SEO vs. SEM: The Difference & Which is Better?

As you plan your marketing budget, your main goal is to achieve the most incredible possible growth at the lowest possible expense. When allocating funds to increase revenue via your website, you must evaluate both short-term advantages and long-term profitability. In other words, you must consider SEO versus SEM.


Of course, we are all aware that it is not as simple as one vs. the other. 

So, what is the ideal combination? How do you cash out enough of your SEM coins to meet your immediate objectives without depleting your capital and impeding future growth?

What is SEO?

Search engine optimization (SEO) boosts organic (non-paid) presence in search engines to raise brand awareness and attract targeted traffic to your website. SEO necessitates both an optimized website and a well-thought-out off-site plan.


Google Search uses hundreds of different signals to rank web pages. Among the ranking factors are high-quality content, a positive page experience, links, and other characteristics. Google’s ultimate goal is to offer the best answers to searchers’ searches.


To compete effectively in organic search engine results pages (SERPs), some of the vital SEO tactics described below must be implemented.


On-Page SEO


On-page SEO is the practice of optimizing the elements of a particular web page to assist search engines in understanding what the page is about. It also ensures that your material meets user expectations regarding keyword intent, format, and thoroughness.


In other words, did you answer the user’s problem as well as you could? Optimizing page components like meta, title tags, headings, and image alt tags is also part of on-page SEO.


Off-Page SEO


Website authority has a significant impact on organic search rankings. Domains with more high authority backlinks generally do better in organic search. Backlinks are, in fact, one of the top three ranking determinants.


A well-crafted off-page SEO approach employs press releases, social media, influencer collaborations, and standard outreach to develop relevant backlinks. These links convey authority to the URLs to which they link as well as the entire domain.


Technical SEO


Technical SEO is the optimization of a website’s technical components. CMS, coding, scripts, site speed, URL structure, XML sitemaps, schema, and other elements are often included. As a result, search engine crawlers can find, browse, and index the appropriate sites.


Furthermore, technical SEO guarantees that web pages follow Google’s Core Web Vitals measurements to provide the optimal user experience.


Content Marketing


SEO requires a high-quality, all-encompassing content strategy. But what does it mean? It means that whatever you post is well-written, authoritative, and trustworthy. 


Put, a well-researched keyword strategy combined with high-quality content that corresponds with user intent aids in ranking your website.


Adding original visuals like videos, photos, screenshots, memes, and infographics can also influence your SEO results. This is because these aspects reach a larger audience and aid link-building strategies.

What is SEM?

Search engine marketing (SEM) uses sponsored search platforms to increase a website’s exposure in search results and drive more focused traffic to it.


To have your brand appear in search results, you must purchase pay-per-click (PPC) ads from Google Ads, Microsoft Ads (Bing ads), Yahoo, or other search engine advertising programs.


The capability to plan a budget, capitalize on numerous ad kinds, conduct cost-effective ad campaigns, generate compelling ad copy, and evaluate data to assess the worth and performance of the advertising is required when using sponsored ads. It also can continuously optimize campaign and ad performance by tweaking the various campaign levers.

How Do SEO & SEM Differ?

The primary distinction between SEO and SEM is that SEM buys search presence while SEO earns it. As a result, SEM competes on budget, whereas SEO competes on quality and relevance.


Here are some more distinctions between SEO and SEM.




It’s worth noting that both SEO and SEM have implementation costs that impact ROI. SEO is more expensive to adopt due to the number of people required, and it takes longer to generate results. However, due to compounding returns, it ultimately offers a significantly more significant ROI.


On the other hand, SEM has a shorter ramp-up period, requires less lift, and generates income more immediately. If you compare costs in the short run, SEM will win. However, SEO comes out on top when extended to 24 months. Here’s an example:


There are expenditures for salary, benefits, training, management, and an SEO technology stack if you have an in-house SEO staff. Instead, if you deal with an SEO service, you will pay a monthly cost and have a significantly shorter ramp-up period to production.


PPC advertising frequently offers lower prices for an in-house team or agency. However, you must consider the advertisements’ increased cost per click (CPC). Depending on your area, budget, and the type of agency you deal with, these expenditures might run into millions of dollars per month.


Companies sometimes pay tenfold more for ad clicks than monthly SEO charges, even though SEO can result in cost savings and better business performance. Read our piece about the upside-down strategy many brands adopt to SEO vs. SEM budgets for more information.


Results Duration


When comparing SEO versus SEM, time is a crucial factor. SEM initiatives can create traffic nearly quickly. In contrast, SEO can take months to produce significant traffic benefits.


Given the distinction, it is critical to prioritize your approach strategically. SEM is your best bet to swiftly drive traffic to a one-use web page for a seasonal event. But what if you want to create an evergreen content hub centered on a high-value term that will provide compounding value for years? You require SEO.


Compounding Value


SEO has a significant benefit in this situation. It’s the only option. With the appropriate method, your web pages can rank first in the SERPs for years, generating revenue with no investment.


This is because the majority of your SEO costs are incurred upfront. It takes a significant initial effort to develop content and build links. When a page ranks in the top three slots, its rating becomes self-sustaining. Organic traffic generates backlinks, which keeps or improves your rank, generates more, and so on.


And as your SEO improves, your organic search results compound over time. In other words, when the domain gets authority, individual web pages also benefit. As a result, SEO is the only marketing expenditure that grows in value over time.


SEM, on the other hand, only provides single, transactional gains. When an ad campaign ends, so do the traffic and leads. They return to zero as soon as the campaign is terminated.


Testing Possibilities


When you begin an SEO campaign and optimize your web pages, it can take a while to see the results and determine whether your keyword and content tactics are effective. Testing and insights take time in this manner.


On the other hand, SEM is a terrific marketing platform for quick testing and insight collecting. SEM allows you to test keywords, ad copy, and bidding methods far faster than SEO. This also opens up options to improve landing pages based on actual data in much less time.


Real Estate in SERPs


SEO allows a brand to get additional real estate in the SERPs. This can include highlighted excerpts, knowledge graphs, map listings, image or video carousels, intriguing finds, and other elements. You can occupy several entries in the search results by leveraging multiple digital assets.


On the other hand, SEM provides an ad spot, extensions, and site links. In other words, you may dominate the page via SEO. SEM allows you to get more real estate within a single ad on the page.


Click-Through Rates


CTRs from SEO are higher than those from sponsored ads. According to a WordStream survey, the average CTR in Google Ads across all industries is only 3.17% for search. Meanwhile, according to a Sistrix analysis, a #1 organic rank on Google might result in a CTR of 34.2%. Advanced Web Ranking’s organic CTR tracking shows that a #3 organic positions in Google frequently equates to a CTR of 8% to 10%.




It’s not even close when it comes to trust. Searchers trust organic search because they know such places are earned rather than bought. And, as Google has prioritized factors that configure user experience and quality of the content, the trust gap between SEO and SEM has become even more comprehensive.

Which is Better for Your Business?

When should you devote 100% of your efforts to SEO vs. SEM, and when should you blend the two?


These questions do not have a one-size-fits-all answer. Instead, a few factors, such as money, objectives, company status, and what your competitors are doing, can determine the superior alternative.

When Should You Use SEO?

SEO is a critical component of many firms’ marketing strategies. SEO’s long-term worth can range from increased traffic, lead creation, revenue, and online market share to increased brand awareness.


But when should you concentrate solely on SEO? Below are some situations that can help you decide.


Plenty of Time


SEO is different from a marketing approach that will produce fast results. It can take months in many circumstances to start bringing in organic traffic that can create leads and sales. However, if you’re developing an evergreen content hub, you’ll have more time.


Strong Internet Presence


SEO can help you manage the message in your branded search results. This includes using small sites, third-party digital assets, social networking sites, PRs, and news coverage in addition to your website. Controlling your brand’s SERPs more broadly is crucial in online reputation management.


Long-Term Commitment


SEO is very beneficial if you want to invest in your brand long-term. SEO initiatives can have long-term effects on brand and business development. Once a website has a high rating, its pages can rank first in the search result pages if adequately maintained.

When Should You Use SEM?

SEM provides the potential to ensure that a brand is instantly seen in search results. Advertisements display in the SERPs at either the top or bottom of the page. Top-of-page advertising is useful as searchers see the ads before viewing any organic results. Bottom-of-page positions can also be beneficial because they are the last choice a searcher sees when they scroll down the page.


Here are a few instances where focusing solely on SEM can be advantageous.


Immediate Action is Required


Because PPC can produce fast results, it is ideal for new brands or those just beginning their SEO efforts. You may have your budget set, advertising created, and visibility when a search is made in a short period.


Testing Keyword Effectiveness


If you want to launch an SEO or other marketing campaign but want to know which keywords and ad wording are most effective, an SEM campaign can help. In-depth keyword research and testing with a paid ad campaign help establish which keywords, messaging, time-of-day, and other marketing setups are most effective for driving traffic and converting clients.

When Should SEO & SEM Be Combined?

Because SEO and SEM techniques complement one another, many successful brands combine them.


Of course, running both concurrently will necessitate investment in both time and money. Before embarking on a combined search marketing strategy, it is critical to evaluate both sides. The following are some advantages of incorporating SEO and SEM into your digital marketing strategy.


Control the SERPs


Consider ranking #1 on a search engine and also having ad spots. This is known as dominating the SERPs and is effective in assuring your brand’s visibility compared to competitors.


Remember, though, that some of your bought listings may cannibalize organic clicks, costing you more money than required. As a result, regularly examine your paid keywords to ensure you’re not overspending.


Implement Remarketing Campaigns


Because the adverts do not display in the search results, retargeting is more about SEO than PPC. However, it is worth discussing because it is a linked endeavor that supports a holistic marketing plan.


Although your SEO efforts may result in a large amount of targeted traffic, that traffic may wait to convert immediately. Retargeting comes into play here.


You can actively bring those visitors back to your website and take the next step by targeting them with paid ads on platforms like LinkedIn or Facebook.

SEM Data Can Help You Improve SEO Efforts

PPC advertisements can also provide helpful information about search queries to help you with your SEO strategy. You may determine which search advertisements perform best-regarding user clicks and conversion rates by testing different pay-per-click campaigns in Google AdWords with specific keywords. You can apply what you’ve learned from the inorganic or paid results to your organic SEO efforts.