SEO vs SEM What is the difference? 

SEO Techniques
SEO Techniques

Today doing business is simply a race. A race where search engines are the racing track and websites are racing among each other. To grow your business or metaphorically speaking win the race, you have to be at the very top. Search engines like Google have two types of search results: SEO and SEM paid results and organic results. 

-Paid results are those where companies pay for clicks to Google.
-Organic results are ones that Google displays in SERPs deeming most relevant to the query. 

This is where SEO and SEM come in. 

Businesses can use Search Engine Optimization (SEO) or Search Engine Marketing (SEM) to increase visibility in the SERPs.  

What is the difference between SEO and SEM?  

To put it simply, SEO is an unpaid strategy while SEM is a paid strategy. SEO encompasses the process of optimizing your website to rank higher and increase organic traffic. On the other hand, SEM implies paid strategies like Pay-per-Click (PPC) and SEO to bring both paid and organic traffic to your website. 

Although the definition of SEM always remains contradictory among the community. Some sources cite that SEO is a combination of Paid and Organic results while others believe that SEM is a paid technique.  

But with the passage of time, the perception has widely been changed and now SEM is considered as a paid method and all organic efforts fall solely under the umbrella of SEO. 

Let’s discuss both of these techniques in detail. 

What is SEO? 

SEO (search engine optimization) is the practice of improving your website to increase its ranking in organic search results.  

There are several factors that decide which page to rank for which query and at what place. But from all of these factors, there are three major factors. 

1: On-Page SEO:  

On-Page SEO is the process of optimizing your webpages for search engines. 

On-Page SEO factors include: 

  • Title tags 
  • Meta description  
  • Short and descriptive URLs 
  • SEO writing  
  • Image optimization with alt tags 
  • Keyword placement and cannibalization 
  • User engagement with improved design

2: OFF-Page SEO: 

Off-Page SEO is anything you do other than on your website to improve ranking. 

Example of Off-Page SEO tactics are: 

  • Backlinks to your website 
  • Enlisting in google my business 
  • Building citations 
  • Social signals for your brand 
  • Positive reviews

3: Technical SEO: 

Technical SEO refers to improving all the technical aspects of a website to improve ranking in organic search results. 

Characteristics to keep in mind for Technical SEO are: 

  • Improved page speed  
  • Crawlable for search engines 
  • Using canonical tags for duplicate content 
  • hreflang tags for multilingual content 
  •  Including XML sitemap

What is SEM? 

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is the process of getting traffic through paid tactics to improve visibility and traffic. It majorly relies on PPC (pay-per-click).  

SEM implies the use of PPC platforms like Google Ads and Bing Ads. Google Ads is arguably the most popular platform these days.  

Whatever platform you decide to choose there are certain things to keep in mind for successful SEM: 

  • Target a specific audience for your Ad campaign. 
  • Write an optimized ad copy 
  • Set Ad budget accordingly 
  • Analyze and monitor metrics like clicks, CTR, and cost-per-click 
  • Create social media Ads for target demographics 

Many other factors affect your Ad campaign, but these five factors are the basic and foremost important ones. With detailed keyword research and competitor analysis, you can launch targeted campaigns to place your product in front of your customers to improve traffic and sales. 

Ad campaigns include: 

  • Google Ads (textual) 
  • Youtube Ads 
  • Gmail Ads 
  • Display Ads 
  • Shopping Ads

What is PPC? 

With PPC you simply buy a slot in the search engine result pages (SERPs). So rather than waiting and working on SEO to rank your website, you pay for the top spot in the search results. PPC and SEM work alongside each other. In Fact, they are even considered the same technique by some people in the community. So every time our ad is clicked sending a visitor to our website. We have to pay the search engine. That is from where the name is derived, Pay-per-Click. But one thing that is important to keep in mind is that even if you pay Ad campaign, there is no assurity that it will be successful. For all, we know you could be throwing your money away. It is really important to build an Ad campaign that will accomplish your goals. Selecting and researching keywords, and inducting those keywords smartly into your campaign is important. Similarly, if your landing page is of no use for the visitor, then you are destined to fail. So create Ads and Ad copy of your web pages that will capture the eyes of your audience and will result in improved traffic, leading to higher profits. 

“SEO vs SEM”. What is the difference? 

Before you decide on using any of these techniques. You should be aware of the pros and cons of them so that you can make an aware decision. Some of the questions that need to be answered are: 

What is the Cost? 

Pricing for SEO and SEM varies according to different factors, including: 

Although SEO is considered an unpaid technique, there are indirect charges like hiring an expert to do it.  Still, with SEO you can rank your website at the top without paying anything.  

Websites that choose SEM or PPC, have to pay to get targeted traffic to their website. So you have to pay for the Ads and also for an expert to launch and manage the campaign. Therefore SEM is far more costly than SEO. so if you are on a budget so just go with SEO and if you want instant results then choose SEM. but in the long run of things SEO is better because the time you stop paying for Ads, you lose the traffic. 

How long Does it take?: 

SEO and SEM are the polar opposites of each other when it comes to “how long does it take”. 

Roughly stating the average time for both processes are: 

SEO: Around three to six months. 

SEM: instant results, as soon as you launch your Ad campaign. 

But this is just an estimate, as many factors govern the time frame required. 

Factors like nature of project, scale, industry, and Goals.  

So which one is better?. It depends on what end results you want. If you want to improve traffic right away then maybe go with SEM and if you want to work on your website for benefits in the long run of time, then there is no wrong going with SEO. it totally depends on how much time you can give it.  

What risks are involved? 

When you are dependent on SEO or SEM for your business, then it is important to consider the risks involved.  

With SEO you have to be patient, it takes time to deliver results. If you don’t have the patience or your business does not allow you to have the liberty of time then SEO might not be the right option. Let’s assume you start doing SEO for your business, but due to some reasons you quit and don’t invest the time required. It will not only hurt your business but you also wasted precious time and money. Another issue with SEO is to keep your website updated according to google updates. If there is an update in the Google algorithm and you don’t take the necessary steps to counter it, then it can hurt your business badly. 

For PPC or SEM the biggest risk is the cost of Ads. The cost of Ads is increasing day by day. If your business solely depends on paid traffic then there might come a time where the cost of advertisement surpasses your budget. Another risk is the loss of money. If you invest in paid traffic but your campaign fails to generate results in terms of revenue or customer base, as you were hoping for. Then you have wasted tons of precious money.  

SEO vs SEM – Which should you use?  

Now that we have compared both of the techniques it is time to figure out which one to use. The answer to this question is quite plain and simple; it depends.  

It depends on: 

  • What are your set goals: if you want to attract instant traffic to your website then choose SEM and if you want long term growth, SEO is for you. 
  • Your current standing: if you are just starting your business, it’s going to take time to improve organic traffic through SEO, but that doesn’t mean you should not use SEO. If you have an established business, then SEM will be suited for you. 
  • Your customer buyer cycle: If your customers know what they want, they just search for it and buy it, then you can use SEM, and if your customers take time and do their research before buying, then go with SEO. 
  • Cost-per-Click in your industry: SEM is a viable option if cost-per-click is low and within your budget, but if not then maybe SEO is a far better option. 
  • Knowledge of industry: If you are already set in the market and know what your audience wants, then go with SEM, but if you are testing and experimenting for the first time, and don’t know how the customer will react, then SEO is a safe option.

To give you a summary of all the points discussed above here is a table: 

Factor  SEO  SEM 
Cost  NO  YES 
Time Frame  Long Term  Short Term 
Type of Marketing  Inbound  Outbound & Inbound 
Targeting Market  NO  YES 
Channels to use  SEO  PPC, SEO, Display & more 



To be honest, there is no perfect answer to this question. There is a general belief that you cannot use SEO and SEM both at the same time. But i believe that if it suits your business model it is better to use both of the techniques. So that you get the better of both. Now you know the difference and similarities between both. So you can make an aware decision. It all depends on your business goals and what you want to achieve. So analyse your business model, put all your options on the table and then decide what you want to use SEO or SEM or even both of them. 

Author Bio 

Author Name: Abdullah Sadiq 


Abdullah Sadiq is a Digital Marketer enthusiast at UnitedSol Canada having years of experience in the field of Internet Marketing. He is a Social Media geek, a complete foodie, and enjoys trying varied cuisine. A perfect day for him consists of reading his favorite novels with a hot cuppa coffee.