SEO vs SEM: Difference and What to Choose?


When choosing how to promote your website, you need to understand, “What are SEO and SEM?” In this post, we will discuss in detail these two marketing methods.

SEO vs SEM Basics

A search engine returns two types of search results, organic and paid.

Paid search results are shown when a business pays a search engine for clicks on the ads to its website. In other words, these are pay-per-click (PPC) ads. The paid search results are displayed in the first and last positions on a search engine result page. For example, Google marks paid search results with a Google Adwords sign.

Organic search results consist of search-relevant results shown for free.

The picture below shows examples of what Google displays if you search ‘SEO’.

Business owners can drive traffic to their websites by appearing in organic and paid search results through SEO and SEM promotion. Let’s take a closer look at SEO and SEM.

SEO Meaning and SEO Strategy

Search engine optimization (SEO) is a set of actions aimed at improving the website ranking in search results shown for search queries. These actions are targeted at attracting organic web traffic and customers.

Google analyzes a variety of factors to figure out how to rank web pages. It is important to optimize your website to get the TOP ranking for SEO.

SEO consists of technical, on-page, and off-page search engine optimization.

On-Page SEO

On-page SEO is an optimization of individual website pages and includes the following:

  1. Relevance. Page content matches the search query.
  2. Clear, simple, and structured text.
  3. Key phrases in the text, title, description, and H1-H6 tags.
  4. Explanatory alt tags for images.
  5. Unique content.
  6. Clear, short, and readable URLs.

It is important not to over spam the text with key phrases and to monitor text uniqueness. If you do not follow these principles, your website may be filtered by a search filter (like Panda or BERT in Google), which is an algorithm that reduces the distribution of low-quality content in search results.

On-page SEO brings results only together with off-page optimization. Having perfect content does not mean that your website will have TOP ranking.

Off-page SEO

Off-page SEO is off-site actions aimed at improving website ranking. This includes:

  1. Quality backlinks.
  2. Creating and maintaining a Google My Business account.
  3. Positive reviews.
  4. Personal brand development.

With the correct on-page and off-page SEO, a website will get a good ranking. There is also an important aspect of technical SEO.

Technical SEO

Technical SEO is aimed at making technical changes that help search engines effectively scan website content, evaluate, and index it. Technical optimization includes:

  1. Setting tags that help search bots index your website (canonical, hreflang, index/noindex, follow/nofollow, etc..)
  2. Optimization of page loading speed.
  3. Creation of an up-to-date Sitemap.xml
  4. Optimization of robots.txt file.
  5. Convenience for mobile UI.
  6. Configuration of server response codes.
  7. Optimization of website internal links (follow/nofollow, index/noindex).

You can find more details about all aspects of search engine optimization in this post – On-Page, Off-Page and Technical SEO for your site.

Some experts who know all basics of SEO, make a major mistake. They have no overarching strategy. The strategy is a fundamental factor in website promotion.

SEO Strategy

Website promotion should begin with a strategy. Plan and determine the steps aimed at improving your website ranking.

Typically, SEO strategy follows these steps:

  1. Audit your website (correct all errors).
  2. Build a semantic core.
  3. Analyze competitors.
  4. Create something new and different from your competitors.
  5. Write unique and relevant content.
  6. Off-page and technical SEO.
  7. Build external links.
  8. Update and add content.

SEM Meaning and SEM Strategies

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is a specific type of search engine marketing based on paid website displays in the search results. SEM is keyword-based and encompasses SEO and PPC elements.

Different search engines have advertising services that can be used for SEM:

  1. Google Adwords in Google.
  2. Bing Ads in Bing.
  3. Search Ads in Yahoo.
  4. Baidu Advertising in Baidu.

Depending on your region, target audience, and budget, you can choose one or several search engines for your business.

Just like for SEO, SEM needs a core strategy, which will allow you to reach the desired result. Let’s look at a few important strategical steps:

  1. Determine your target audience and region.
  2. Analyze the market and your competitors.
  3. Collect search queries.
  4. Analyze the list of selected queries and pick the most suitable for your business.
  5. Create an advertising campaign.
  6. Analyze the advertising campaign and its optimization.

Social media also offers paid views. It should not be confused with SEM. Promotion through social media is called Social Media Marketing (SMM).

In order to choose a specific method of promotion, one should understand the similarities and differences between SEO and SEM.

Differences between SEO and SEM

When we talk about the difference between SEO and SEM, we are actually discussing different promotion approaches.

The main difference is that SEM drives traffic through paid advertising, while SEO drives, monitors, and analyzes organic (unpaid) traffic.

SEO is the best marketing strategy for long-term results. Websites can receive 24/7 free traffic and take full advantage of search engine optimization.

SEM only works when you pay. Otherwise, views stop along with traffic.

When talking about SEO vs SEM, they have more similarities than differences.

What Do SEM and SEO Have in Common?

SEO and SEM rely on key queries to drive users to websites and pages. SEO selects key queries for the content, while SEM for their use in ads.

SEO and SEM marketing techniques are different, but both are aimed at getting traffic.

SEO is fundamental for quality SEM. If SEO and SEM are properly configured, there are more opportunities to get new users and improve conversion rates.

Nevertheless, sometimes you have to choose only one promotion method, often due to budget constraints or your business priorities. To choose a method more suitable for you, you need to understand the pros and cons of SEO vs SEM.

SEO Pros and Cons

Before the advent of Google algorithms like Panda or Penguin, black SEO methods were popular. Today, it is not that simple. Google has significantly improved its ranking methods, and now the success of your business promotion directly depends on the quality of your website. Let’s take a look at the main advantages of SEO:

  1. SEO is cheaper than SEM. The promotion costs do not depend on the number of clicks on the website. There is no need to pay for low-frequency queries, but they will still bring you additional traffic.
  2. SEO provides a continuous traffic stream. Every day, users enter millions of queries online. Knowing the interests of your target audience, you can drive free targeted traffic to your website.
  3. SEO helps grow your business. Search engine optimization helps new brands become famous by bringing them up in search rankings. The more key queries for which your website is in the top on the first page, the greater your audience reach. This makes your brand constantly visible. Even if you stop SEO, your website will have good positions for a while. When SEM stops, impressions stop, and the brand stops being visible online. Without visibility, your clients will never find you.
  4. SEO increases the credibility of your website. SEO helps your website appear in the top SERPs and earn credibility in Google. This will drive traffic and sales.
  5. Long-term effect. With the right strategy and implementation, your website will be ranked TOP for a long time. Even if you suspend your SEO campaign, your website will rank high for a while.

Despite the obvious advantages of SEO, there are some disadvantages:

  1. Promotion results take time. Typically, SEO takes three to six months, or even longer, before your website appears in the TOP. It is not always that your business can afford to wait that long.
  2. It is difficult to predict the results of the campaign. Due to the constant market changes, some products and services may not be relevant over the promotion period.
  3. You need to constantly update your content. Search engines pay attention to content relevance and uniqueness. Therefore, you should pay attention to updating website texts in order to stay up-to-date.
  4. It is difficult to choose the right strategy.  Finding the right strategy or keywords that will make your website rank high is challenging.
  5. You can get cut by the search filters. When re-optimizing your website, you can get cut by search filters, which will worsen your ranking, and website traffic and sales will drop.

SEM Pros and Cons

SEM is a paid promotion method. You need to understand its advantages and disadvantages very well to be able to use it. SEM advantages are:

  1. It expands the reach of the audience. You pay exclusively for clicks on your ad, which always shows on the first page of SERPs. You reach the audience available for a particular request.
  2. Lower chances of failure. With the right campaign settings, your ads will be relevant to search queries. Thus, by going to your website, the user will receive an answer to their question and this will reduce the bounce rate.
  3. Establishing brand identity. SEM allows you to appear on the first page of a search query. Therefore, even if you stop promoting through advertising, then the audience will already know your website when finding it through search. Thus, the brand will become recognizable, which will help establish your client base.
  4. Local small business development. You can set your ad for a specific geographic area, as small as one block. That will allow you to grow your business locally, which is beneficial to you.
  5. Speed. To appear on the first page, you do not need to wait 3 to 6 months. As soon as you start paying for advertising, your website will be displayed in the TOP.

With all these SEM advantages, it is difficult to believe SEM has any cons, but here they are:

  1. Building a strategy takes time. SEM is targeted marketing, and this means that a marketer must spend a long time developing the right strategy.
  2. Promotion can be costly. Clicking some search queries can be expensive, while for SEO, the transition to a website from the same search query is free.
  3. High competition. PPC is a constant fight to deliver your ads. Competitors can use your text ad and increase the cost-per-click to rank it higher. Their ads may be more relevant to the user search query and come up more often than yours. Here, the place is often taken by the one who pays more.

SEO vs SEM. Which Is Better for Your Business?

You need to figure out your budget and business goals before choosing SEO and SEM strategies and your method of promotion.

SEO helps you get targeted traffic long-term, and SEM quickly attracts potential clients. Still, it is better to use SEO and SEM in combination.

This means that first, you need to optimize your website, begin promoting it, and move on to contextual advertising. SEO and SEM together can bring excellent targeted traffic and conversions for your business.

This article was originally posted on SeoQuake.