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SEO vs SEM: What’s the Difference? How Do They Work?

Adithya Kumar

November 17, 2022

Search engines like Google have been around since the beginning of the 2000s. They have evolved into the hub from which most consumers get their information and, in some ways, even more resourceful than specific libraries worldwide. Most brands know that the customer journey for most customers starts here and therefore is the perfect medium from which you can reach potential customers. 

So it is no surprise since Google observed that there are 2 trillion searches made on the platform daily. This platform is a launch pad for many businesses trying to get noticed and make their brand the go-to option for consumers looking to solve a problem.

Since most businesses know this fact, you can find yourself fighting to get the top spot on search engine result pages so you can get noticed. A lot of time, effort and money can go into figuring out how to show up on SERPs if you don’t know precisely how pages are ranked or how search engines can recognize your brand as a reliable consumer source. 

There are two methods by which you can achieve being noticed and ranked. The first is search engine optimization (SEO), and the second is search engine marketing (SEM). Both of these can help elevate your business in the digital landscape. Often, many marketers debate SEO V/s SEM: Which is better? The answer would require you to read on and decide for yourself. 

Search Engine Optimization

Simply put, this is how a brand can increase its organic visibility on search engines. SEO increases brand awareness and drives the desired audience toward your website. For example, a business needs to optimize its website to ensure it is an ideal landing page for oncoming consumers. This requires marketers to put together an off-site strategy. 

Most search engines like Google have algorithms that their AI uses to rank websites and position them when a user types in specific keywords. This ranking system is based on many factors, including content quality, webpage experience, links, etc. The main aim behind Google’s AI having such strict parameters is to give users the best results for what they search for. However, this can only be done if thorough screening is performed for rogue or spam websites. To ensure your SEO strategy is foolproof, you must follow a few necessary steps.

These steps are:

On-Page SEO

This technique requires you to optimize different elements on an individual webpage to assist search engines in understanding your page better. You can also find yourself adjusting your content to fit audience preferences. Other aspects, such as keyword intent, format, and comprehensiveness, can be included in this technique. The main aim behind this kind of optimization is to ensure that users understand your content, which will help them solve their queries perfectly. In addition, factors such as meta descriptions, titles, headings and images can also be optimized through on-page SEO for better visibility.

Off-Page SEO 

Off-page SEO is just as important as on-page optimization. This technique requires you to tap into your website authority potential. Now, this is also known as domain authority, which is vital in organic search rankings. For example, a website with quality authority backlinks will be scored higher in a SERP and therefore be noticed by consumers. 

Remember that backlinks are an essential factor to secure in terms of website ranking. Suppose your brand has an effective off-page SEO strategy. In that case, you can attract the right kind of attention to your website in terms of PR, social media, influencers collabs, and bylines, and you can build top-quality backlinks for your webpages. These links usually give your web pages more website authority according to the links they are attached to, which can be translated to the whole domain. 

Technical SEO

The technical aspects of your website or web pages need to be optimized. This is where technical SEO is beneficial, and it includes content management system, coding, scripts, page loading time, site speed, URL structure, etc. If you can optimize these elements, search engine crawlers will notice these pages and index them. The search engine AI will help get your site noticed if the website is technologically sound and stable. Technical SEO also ensures webpages operate within Google’s Core Web Vitals metrics. This way, consumers will have an excellent user experience, and your website will flourish.

Content Marketing

Finally, the last SEO technique is creating an effective content strategy for your website. This is a vital aspect of SEO since written content is one of the elements a consumer notices on a webpage. Suppose your content is well-written, informative, reliable and precise. In that case, Google AI will recognize it and rank your website high, thus ensuring the consumer that your website is trustworthy. The more keyword-rich and high-quality your content is, the more visible it will be to your ideal audience. 

Additionally, adding visual stimulates such as videos, images, memes and infographics will also contribute to how well consumers will receive your webpage. This incorporation will reach a larger audience and give a valuable starting point for link-building. 

Search Engine Marketing 

As discussed, SEO was aimed at organic awareness, while SEM focused on implementing paid marketing on search platforms. This is also used to gain more visibility for a brand in SERP and direct more traffic toward a website or webpage. SEM includes learning how the pay-per-click models work for ads, specifically on Google ads. If you decide to use paid ads, you must put together a budget, select ad types, run ad campaigns and write ad copy that captivates consumers. 

You must also be able to analyze various data collected when your ad runs on these platforms and determine whether your ads are successful. The ad campaigns can also be adjusted in real-time to appeal to different audience sets better. 

A couple of SEM components must be understood to take this marketing on. The first is bidding. For example, When you use Google ads, you use a paid feature to bid for specific keywords. If you use the pay-per-click model, each of these keywords is bid for, and if a consumer uses that specific keyword, your ad will pop up. The rankings of those ads are based on how much you are willing to bid. If you are the highest bidder, you can believe you will appear ahead of all the other ads. When a consumer clicks on your ad, you will have to pay the amount you big. This cost is known as cost per click or CPC.

Similarly, there is an equally important component called quality score. This is a Google metric used to rank your ad and to see if your ad matches what consumers are searching for. Google calculates this score based on a couple of factors such as click-through rate, landing page quality and your google account overall score. Google also gives marketers a discount on clicks if your google quality score is high. 

The next component is ad copy. This is straightforward and heavily influences your pay-per-click strategy. If your ad copy is well-written and clear, your click-through rate (CTR) will be high. Your quality score will also be high when you have a high CTR. Again, this would mean you pay less for a click. So with that logic, if your ad copy is of low quality, you will have a low CTR, and you might have to pay a lot more than you should. 

Below is an example of how you can manage your ad groups and optimize your ad spending effectively.

optimize your ad spending


Now that the two concepts are explained, it is time to explore the differences between these two reliable techniques.

The difference between SEO v/s SEM is:


It can be said that both SEO and SEM do have costs in terms of implementing the techniques into a brand marketing strategy. These costs affect ROI in different ways as well. For example, if you look at SEO, it is concerned with organic visibility for a brand that does not cost anything initially. But to optimize your brand’s web pages to be SEO effective, you need help and SEO specialists to get involved to sift through data and test different elements of your web pages. This kind of optimization takes time to see results. However, in the long run, some marketers observe that the ROI is much higher because the website will increase customers when optimized over time.

If you already have an SEO team, you will need to consider indirect costs like salaries, training, management and SEO monitoring technology. For example, hiring an SEO agency will also have your business paying a monthly fee and have an easier time setting up to start SEO activities. 

On the other hand, SEM is for short-term success. This requires paying for the services provided by a platform to use its ad feature. The effort it takes to implement SEM into your strategy is lower than SEO, and you will generate revenue quickly. For example, if you decide to run PPC ads, you can often budget your spending better in-house or through an agency. However, CPC costs could be expensive if they are run for long periods. As a result, some companies pay more for clicks than SEO functionality over a long period.

If short-term revenue is your objective, then SEM will surely be your first choice. But if you are planning for a longer-based strategy that could last up to 1-2 years, consider SEO your go-to. 


Time is a factor that most marketers must consider when they decide to have a marketing strategy for a brand. Whether you are looking for short terms results or the long game, this is where SEM and SEO diverge, as one is a short-term technique, while the other is a long-term one. The idea is that SEM can generate website traffic almost immediately through ads and different platform advertising features. At the same time, SEO could take months to get noticed and have genuine website traffic directly to a webpage or website. 

You need to decide how quickly you need your results. An instant drive of consumer traffic toward a webpage for an event or promotion would mean that SEM is the better option. But if you are launching a webpage that has high-traffic keywords and will be used to drive traffic over a long period and have a collective effect on website traffic, then SEO is perfect for this strategy.

Compounding Value

SEO is your brand’s best and only option if your business objective is to stay on top of SERPs for years. The ideal strategy will ensure that you will keep generating revenue with minimal investment over an extended period. Most of the costs you incur are in the beginning phases of SEO when you need to create quality content and initiate link building. Once you have established your webpage on the top position of a SERP, maintaining it is relatively simple and eventually becomes self-sustaining. Backlinks are generated through organic traffic, and this keeps your rank high. 

When you work on SEO, organic search results compound, and your website gains authority over a domain. This way, individual web pages also reap the benefits. SEO is the only marketing technique that adds value over time. On the other hand, SEM is a single-use approach to marketing. You put in money behind ads, and you get results immediately. Once your ad campaign finishes, you can also expect the leads and traffic to stop.


As mentioned, SEO takes time to generate revenue and results. Therefore, even testing to see if your SEO activities are working will take months. After you have optimized your web pages, the results of using specific keywords and content will only be visible over time. But, SEM can be tested and monitored almost immediately. Considering how fast-paced and effective this technique is over a short period, the insights you collect are readily available to analyze using monitoring tools. 

Additionally, marketers can even text keywords and ad copy using A/B testing. Bidding strategies can also be tested to see what budget brings you the best results. The real-time data you receive through SEM can assist brands in building up more appealing and functional landing pages for consumers who visit your website. All of this is done within a short period.

SERP Capability 

The ultimate goal for any brand is to be visible to many consumers at any time. The best way to do this is to appear on SERPs. SEO does an excellent job at capturing the best positions for your brand on these search engine pages. You can occupy multiple positions at once if you can implement your content strategy effectively. If you incorporate map listings, video content, People Also Ask links, images and snippets. You can find that your brand’s web pages can occupy whole SERPs at once. 

While SEM only offers marketers ad positions, extensions and site links, this is for a certain period when you stop paying for the position; another brand could easily take it up. SEO allows a brand to dominate whole pages on search engines, while SEM can dominate the ad space on a page.

Click-Through Rate (CTR)

Since SEO deals with the organic side of being noticed by consumers, some marketers say that it has a higher chance of getting better CTR than paid ads. However, it is not surprising since paid ads are overlooked when searching for a product or service, compared to organic results that pop up when keywords are searched. For example, every industry’s average CTR for Google Ads is 3.17%. In comparison, the top organic position in a Google search has a CTR of 34.2%

This should be taken under supervision since it was also observed that the 3rd position on Google’s result page could gather around 8-10% CTR. However, it can be assumed that consumers trust organic search results more than ads, but ads are still needed to spark interest in a user’s mind and generate interest for a conversion.

If you review these differences and see where you stand on SEO vs. SEM, you can deduce that both have valuable pros and cons. The only way to determine which search engine technique suits you is by figuring out your business objective and ensuring you implement either SEO or SEM effectively. A helpful tip to remember is that for short-term results, you should opt for SEM. SEO is ideal if you plan to have slow but compounding results. 

However, managing both techniques can be challenging, primarily if you focus on your brand’s business side. This is why hiring a digital marketing agency like SV Digital to handle your SEO or SEM requirements is the best option for business. 

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