The difference between SEO and SEM

So you’ve often seen these terms around, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM).

They sound so similar but yet they’re really different.

In this article, we’ll cover the biggest differences between SEO and SEM.

What exactly is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) refers to the process of making technical adjustments and content marketing to get a website ranking at the top of the Google search engine organically.

Here is an example of how an organic search result looks like:

Example of an organic search result


The advantages of SEO over SEM

SEO allows a website to be able to obtain organic traffic without having to pay for it.

As compared to SEM, where an advertiser of a website has to pay for every click that comes through the search engine, SEO does not require the advertiser to pay.

By receiving an unlimited amount of free organic traffic that comes through the Google search engine, SEO is a long-term strategy to acquire more website visitors.

Besides, SEO allows your search result to appear every single time for a keyword that you are targeting. On the other hand, SEM might not display your search results that are based on factors such as the bidding amount, the ad score and the budget you have put in place.

Table of SEO vs SEM

Downsides of SEO vs SEM

SEM search results are the first thing that people will see when they enter a search query on Google. Up to 4 SEM search results will appear above 10 organic search results.

It can be difficult to rank a website organically on the search engine within a short time frame.

SEO requires a lot of time and effort to produce highly relevant content on one’s website.

SEM, on the other hand, allows website visitors to find the advertisers who perform SEM as it will appear at the top of the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) as seen in the following screenshot:

SEM Search Results on Google

What exactly is Search Engine Marketing (SEM)?

Search Engine Marketing (SEM), also known as Pay-Per-Click advertising or Google Ads is a digital marketing strategy that allows a website to appear on the top of the search engines.

Do you own a local business or an ECommerce store?

Then SEM would be able to help you acquire more traffic and customers if you use them.

Ultimately, the goal is to acquire more leads and sales for your business.

Advantages of SEM as compared to SEO

One obvious advantage of SEM over SEO is that it allows your website to be seen on the top of the Google search engines instantaneously.

You need not wait for weeks, months, or even years for your website to appear on the top of the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs).

For SEM results, you will be able to have 4 results that appear on the top of the Search Engines, which is the first thing that searchers would see.

This would position you at the top and acquire website traffic.

Disadvantages of SEM compared to SEO

Unfortunately, SEM does have drawbacks as well.

Each time a website visitor clicks onto an SEM search result, the advertiser would need to pay an advertising cost.

This click could range anywhere between $0.50 all the way to $50. The cost depends on the competitiveness of the keyword and the number of people bidding for it.

Should I go for SEO or SEM?

You should be performing some research first before you decide on which to go for.

Head over to Ubersuggest and enter a keyword that is related to your business.

See if there are any low hanging fruits for SEO or SEM.

Typically, if the competition for SEO is easy, it would look like that on Ubersuggest:

Showing the competition of SEO and SEM keywords

By checking on the Search Difficulty and Paid Difficulty, you will have a better understanding of what the competition is like for SEO and SEM.

Furthermore, you could use SEM as a testing ground to see the quality of leads and business that you might receive, before heavily investing in an SEO campaign.

Does running SEM help with SEO?

Contrary to popular belief, SEM does not help with the rankings on SEO.

SEO rankings are independent of SEM.

Although both platforms are served by Google, Google does not favor an organic search result over any other search result because they have ran Google Ads.


Using SEO and SEM is an effective way to capture customers who are in “hunt mode” and are ready to buy.

However, you might be missing out on the rest of the potential market share by only using Search Marketing.

Social Media Marketing would allow you to speak to potential customers who may be problem aware, and not ready to buy yet.

If you want to learn how to improve your organic search rankings using SEO, we offer a FREE SEO course that you could view at your own pace.

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28 Responses

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    I am a property agent, would you recommend me creating a new website and doing SEO for every new launch?

    1. Hi Megan

      That could be a little time intensive.
      You could try creating a new launch website to house all your new launches within a property website, similar to that of and Propery Guru.

      That might be a better strategy, otherwise, you have to keep buying new domains of new launches.

      Best Wishes

    1. Hi Kelvin

      Doing both SEO and SEM and holding as much real estate as possible would be able to drive more to your business.
      You should try to calculate what is your cost of acquiring a customer, and how much is a customer worth to your business.

      Once you’re clear with those two numbers, everything will start falling in place.

      Best Wishes

  2. My company does pest control, we spend about $2,500 on SEM every month, haven’t done SEO before.

    what are your recommendations? how should we start with SEO?

    1. Out of this $2,500 that you spend, how many leads do you convert from there?

      Is there a positive ROI?

      If the average lifetime value of a customer is more than the cost of acquiring a customer, then sure, it would make sense, wouldn’t it?

    1. If you want to dominate as much real estate and presence as possible, running both SEO and SEM will give you omnipresence.

  3. Hi Jim

    Thanks for writing this.

    I am just afraid that my competitors will click on my ads and waste my money.

    Your thoughts on that?

    1. I think you could try SEO for the brand-related search terms such as the name of the insurance plan.

      That market is probably not tapped into right now as I don’t think a lot of insurance agents are creating websites around those search terms.

      You could also try running SEM to test the market to see if it’s profitable for you to do so as well.

      I hope that helps!

    1. Hi Jun Wei

      The only way you’re gonna find out is to test the amount you spend on both SEO and SEM, and see which performs better in terms of the cost of acquiring a customer on both channels.

      From there, you can adjust the amounts you spend on each channel accordingly.

      Hope that helps.

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