5 Quick Differences Between SEO and SEM

With so many different means of marketing out there right now, it’s important that companies, businesses, and individuals understand key differences between their various strategies. Some strategies are more effective, others are more costly, and others still are simply necessary.

When it comes to visibility and increasing traffic, SEO and SEM, (search engine optimization and search engine marketing) are both important. They’re important, but they’re also pretty different!

Before you march right on into a plan of action, make sure you’re clear in your understanding of what the difference is between SEO and SEM. You’ll also want to be clear on how to best and most effectively utilize each, to the advantage of your business.

Differences Between SEO and SEM
Differences Between SEO and SEM

The Money

Money, money, money- it does make the world go ‘round.

But it also makes the SEO and the SEM go ‘round. However, one of the biggest differences between the two comes in how the money is used.

With search engine marketing, companies pay money to run advertisements that pop up in the search engines. Google Ads is one of the more common ones. A company that purchases paid search engine marketing ads will have their ad appear in a standard keyword search on whatever search engine they’ve paid for.

Most search engine marketing ads are based on a PPC (pay-per-click) or CPC (cost per click). Companies only pay when visitors click the advertisement that takes them to the company’s page.

While companies can pay marketing companies to optimize their content and strategy for search engine visibility, they cannot pay simply to appear sooner in a search. You pay for the time and effort it takes to consistently maintain high visibility.

The Strategy

Search engine optimization is included in search engine marketing and can be an important component of search engine marketing.

However, the two terms require different strategies in order to accomplish their purpose.

With search engine optimization, companies have to focus on a number of data-driven factors, including but not limited to:

  • Keywords and key phrases based off common searches
  • Quality content, relevant and readable
  • Meta tags and meta descriptions
  • Incorporating strong backlinks into the content and site
  • Strong calls to action
  • Claiming listings and social media accounts

While paid advertising is also reliant upon some of these strategies, it’s not exclusive. Seeing as how a company that helps with budgeting and financial planning will want their site to appear if someone searches, “professional financial planning”, its placement is not dependent upon the optimization strategies.

Simply put, according to Website Magazine, where SEM is a purchase of an advertisement, SEO is a completed by a series of steps and measures to help improve visibility. SEM is essentially a sure-thing, while SEO needs more effective and targeted completion.

The Google Appearance

When someone is trying to complete a search on a search engine site, whether it’s Google, Bing, Yahoo, or any others, they will type in certain words and phrases to help them find what they need.

These are the keywords and key phrases that SEO and SEM both need to target.

Let’s say you’re looking for a marketing company, and type exactly that into Google. The first four links that appear in the search are all listed and labeled as “Ad”, denoted by the small green box that appears with the link.

While advertisements purchased for companies as part of their search engine marketing appear at the top, they are labeled so that consumers and potential visitors know they’re paid advertising.

On the other hand, the links that appear after, that are part of the general search, aren’t labeled as ‘Ad’. This is because they’re part of the organic search and appear as the result of effective search engine optimization rather than funded ads.

The Effectiveness (traffic)

Determining the effectiveness of one approach over the other is often dependent upon a few different things. The time, effort, and money you want to put into your SEM, as well as the industry or category which your site belongs to all need to be considered.

According to Digital Authority Partners, SEO is considerably more effective than SEM. This is largely in part due to the fact that SEO is a long-term solution that creates organic search results. On the other hand, SEM is a quick, short-term solution to immediate visibility.

The marketing group even reports that the return on investment for search engine optimization is considerably higher than search engine marketing, at 6 times higher ROI for SEO. The ads count for far fewer clicks, and most site visitors are more likely to click a real link from the first page, than they are likely to click an advertisement link.

The Approach and Effort Required

Considering the fact the SEO requires more time, effort, and consistency than SEM, some companies simply prefer the quick-fix to their visibility.

SEO also requires patience, and when the wrong company is chosen for the marketing efforts, there isn’t even a guarantee of your business appearing on the top of the search results. Because of the analytics it can take months or even a year for the highest levels of visibility to occur on a search engine.

Often, a business looking to increase their visibility will hire an outside professional to come in and handle their SEO work, which is money. It takes time to build content and consistently update and maintain the steps needed to improve visibility.

Because Google is constantly working to update and make its search engine more effective, it’s also important to expect updates and consistent alterations to an SEO plan. This takes time and it takes effort, but it also takes know-how.

So, while SEM is less effective and more of a quick-fix, it’s also going to take less time and overall cost less money from the start.


If you have the time and effort to go for a more effective solution to a long-term problem, SEO is a necessity for your company.

However, that’s not to discredit SEM in any way. The ultimate truth to marketing is that the more you put into something, the more you’re going to get out of it.

The same is to be said of your marketing. Both SEO and SEM have benefits the other lacks, and both present certain struggles that the other lacks. Choosing the right company, having realistic expectations, and being willing to wait it out, are all going to be needed it you’re serious about having a better overall return on your investment.

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