What is the Difference Between SEO and SEM? [with Examples]

When it comes to understanding SEO vs SEM, they are similar yet different. Essentially two sides of the same coin, both these concepts are used to help you get traffic via search engines.

If you are a business owner, in charge of a marketing department, or responsible for driving leads and new business, knowing the difference between SEO and SEM is important because it can help you prioritize and strategize based on your goals as a business.  In the end, both of these can help you drive sales, increase brand awareness, and compete online.

In this post, I am going to define SEO and SEM, explain a search engine results page with examples, and share why you would invest in SEO and/or SEM.

The Basics of SEO & SEM

Search engine optimization (SEO), is the effort to strategically update and improve a website in the effort to drive more traffic and quality traffic on a search engine. Examples of search engines include Google, Bing, YouTube, Amazon and Yahoo.  SEO is a form of digital marketing, however, there is no paid aspect – you are judged by a search engine solely on certain factors.

You can do SEO on your own without a dedicated budget, however, you may want to set aside a budget to have an agency or SEO expert help you out.

Search engine marketing (SEM), otherwise known as pay-per-click (ppc) or paid search, is quite simply, paid advertising on a search engine. SEM is a form of digital marketing which gives your website traffic at a cost to be in a better position on a search engine’s results page.

You cannot do SEM without a dedicated budget. All the traffic you are driving to your website will be paid for and you’ll have some control – we’ll get into this later on. You can run SEM on your own, however, you may want to set aside a budget to have an agency or SEM expert build and manage your campaigns for you.

Let’s simplify:

In marketing, the effort to improve organic positioning is known as Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and the promotion of paid listings is known as Search Engine Marketing (SEM). Just remember:

  • SEM -> Paid
  • SEO -> Organic


When it comes to understanding SEO vs SEM, they are similar yet different. Essentially two sides of the same coin, both these concepts are used to help you get traffic via search engines. With increased traffic, you can generate more leads, improve brand awareness, build relationships, and essentially grow your business. While both are effective digital marketing strategies, which one is right for your business?


Explaining Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Search Engine Optimization or SEO is the process of ranking in the organic search results of a search engine be it for Google, Bing, or any other search engine. This means search engines assess the website and rank its capacity to attract organic traffic based on the following factors:


·      Content Quality

As the saying goes, “content is king”, and search engine algorithms such as that of Google knows that. Having good quality content allows the search engine to give you a better website ranking as it means that it is delivering good and legitimate service. Some of the ways your content is assessed is based on specific keywords and link building. 


·      Linking Patterns

Your website should contain authoritative backlinks as these are the ranking signals search engines use and represent a “vote of confidence” from one site to another. In turn, this builds authority for your domain and improves your site’s rank and digital trust factor. 


·      User Experience

User experience is an integral component of SEO. To improve your UX, consider simplifying your site’s navigation, implementing an SEO friendly layout design, optimizing your site speed, and ensuring mobile responsiveness. 


While anyone can learn the basics of SEO and incorporate it into their digital marketing and content strategy, it can take significant time and effort to master and keep up with the search engine’s updated algorithms. For this reason, it is often a good idea to consider hiring an SEO expert if you are looking to improve conversion rates. 


SEO works the same in principle no matter what search engine you are using as every search engine has crawlers that scan the web pages that are available to them. These crawlers will then index this information, allowing their algorithm to match a user’s search query to the information that is now stored in the database. 


Explaining Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

Although there is debate on whether Search Engine Marketing or SEM is a term that includes SEO, the latest update by Google shows that their latest AI model known as Multitask Unified Model (MUM) can now understand the notion of consensus where multiple high quality sources on the web agree on the same fact where these snippet callouts are then checked against other high quality sources. 

Therefore, a quick search on Google will show that SEM is defined as a form of internet marketing that involves the promotion of websites by increasing their visibility in search engine results pages primarily through paid advertising.





This process of utilizing paid search strategies to improve visibility in the search engine results pages (SERPs) requires the use of a budget that pays advertisements, also known as pay per click (PPC) or paid search. Since Google dominates the search engine market by maintaining a 92.47% market share as of June 2021, let us take a look at what PPC advertising in Google in entails:


·      Target Audience

SEM is essentially a digital marketing strategy and like all marketing strategies, you should first start by understanding your target audience. Decide on who your target audience is and this can be based on several variables such as their interests, location, age range, and more. 


·      Keyword Research & Bidding

With Google Ads, keyword research is important to know what your target audience is looking for and how much the ads are likely to cost. These keywords are important as it increases the chance for your target audience to find you among the top search results. 


Once you have decided the keywords you want, you must now bid for the keyword. This is where you decide how much you are willing to pay Google for an ad click. If your competitor outbids you and have more relevant ads, Google is less likely to show your ads, resulting in less clicks.


·      Ad Creation

Once you have decided on your target audience and keywords, you can now get started with creating your ads. Decide what your ad will say and where it will lead your visitors to. Google decides on the quality of your ad and awards you a Quality Score to tell you how useful and relevant your ad is based on the combined performance of 3 components:


o   Expected Clickthrough Rate (CTR)

This represents the likelihood your ad will be clicked on when it is shown. 


o   Ad Relevance

Your score for this depends on how well your ad matches the intent behind a user’s search.


o   Landing Page Experience

The landing page is where your ad leads the visitor to and your score is based on how relevant and useful your landing page is to your visitors who clicked on your ad. 


When SEM is done well, it can easily get your website to the top of the rankings, but this will involve spending time on ad design to ensure that they are well-targeted. While SEM is great for brand recognition and to bring in quality leads, it requires specialized knowledge and tools. Those who are not familiar with SEM may find it worthwhile to hire a person or agency with expertise in digital marketing as an optimized Google Ads campaign can lead to an increased return on investment (ROI)


Understanding a Search Engine Results Page (SERP)

To truly understand the difference between SEO and SEM, you need to understand a search engine result page (SERP) and how it works. A search engine results page is a page served to someone when they search for something online using a search engine.  As a reminder, Google, Bing, YouTube, Amazon and Yahoo are all search engines.

If you were to go to a search engine, type in a keyword, and hit enter – what do you see? Ads? A Map? Website Links? The outcome and layout of the SERP will depend on the type of search you do. You may be looking for information, or a product, or a location, but no matter what you see on Google, Bing or any other search engine, there will be two defining factors for the type of content and why it’s there. The content is either paid or organic. Paid means someone is paying to be in that position and organic means Google is judging their website on quality and other factors, to put them in that position (and they are not paying Google to be there).

Here is an example of a search engine results page on Google. Below is the difference between what a SEM ad looks like vs organic search results (SEO):

You can get started with search engine marketing on Google by going to Google Ads and creating an account for yourself. To begin to learning about your SEO, check out one of my favorite and well priced tools called KWFinder.

Below is an example of a search engine results page on Bing for the same search term. In this case Bing shows different ad formats. On the right hand side you can see "ad" in the top right hand corner of the image. Can you spot the little ad box? That’s how you can identify wether a listing is an ad or not. To get started advertising on Bing you can go to Bing Ads and create an account.

SEM can very often be confused with Search Engine Optimization (SEO), so don’t sweat it – at least you’re taking the time to do your research! Think of SEM as an apple and SEO as an orange. Yes, they’re both fruits, however, they are very different. You don’t 100% need apples and oranges, but they can both be good for your health. Investing in your health can benefit you. You don’t 100% need SEM & SEO, but they can be good for the health and growth of your business.

Let’s check out another example of a SERP page. This results page was for the search term “women's wedding shoes". This type of term is someone who is most likely doing some online shopping for shoes. The four listings at the top are ads and the following two are organic listings. On the right hand side those are also paid ads.

On Google, SEM allows you to show something called shopping ads. To the right, all of the pictures of shoes are sponsored – meaning those advertisers are doing search engine marketing. The organic ad has the best SEO page for this type of search so it is showing up first. The company did not place it there, instead Google decides it was the best fit for the search term based on the page’s content and other factors.

In this last example, the term searched was for “food delivery near me”.  This type of term is someone who is looking for food locally. So when it comes to local terms, a search engine will do its best to show you options near you. Which is why there is a map that shows up. Again, with SEM there is an ad above the organic listing (which is the map in this case). The map, then shows locations in proximity to your location based on the optimization of the pages that Google think will be the best fit.

Ultimately SEO is the effort you put in to try to appear higher on a search engine results page and you don’t have control over where you show up. SEM is the paid effort to appear higher on a search engine results page and you do have some control over where you show up and who your audience will be.

Both SEO and SEM can be fundamental parts of your online marketing strategy. Let’s dive into why you might invest in one vs the other.

What Are The Differences Between SEO & SEM?

When it comes to discussing the main difference between SEO and SEM, it is basically their different approaches to advertising. While SEO is mainly about acquiring, monitoring, and analyzing organic traffic, SEM is about getting traffic via paid ads. Here are some of the factors to consider if you are trying to make a choice between SEO and SEM:


Timeline: How Long Does It Take?

Even the best SEO campaign will take time to show results. SEO results are not only known to take significant time and effort to implement, but can also take about four to six months for you to see results. This can vary depending on your site’s age, history with Google, and more. 


Meanwhile, SEM is an easy and quick way for new businesses to get started as it allows you to show up immediately in SERPs next to more established competitors. This means that you are improving visibility, building brand awareness, and increasing lead generation from the get-go. 

Simply put, SEO takes time to work while SEM results can be instantaneous. 

Cost: Which Method Fits Your Budget?

The pricing for both SEO and SEM will vary depending on factors such as the scale of implementation, your industry, how aggressive you want to be in your approach, and more. In most cases, businesses that invest in SEO services average just under $500/month but those who spend over $500 a month were 53.3% more likely to be “extremely satisfied” with the SEO efforts. Although SEO is very popular as many business owners think that it is “free”, remember that you will be putting in much more time and effort to see results with SEO. 


Meanwhile, small and medium businesses who rely on SEM were found to have allocated between 5 to 25% of their total ad budget, a total that is generally higher than what one would spend on SEO. Again, the numbers will vary depending on your ad strategy, ad spend, size of the ad campaign, experience, etcetera. Note that your company can invest a different amount depending on your business goals, industry, and overall marketing strategy. These numbers should only serve as a reference when you are building your marketing budget. 


Long Term Value

When it comes to long term value, SEO has a big advantage as the right strategy can keep your web pages at the top of search results for years. While SEO requires a bigger initial investment for link building and content creation, the search ranking position you have can become self-sustaining as organic website traffic can become backlinks that maintains or improves your rank. However, remember that SEO practices change and you will need to keep up with the current practices and continuously update your website to reflect new SEO requirements. 


Alternatively, SEM offers single transactional gains. This means once you stop paying for your PPC campaigns, your leads and traffic stops as well. 


Testing Opportunities

After the implementation of your SEO program, it can take months before you can determine if it works and how well your content marketing strategies and keywords are working. This means it can take a long time for you to start testing, possibly losing you valuable time before determining you gain insight on your SEO campaign. 


Comparatively, SEM is excellent for fast paced testing and data gathering as it allows you to test your keywords, ad copy, and bidding strategies faster than SEO. This also means that you get to improve your website based on data in real time. 



SEO Vs SEM: Which To Choose?

When it comes to choosing between SEO or SEM for your business, it all comes down to the pros and cons of each and how it complements your business. Ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer. Instead, you should consider factors such as your marketing budget, business goals, growth stage, industry, and competitors. 


Choosing SEO

SEO is a core in many business marketing plans due to its advantages such as long-term value and potentially a lower cost in the long run. If you have decided on using SEO, make sure that you have the time as it is a marketing strategy that can take many months to bring in organic traffic, generate leads, and improve conversion rates. If you can afford the time, you are making a long-term investment in your brand as it has long lasting effects if you maintain your website properly. You cannot begin SEO and expect to see results in a day or two. It can take months for the quality content you invest in and the changes you make to your current website to be recognized by a search engine.

SEO is important because you’re investing in raising your rankings on a search engine. This means you will be able to show up higher on a SERP or even in position #1 for certain keywords. This eventually will lead to more traffic to your website that you don't have to pay for (the only cost for SEO would be the time it takes you to research and do it yourself – or for you to hire an SEO agency/freelancer to do it for you). More traffic can generate more leads and sales for your business if you’ve optimized for the right keywords. 

Choosing SEM

SEM has many advantages with the main one being the opportunity of ensuring your brand is visible immediately as soon as the paid ad campaign launches, catapulting your ad to the top of the SERPs. If time is not on your side, SEM campaigns are the way to go as it not only offers immediate results but also allows you to test the effectiveness of your ads, allowing you to see in real time what marketing efforts are working best.

SEM is important because you have the power to increase sales/leads, conduct business research, increase web traffic quickly, and protect your brand terms (as other people can bid on your brand terms!). SEM requires an ad spend budget to get started but it’s much more immediate than SEO. You can start driving traffic to your website today and choose which keywords you want to show your ad on. I’d recommend doing some more research too before jumping head first though. With SEM, you have more control over what search your website shows up for but, you have to pay for it.

With search engine marketing, you have the power to choose which keywords you want your ad to show up on, whereas with SEO you do not have that power.


Combining SEO & SEM

Who says that you have to choose either SEO or SEM? Since each has its own advantages, you can always combine them to have a more successful marketing strategy. In fact, many successful brands integrate both SEM strategies and SEO strategies as they can complement each other. Understandably, running both will require more investment in terms of both time and money, so be sure to consider these aspects before deciding on a combined marketing campaign. 


When you combine both SEO and SEM in your digital marketing strategy, you are more likely to dominate the SERPs. You can sometimes see this with companies that rank first on the first page of the search engine while also having ad placements, ensuring the brand stays highly visible among competition. Paid ads on social media platforms can also be beneficial in retargeting your target audience that did not convert. Last but not least, since SEM offers real time data on your marketing efforts, you can use the insights from your PPC ads to support your SEO strategy. 


There is no right or wrong answer when choosing between SEO, SEM, or a combination of both for your business. Ultimately, it comes down to what your business needs and goals are. Although the basics of both these digital marketing strategies are easy to pick up, it should be done right to maximize the potential of your business. At DDM Generation, our team of digital marketing experts are experienced and ever ready to respond to any inquiries should you need our services. 



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Jenna has over 9+ years of experience in the marketing space with an expertise in search marketing.