If you own a business and want to increase website traffic, you’ll have to invest in search engine optimisation. The goal is always the same: more people visiting your website means a higher ROI. This is where SEO VS SEM confuses many newbies.

Search marketing refers to any tactic that is used to help a business or brand receive more attention by appearing higher on search engine results pages. Search marketing consists of SEO and SEM.

They may sound similar, but SEO and SEM are not the same. They are both forms of search marketing but they’re also very different in many ways. Keep reading to find out what their differences are and how to choose between the two.

SEO vs SEM What’s What?

SEM focuses on paid strategies that help a website rank higher, while SEO focuses on organic strategies. SEM is more of a short-term solution, while SEO is all about organised and long-term tactics.

SEM (Search Engine Marketing) uses paid tactics to gain visibility in search engine results pages. SEM is also referred to as pay-per-click (PPC) marketing. Platforms, such as the popular Google Ads, allow businesses to create campaigns that target the highest-ranking keywords for their respective industries.

Different keywords come at different prices. Highly competitive keywords will obviously be more expensive. Users that are searching for those keywords will have the brand displayed on top of their results. Google will then charge for every individual click.

SEO is a bit more complicated. SEO is all about the methods that will prompt search engines to show a website’s content near the top of their results. Quality content that’s informative and authoritative will always rank higher with search engines. But SEO is much more than that.

On-page SEO focuses on specific keywords that appeal to search engines. Successful pages contain the right information and the right amount of keywords. A combination of shorter (head) and longer (long-tail) keywords are used to maximise visibility and increase organic traffic.

Technical SEO is concerned with the optimisation of non-content elements that have to do with a website’s structure and foundation. Its goal is to increase site speed and security, manage structured data and indexing, improve crawlability and provide mobile users with a better experience.

Off-page SEO increases a website’s reputation by connecting it with other authoritative websites that receive a lot of organic traffic. A website that is linked to often is seen as reputable and trustworthy by Google’s engine.


SEO and SEM focus on different strategies but are also similar in many ways. If people are clicking on a website, then search marketing has done its job!

Both SEO and SEM work best if you’re familiar with your target audience. If you know what your customers want, then it’s easier to build an effective marketing strategy around them. Creating content that is valuable to your audience should be your number one priority.

Both SEO and SEM require keyword research. To rank highly with search engines you need to identify those keywords that perform best and which will bring you the most traffic. These change constantly so you need to make sure you’re always up-to-date with the latest trends.

This is why SEO and SEM require continual optimisation. It’s not just something you do once and can then completely forget about it. If you want to increase and maximise performance, you need to test and monitor new and existing keywords.

Google’s Keyword Planner, which is now incorporated into Google Ads, is a great free tool that lets you search and find the best keywords. Keyword planner suggests keywords based on:

  • Relevance
  • Average monthly searches
  • Keyword competition from high to low
  • Top of page bid low and high ranges

A recent update has made the interface less user-friendly so if you’re looking for more detailed information, make sure you check our new Google Keyword Planner Beginner’s Guide.

Main Differences

Websites and pages that have ranked high as a result of SEM come with an “Ad” icon that is attached right next to the website’s URL. A page that’s ranking as a result of consistent SEO carries no such label.

Most users can easily identify which pages are the result of paid SEM and which rank highly due to strategic SEO. Ranking highly through SEO is therefore much more difficult (and preferable) than ranking highly through SEM.

SEM search results are easily identifiable as advertisements. They include additional links, promotions and phone numbers. Users can easily tell that they’re looking at an ad and can ignore it as easily. Google may reward high-ranking SEO websites with featured snippets. These sought-after snippets display more information from the target website in the form of a large text box.

SEM results only show to a select target audience. With SEO, there is no way to control who sees what. Also, keep in mind that users who have ad blockers installed will only see SEO results. This can be a problem if you focus too much on SEM but ignore SEO tactics that drive organic traffic.

That being said, SEM is better for testing specific keywords because results are immediate. If you’re running a special promotion or want increased traffic short-term, SEM may work just fine. SEO takes more work but has a higher click-through rate once you make it to the top; no pain, no gain.

Which One Is Better

It’s hard to say whether an SEO or an SEM approach will be better for your business. For best results, you usually have to invest in both.

The first thing you have to do is look at what your competitors are doing. Tools such as SEMRush and SpyFu can help you with competitor keyword research. Look for any gaps that you can fill and areas that you will be able to compete in.

How well do you know your customers? Do they tend to search for a product and then immediately buy it? SEM can help you reach those customers that are looking to buy products and services right away. If your customers tend to do a lot of research before committing to a purchase, then a focus on SEO may be better for your brand.

If you’ve been in the industry for a long time, you may want to invest in a long-term SEO campaign, which will provide value over time. If you’re just starting out and don’t know how customers will respond to your product or service, you can invest in a short-term SEM campaign that will give you the opportunity to test the waters.

However, the average cost-per-click varies from industry to industry. If you’re just starting out, you may be unable to compete with SEM tactics. If that’s the case, you should build strong SEO foundations first and invest in SEM later.

Finding the perfect balance between SEO and SEM is certainly not easy. Do your research and be prepared to change plans and strategies as the market shifts. If you’re ready for your next big SEM campaign, you may want to take a look at our Google Ads Guide.