You’d be hard-pressed to find a business owner who doesn’t know what SEO stands for, the basic premise behind what it is, and how it works. SEM, however, is a little more confusing and a newer term in the digital industry. Although SEO and SEM are often used interchangeably, they are not actually the same. The goal of each practice differs, as do the results of engaging either or both of them. So, what is the difference between SEO vs SEM, and which one is right for you?

What Is SEO?

Search engine optimization primarily focuses on using strategies to drive organic traffic to a webpage. Google has two main ways that searchers get what they are looking for: organic searches and paid searches. SEO focuses on just the organic search results with the goal of driving your listing up in ranking. Another way to increase your exposure on search engines is to use paid advertising, such as pay-per-click (PPC) ads. 

What Is the Difference Between SEO and SEM?

The main difference between the two is that SEO focuses entirely on optimizing web pages to drive traffic to a website when someone does an organic search. SEM, on the other hand, uses both the practices of SEO and PPC to rank higher in searches to increase your exposure and traffic. SEM in simple terms is when you engage in both SEO and PPC, so in essence, SEO is under the umbrella of SEM.

SEO vs. SEM — What Are Their Main Features?

How SEO Works

The practice of SEO involves continually optimizing web pages to rank on search engine results pages (SERPs) without having to pay for ad space.

Currently, there are over 200 signals that Google uses to rank, guided by algorithms. The algorithms can be put into four subcategories: off-page SEO, on-page SEO, User Interaction Signals, and Technical Signals.

Off-Page SEO

Off-page SEO establishes your site as trustworthy and authoritative using signals from the website. The best way to build your off-page SEO credibility is through the use of backlinks. Another way is to use your content to signal that you adhere to Google’s E-A-T Principle through the use of your social media sharing.

On-Page SEO

On-page SEO works through the use of keywords that specifically target potential clients when they use search engines such as Bing and Google. An example would be to include your main keyword in your title tag, web page URL, and meta description.

User Interaction Signals

User Interaction is how Google watches what users do on your page so that they can identify the best match for potential customers’ search. This is why your “bounce rate” is so critical. If your bounce rate is high, then it signals to Google that visitors landed on your site and didn’t find what they were looking for. That can affect your site’s credibility. If you have a high bounce rate for a particular keyword, then Google considers you a poor match, which can hurt your rankings.

Technical SEO

Technical SEO involves ensuring that things like your loading speed are good or that your site architecture is appropriate. Search engines “crawl” and index all the pages of your site, so the entire structure layout is important. 

How SEM Works

SEM is really just a higher-level term for various ranking practices. So, everything that is mentioned in SEO is likewise in SEM. However, it also includes PPC, which has its own “set of rules.”


Whether you use Bing Ads or Google Ads for paid advertising, the key is going to be the bidding process. PPC requires you to isolate a keyword so that when someone does an organic search, your ad is displayed. The way that the ads rank is determined by who bids the highest. The one who bids the most shows up first. 

Because they are “pay-per-click” ads, when someone clicks the ad, you pay whatever your bid amount is. We call that bid rate “cost per click” or CPC.

Quality Score

It is important to pay attention to your Quality Score on the Google Ads metric. It is how Google figures out whether your ad attracts what potential customers will be searching for. Google bases your Quality Score on analyzing your click-through rate, along with what they deem the quality of your landing page, to come up with your overall Quality Score. Those with the highest Quality Score will receive discounts on clicks.

Ad Copy

Ad Copy quality is an essential piece of a successful PPC campaign. When you have a great ad copy, you have a higher CTR, and a high CTR equals a great Quality Score, meaning that it will cost you less per click. In reverse, if your ad copy is not good and doesn’t get people to click, your Quality Score will go down and the price will go up.

Account Management and Ad Groups

This is the part where your Google Ads data is important.

SEO vs. SEM — How Long Will Results Take?

One of the biggest differences between SEO and SEM is result speed.

SEO is a long-term game, meaning it takes a long time, especially if your site is new or you don’t have a lot of backlinks. Google statistics say that it takes as many as two years to achieve first-page placement on a Google search, with many being there three-plus years.

That is not to say that it absolutely is going to take two years; it is just an average. If you are strategic about your keyword placement and use SEO best practices, you should see results within the first couple of months.

SEM that includes PPC will have you seeing results instantly if done correctly. Theoretically, you can run an ad with your morning coffee and have traffic by lunch. 

Traffic, however, does not equal ROI; for most, testing and readjusting your ads can take up to months for you to see a good ROI from your PPC campaign. There is no question, however, that SEM with PPCs expedites your ranking and exposure.

SEO vs SEM — What Do They Cost?

For some, SEO seems more attractive because it is considered “free.” Just because you aren’t directly paying per click, however, does not mean that it is free. A good SEO campaign will get you to the number one ranking; once you are there, you can maintain your position with less effort. But it is a LOT of work to get to the number one ranking using just SEO. Building backlinks takes a lot of time, energy, and resources, whether you are doing it yourself or paying someone else to. 

Next, you need to invest in SEO tools and software that comes with a subscription cost. Add to that that you will either need to spend 20+ hours writing and creating posts or pay someone else to do so, plus create graphics or have someone else do it. It appears to be much less “free” than at first glance. Again, there is really no promise that all of your hard work will pay off.

PPC differs because it will drive customers to your site instantaneously. But if you throw all of your money into PPC, it can get quite expensive. PPC is way more expensive than SEO. One of the other problems is that the minute you stop paying, you stop seeing traffic.

With SEO, you get the slow burn with your time, resources, and potential budget, being right up front with the hope that it will pay off. If you find someone who does it correctly, it will pay off – and even better, staying in the number one spot is much easier to maintain and much less expensive.

SEO or PPC — What to Focus on When

Many people ask us whether SEO or PPC is the best investment, and the reality is that every business, every industry, and every website differs. The general rules are:

For Those with Lower Budgets

If you are a small business or startup, your best bet is to focus on SEO. Although you might not see the instant ROI, you won’t burn through your budgeting dollars immediately by running ads around the clock.

It is Possible to Rank Using Informational Keywords?

What are informational keywords? They answer “What is A” or “How to A.” These queries in a search might not convert really well, but they do get a high search volume. If you are someone who can write great content on topics in your industry, you will make headway. 

If You Have Time to Wait

Because content marketing and SEO will take time to really work, if you have the time to wait and see traffic, stick with SEO.

You Know How to Build Backlinks

If you know how to gain backlinks, have connections, or understand the process, then SEO is a viable place to focus your marketing.

When Should I Focus on PPC?

You Have Resources for Consistency

If you have a consistent ad budget for PPCs and set strict guidelines, it will be impossible to overspend. The key is to have a monthly budget, know your keyword targets, have a great landing page, excellent ad copy, and choose the bids that work the best, then focus on PPC.

You Are an Expert

If you know how to manage your Adwords account, you can do it yourself and not lose money. It might sound like bidding is something that anyone can do, but there are a lot of factors to consider and experience is necessary. If you are an expert, go for it!

You Are Able to Launch and Test Your Landing Pages

When doing PPC, you will need to have a separate landing page for each ad, or at minimum an ad group. If you want to get the most from PPC, it will consist of you launching a series of webpages and then running A/B testing to see which one has the best performance. 

When It Shouldn’t Be an SEO vs SEM but a Combination

The truth is, it is always best to have a good balance of both, depending on where you are at. If you have the resources, allocating them to the right practice at the right time is a balancing act that takes strategy. 

Our advice is to focus on your business and let us find the right balancing act with all of our focus. Contact us today to get started and gain the traffic you need.