SEO vs SEM: A Look at the Main Differences

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By Boris Dzhingarov

It is essential that every business has an established online presence so they can easily communicate with existing customers, as well as being a method of appealing to and generating future customers. Businesses often establish and develop this online presence by implementing a digital marketing strategy. SEO and SEM are techniques of internet marketing that have become increasingly popular among marketing strategists and businesses in recent years. Let’s look at what each of the tactics involves and some of the main differences between the two marketing concepts.

What is SEO?

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization and refers to the process of maximizing the number of visitors to a website through ensuring that the site is listed highly on search engine generated results. There are several ways of doing this, including developing a social media presence and focusing on a website’s local SEO optimization.

What is SEM?

SEM stands for Search Engine Marketing and is an internet digital marketing strategy that promotes websites through increasing their visibility in search engine results pages by optimizing and advertising tactics. This can include Pay-Per-Click (PPC) advertising and Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO).

However, a technique of SEM includes SEO, which means that the two terms are very similar, and interlink as part of a marketing strategy. However, they are different concepts with different meanings, so it is essential that they aren’t used interchangeably.

Cost is a Main Difference

One of the main differences between SEO and SEM is how much they cost. SEO is the process of improving visibility for a website by using the search engine’s organic and cost-free search results. SEM, on the other hand, is a paid service that involves the search engines being paid to make your website display above the organic search results.

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Put simply, SEO is free, and SEM is paid. SEM draws upon other methodologies in online marketing that can increase the traffic and audience numbers a website receives, through techniques such as PPC advertising.

Therefore, whether a company decides to use SEO or SEM tactics can depend largely on their available resources and how much of a budget they can spend on developing their online presence. This generally makes SEO tactics preferable to low budgeted agencies, and SEM more likely to be used by big budgeted agencies.

Immediate Vs Long Term Benefits

Another of the main differences is the time it will take for a website to feel the benefit of increased traffic and visitors by using SEO and SEM strategies. When using SEO tactics, it can take a while to develop an internet presence enough so that a website appears high up in a search engine results list. Content needs to be created, such as blog posts or a developed social media account, and this can be a lengthy process which will take time.

Similarly, the content needs to be appealing to users in order to encourage them to click. SEO techniques can take between weeks and even months to start to influence search engine result listings. Whereas, with SEM it can take less than an hour to set up a Google Ad campaign which will almost instantly start driving traffic to a website. However, once SEO does start to work and a website is high up on the listings, it is likely to stay up there for a good amount of time.

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Yet, this isn’t the case for SEM. As soon as the ad budget runs out, the ads will no longer appear. Similarly, organic results tend to get more clicks than the paid ad search results as they are clearly labeled as ‘Ads’ which can deter some people. Search results that are natural are therefore not labeled as ‘Ads’.

Audience Targeting

By using SEM, a website can have more control over the different audiences they are trying to attract. Paid ads give providers the opportunity to choose what day, time and in which countries the ads will appear. For example, if a website wishes to target an older audience, they may find that daytime hours, Monday to Friday, are the best time to gain an older person’s attention. Unlike SEO, SEM also gives the opportunity to track exactly what search results were used for a visitor to find a website via Google which led them to click. This data is limited in organic search results.

Having data on commonly used search terms that have led visitors to a website can be essential information when developing an internet marketing strategy. If a website has access to this data, then they can use it in other areas of their strategy. For example, blog posts could be created that have the common research terms as key terms in the blog’s content. This is a technique of SEO, which shows that SEO and SEM can be used together for the best effects.


It can be difficult to fully understand the differences between these two marketing strategies, but through understanding both concepts, they can be great ways to improve a website’s online presence. While there are arguments for and against both concepts, it is more effective to use them together for the best results.

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SEO should be used by websites even though it can be time consuming, as it is a free way to gain internet traffic through search results credibility. However, SEM can give a website an extra boost of traffic to complement the gradual SEO benefits. Similarly, the data collected through paid ads as part of SEM can help to make SEO tactics more effective.

Despite the competition that sometimes exists between SEO and SEM techniques, they are both essential aspects of an online marketing campaign, and for the success of a website. Deciding which one is best for a website depends largely on the website’s content, targeted industry, and website aims. It will also depend on the development stage of the website. For example, if it is a new website, then it is likely to require and benefit from immediate traffic boosts, whereas a more established website may be able to receive the gradual benefits of organic visitors. Whether using both or just one of these techniques, they will be sure to boost a website’s online presence.