A Digital Marketer’s Guide to SEO and SEM

SEO and SEM are terms that are often used together to describe the process or set of actions a business takes to optimize website performance on search engines. It's important for any digital marketing professional to understand the differences between these two terms in order to maximize their marketing results.

If you work with digital marketing and are looking to optimize your search performance, you might have come across the terms search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM).

SEO and SEM are terms that are often used together to describe the process or set of actions a business takes to optimize website performance on search engines. Search optimization has become an increasingly important practice in digital marketing as it helps increase website traffic, brand awareness, and most importantly, conversions!

With this in mind, it’s important for any digital marketing professional to understand the differences between these two terms in order to maximize their marketing results. So what exactly is SEO and SEM?

What Is SEO And SEM?

To put it simply, SEO is the process of optimizing a website to help it organically rank on the search engine results page (SERP). While SEM is the process of increasing visibility and website traffic through both organic and paid search.

When a customer uses a search engine like Google, SERPs can be divided into two simple categories: paid results and organic results.

Paid search results are the sponsored ads that appear at the very top of the result page. These ads are created through the use of pay-per-click (PPC) advertising using a platform like Google Ads. While organic search results are the website listings that appear below the ads on the result page.

A screenshot of Google's search engine result page.

With this in mind, you can now see that SEM is the broad term used to describe both SEO and PPC efforts.

The Difference Between SEO And SEM

In order to understand the differences between SEO and SEM, it’s important to focus on how paid advertising can affect your marketing results. Let’s take a look at the two biggest differences between SEO and PPC advertising:

1. Time

One of the biggest differences between SEO and PPC is the time it takes for you to be able to see, analyze and measure results.

The truth is that working on SEO alone takes time! In fact, it is said that on average a new website will take around 2 years to organically rank on the first page of Google’s search results. Implementing SEO best practices by focusing on off-page SEO, on-page SEO, technical SEO, and a user’s website experience, is the best way to get faster results.

With PPC advertising you are able to see an instant increase in website traffic! Working with a platform like Google Ads means you are able to bid for keywords customers would use to search for your product or service. Anytime someone searches for the specified keywords, your ads will be listed at the top of the results page. This means that if you set your ads live in the morning, you can expect to start seeing results later that evening. Pretty instant right?!

2. Cost

Many businesses prefer using SEO because it’s a “free” strategy that doesn’t require any upfront financial investment. However, ranking organically on the search engine results page requires a lot of resources. SEO means a lot of time will be spent researching keywords, creating amazing blog content, writing engaging meta tags and descriptions, and more. The biggest benefit is that once you rank organically you are pretty much all set!

On the other hand, if you focus on PPC advertising you require an up-front investment to get your ads running. PPC does allow you to control how much you are willing to spend to increase your website traffic, but, the biggest downfall is that once you decide to stop your ads, you will experience an instant decrease in website traffic.

Should I Use SEO, PPC Or SEM?

Let’s take a closer look at when to use SEO, PPC, or a mixture of both:


Limited Marketing Budget: If you are an agency or brand with limited capital to spend on digital marketing, SEO is the way to go! Even though you will not experience instant results, SEO will ensure you are setting yourself up for future success.

Focused On Content Strategy: If you are currently focusing on a strategy that drives more blog content, implementing SEO is a great way to rank for informational keywords. Informational keywords might not contribute to your conversion rate, however, they help build credibility and exposure due to its high search volumes.

Time: If you have the time to invest in SEO and are not focused on instant results, SEO will be your perfect strategy.

An image of a macbook and a women holding a phone.


Monthly Marketing Budget: If your agency or brand allows for a monthly budget for marketing campaigns, through PPC advertising you can set limits to ensure you do not spend more than your budget. Setting a monthly budget gives you the opportunity to explore what ad copies, keywords, and landing pages are giving you better results.

Proficient Working With Ad Accounts: If you are familiar with managing campaigns through an ad account, PPC advertising is the perfect fit for you. The truth is that working with paid advertising is not as simple as paying for ads and getting more traffic. Managing your campaigns means you require a high level of understanding of how your keywords, quality score, ad copy, and more can affect your return on investment (ROI).


The truth is that agencies and brands should always prioritize SEM. A good SEO strategy becomes a great foundation for SEM. Using both SEO and PPC together is the best way to get high-quality traffic and increase your conversion rates. High-performing websites that target the right keywords and are aided by sponsored ads have a higher chance of ranking at the top of the search engine result page.

If you are releasing a new website and lack the capital to focus on content, prioritizing PPC advertising is the best way to increase traffic in the short term, until your website becomes more established.

Get Started With SEM…

SEM or SEO? That was the question! Now that you know how SEM and SEO can help you get better results, it’s time to get to work!

To learn more about digital marketing, visit our blog!

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