SEO vs. SEM: What's the Difference?

January 19, 2024

You know you need to get your website ranking higher in the search engines, but where do you even begin? Do you focus on SEO, SEM, or both?

The good news is you don't have to choose one or the other.

Read on to discover the key differences between SEO and SEM so you can develop an integrated strategy that works.

What Is SEO?

Search engine optimization (SEO) refers to the method of optimizing a website to rank higher in the results of search engines like Google and Bing.

The higher the ranking, the more people will find the site.

It involves making alterations to a website to help search engines comprehend what the site is about and decide that it's an applicable result for search queries.

SEO is an ongoing process. Keep optimizing and improving your site over time to boost your search rankings and traffic.

What Is SEM?

SEM stands for “search engine marketing.” This broad term refers to the process of optimizing your website and paid advertising to increase your visibility in search engine results pages (SERPs).

The goal of SEM is to drive more organic or paid traffic to your website from search engines.

Although SEM encompasses SEO, it is now more exclusively referring to Paid Search Advertising.

Paid Search Advertising

The largest component of SEM is pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, also known as paid search advertising.

This includes ads you pay to display at the top of SERPs and on the side of the page.

The three major types of paid search ads are:

  • Google Ads (formerly AdWords): Google's advertising platform where you bid on keywords to display your text ads at the top and sides of the Google search results page.
  • Bing Ads (formerly Microsoft adCenter): Similar to Google Ads but for the Bing search engine. You bid on keywords to show your ads on Bing, Yahoo, and other Bing-powered search engines.
  • Other search engines: Some businesses also advertise on platforms like Amazon, Facebook, and Instagram which have their own paid advertising programs.

With paid search ads, you pay each time someone clicks your ad. The amount you pay depends on the keywords you're bidding on and the competitiveness of those keywords.

Popular, highly searched keywords typically cost more per click than obscure keywords with little search volume.

SEO vs SEM: What's the difference

SEO and SEM are both popular digital marketing strategies, but what exactly is the difference between the two? Let's break it down.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Photo by NisonCo PR and SEO on Unsplash

SEO refers to optimizing your website to rank higher in the organic, or unpaid, search results on engines like Google.

The goal is to increase traffic to your site from people searching for the topics or products you cover.

To optimize for search, you need to focus on things like:

  • Use important keywords in your page titles, URLs, headings, and content. Things like "SEO agency", "search marketing services", or "increase website traffic" for an SEO business.
  • Creating high-quality content like blog posts, videos, and infographics that include your main keywords.
  • Building internal links between the pages on your site and earning high-quality backlinks from other sites.
  • Ensuring your site is mobile-friendly, loads quickly, and follows best practices for accessibility.
  • Monitoring how your site ranks for target keywords and making changes to continually improve.

SEO is a long-term strategy but can drive highly targeted traffic to your site. The results are organic, so the traffic tends to convert well.

However, rankings can fluctuate and SEO takes time.

Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

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SEM refers to paid advertising on search engines like Google Ads (formerly Google AdWords) and Bing Ads.

With search ads, you can bid on keywords to have your ads displayed prominently when people search for those terms. You only pay when someone clicks your ad.

Some benefits of SEM include:

  • You can get traffic quickly by bidding on the keywords of your choice.
  • You have more control over your visibility and rankings since you're paying for placement.
  • You can track the performance of your ads and make changes to optimize based on metrics like click-through rate and conversion rate.
  • Your ads are clearly marked as "ads" or "sponsored", so people know they are clicking an ad.

The downside is that SEM can be expensive, especially for competitive keywords. And the traffic, while targeted, may be less likely to convert since the searchers' intent isn't purely organic.

SEO vs SEM: How Do They Complement

SEO and SEM are effective digital marketing strategies, but they differ in key ways.

Understanding how SEO and SEM complement each other can help maximize your online visibility and traffic.

SEO builds up your organic rankings and traffic over time at no cost. SEM kicks off your marketing efforts quickly while SEO gains momentum.

The visibility from both strategy compounds and paid ads can even help boost your organic rankings.

You can use both SEM and SEO in a few ways:

  • Target long-tail keywords with SEO, and more competitive keywords with SEM since it’ll be tougher to rank for those organically
  • Do short-term testing of angles and offers with SEM, use SEO for long-term website content and blog strategy
  • Retarget organic traffic with SEM
  • Use SEM to quickly inform what type of content converts better and bake it into the SEO strategy

SEO vs. SEM: How Long It Takes to See Results

With SEO, results can take 3-6 months to become noticeable, depending on the competitiveness of your keywords and how optimized your site already is.

SEO is a long game that requires ongoing work. You need to build authority and trust with search engines over time.

In contrast, SEM can produce results much faster, often in a matter of days or weeks.

With search engine marketing, you're paying for immediate exposure and traffic. However, the results may disappear quickly if you stop running ads or your budget is depleted.

SEO vs SEM: How Much They Cost

SEO: Time and resources

The major costs associated with SEO are the time and resources you put into research, content creation, link building, and technical SEO.

If you have an in-house marketing team, the costs are primarily their time. If you hire a US SEO agency, costs will vary but often start around $100 to $200 per hour.

SEM: Monthly budget

Small- to mid-size businesses typically allocate a monthly budget of $1,000 to $10,000 for their Google paid search campaigns, resulting in an annual expenditure ranging from $12,000 to $120,000.

SEM costs ultimately depend on factors like:

  • Your keyword targeting (broader vs. precise match types)
  • The competitiveness of your keywords
  • Your daily budget
  • Which search engines and ad types (text, shopping, video) you use

While SEO has a relatively fixed cost and the potential for big long-term payoffs, SEM expenses can scale quickly with the volume of traffic and leads you want to drive.

For most businesses, a combination of SEO and SEM is ideal for sustainable growth.

SEO builds momentum over time through ranking increases and word-of-mouth, while SEM helps accelerate things through paid ads.

Balancing your time and money across these two strategies comes down to your business goals, timeline, and available resources.

Should Marketers Use SEO or SEM?

Photo by Fauxels on Pixabay

The answer depends on your business goals, resources, and how much control you want over results.

SEO: Free and Effective Long-Term

Using on-page techniques like optimizing your page content, URL structure, and metadata, as well as off-page techniques like building high-quality backlinks, SEO can dramatically increase the number of visitors to your site over time.

However, SEO does require patience and resources to implement an effective strategy. SEO is ideal if you want sustainable long-term growth.

SEM: Fast Results but Can Be Expensive

With SEM, you can achieve high rankings and traffic almost instantly by bidding on targeted keywords.

However, it can be expensive, especially for competitive keywords. SEM ads also require continuous optimization to maximize your ROI.

SEM is best if you need fast results, want full control over your search presence, or have a larger marketing budget.

For most businesses, the ideal approach is to use SEO and SEM together.

The key is finding the right balance between investing in the long game of SEO and achieving the quick wins of SEM.

By developing an integrated SEO solution and SEM strategy tailored to your needs, you can dominate the search results and gain more customers.

Combining SEO with SEM like Google ads generated through tools like Google Ads Generator can help you achieve high rankings and traffic, while optimizing your ads can maximize your return on investment.


Incorporating both SEO and SEM into your digital marketing strategy is crucial for success.

By integrating the strengths of search engine optimization and search engine marketing, you can effectively connect with your audience and achieve business growth.

SEO Specialist
Hazel has over 3 years of experience in SEO. She has helped multiple clients in different industries grow their online presence through SEO, content creation and other marketing strategies.

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