will help you ace the game of SEO.

When considering SEO, the following factors are considered:

  • Quality of content on your website.
  • External and internal links are added to your content.
  • Title tags.
  • Image

Difference Between SEO and SEM

The very first difference between SEO and SEM is that SEO falls under the category of SEM. SEM focuses on organic search results that are SEO practices and paid ads/ Pay per click (PPC.)

SEM involves SEO and PPC.

The following information will help you understand how SEO and SEM work and the cost and time required to rank your website.

How does SEO work?

Search engine optimization is a technique of optimizing your website often to rank your website in organic or non-paid search results. Google uses a lot of factors in ranking a website; the following four main categories will help you figure out how SEO works:

  • On-page SEO
  • Off-page SEO
  • Technical SEO
  • User Interaction Signals

On-page SEO

On-page SEO comprises the efforts you take in keyword research, adding keywords to your title tags, meta descriptions, and web page URL. This helps your search engine crawlers list your web page based on the keyword search by website visitors.

Off-Page SEO

Off-page SEO includes link building strategies. Building links from other websites signals search engine crawlers that your website is trustworthy and authoritative. Search engine ranking factors include the website’s “Expertise, Authoritativeness, & Trustworthiness (EAT)” and “social media marketing”.

Technical SEO

Technical SEO includes reducing your website’s loading time/ speed, optimizing your website for all devices, including content such as site maps and navigation. Technical SEO ensures your website design is responsive to all devices and there is no time lag when loading web pages.

User Interaction Signals

Search engine optimization helps in reducing the bounce rate of your website. Bounce rate is yet another factor that will stop your website from ranking. Bounce rate represents users that don’t find answers on your website for their search queries, or who visit one page and then “bounce”, or leave your site. When the bounce rate is high, search engines consider your website less trustworthy and will remove your ranking from the first page.

How does SEM work?

Search engine marketing is the best way to build brand awareness. This method helps list your brand at the top of the page when search queries have your targeted keyword. SEM is a great way to drive your target audience to your website.

SEM includes SEO and PPC in its process. Both have their own features; let’s dive into knowing how SEM works:


Paid ads are all about bidding, be it Google ads, Bing ads, or Yahoo ads. You select a particular keyword and bid on it. And when a user searches for your keyword, you appear at the top of the search engine result page.

The higher the amount of money you spend on bidding is proportional to your ranking on result pages. If you pay $5.00 for your keyword and your competitor bids $4.95, your website will rank first. And when one user clicks on your website, you need to pay the amount you bid. This is called cost per click (CPC.)

Quality Score

Quality score is a search engine’s or Google’s way of determining if your ad is answering search queries. This is an important Google ads metric. The quality score is calculated based on the following:

  • Combination of click-through rate.
  • Quality of your landing page.
  • Your Google ads account’s overall quality score.

If your website’s quality score is high, you get a discount for every click on paid advertising.

Ad Copy

Your ad copy is where you get to attract your target audience. If your ad copy is not compelling or doesn’t receive any clicks, your paid ad campaign will get expensive. On the other hand, if your ad copy is compelling and makes your target audience click on your ad, your CTR (click-through rate) increases, eventually improving your quality score.

SEM vs SEO: How Long To See Results?

The significant and noteworthy difference between SEM and SEO is the speed to fetch results.

If your website is new, SEO might need time to drive traffic, while SEM drives traffic in comparatively less time.

However, if you stop with your PPC ads, the traffic to your website also slows. Though SEO takes time, it allows you the opportunity to build a community with organic traffic.

SEM vs SEO: How Much Does It Cost?

Since SEM involves PPC, your marketing strategy needs to figure out the advertising budget. On the other hand, SEO isn’t free either.

SEO also involves cost. You are not going to pay for the clicks in SEO; however, in optimizing your website, you need to incur a few charges during the process, like signing up for a keyword tool finder or other SEO tools, and the time that it takes. SEO costs entirely depend on the tools you prefer or any professionals you approach.

Frequently Asked Questions

When should I consider SEO for my website?

The following are the times when you can prefer SEO for your website:

  • When your ad budget is limited.
  • You are ready to wait for organic search results.
  • You have good link building strategies.
  • You focus on informational keywords.

When should I consider SEM for my website?

The following are the times when you can prefer SEM for your website:

  • You have a steady flow of ad budget.
  • You can manage your Google Ads account.
  • You can test and launch landing pages.

In what instances can I use both SEO and SEM for my website?

You cannot ignore SEO or SEM. You need these two to drive traffic to your website based on your business goals. However, trying to handle both, in particular, might be overwhelming. If you have enough staff to handle and manage your accounts, you can simultaneously manage SEM and SEO.


SEM and SEO have their own features and benefits to reap. However, you cannot narrow it down to one and ignore the other. If you ask me why SEO and SEM are required to drive traffic to your website, I’d say both are required. Because your website will require both organic and paid ad traffic to maximize visibility. It’s up to you to decide when to carry out SEM and SEO based on your business goals.

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