SEO vs SEM: What’s the Difference and Which Should You Choose?

If you’re creating content for the web or you’re selling products or services online, you need to understand SEO vs SEM in order to get traffic to your website.

Whenever you’ve searched for something in Google, you’ve probably noticed that the first results will have “Sponsored” near them.

Sponsored posts at the top of Google results.

That means that those results are paid for — brands will pay to sponsor content so it appears at the top of relevant results. Below that are organic, non-paid-for results:

The difference between SEO vs SEM paid advertising in Google results.

Google divides search results into paid and organic. However, not all searches will have sponsored results.

Usually, brands will only pay for ad placement if there’s something to be sold; informative content is at a different part of the marketing funnel , and people are less likely to click on an ad for it. Here’s an example of a search query that doesn’t have sponsored content:

An organic search result in Google.

In this article, we’re going to discuss SEO vs SEM, including organic vs. paid traffic.

SEO vs SEM: An Overview

Understanding the difference between SEO vs SEM can be tricky because they’re not exactly opposites; one includes the other.

SEO is part of SEM. Think of SEM as an umbrella with both SEO and PPC underneath it. Now let’s talk about what each one of those terms means.

What Is SEO?

SEO stands for “search engine optimization.” SEO’s focus is to optimize websites to attract traffic from organic search results. In other words, SEO doesn’t encompass paid traffic, like what you’d get from ads.

4 Elements of SEO

There are four primary elements you need if you want to have a well-rounded SEO strategy.

Keyword Research

With keyword research, you find the words and phrases that your audience is searching for. There are both free and paid tools you can use for keyword research.

You may find these articles about keyword research helpful:

On-Page SEO

Once your keyword research is done, you’ll use what you found for your on-page SEO. This part of the process is when you create content that your audience wants to see.

You’ll consider your keyword research along with search intent and the stage of the funnel the user is in.

On-page SEO includes coming up with an appealing title, strategically placing your keywords in your content and metadata, and optimizing images.

We have a complete beginner’s guide to on-page SEO. Find it here.

Off-Page SEO

Off-page SEO happens off your website. The goal here is to give Google additional reasons to believe your content should rank highly.

Getting high-quality backlinks is a large part of off-page SEO. You can also check out our article about on-page SEO vs. off-page SEO for more information.

Technical SEO

With technical SEO, you ensure that your website is functioning in a way that search engines can find, crawl and index your pages. Unless Google does that, your content won’t show up in results.

Our article about technical SEO vs. on-page SEO may be helpful.

What Is SEM?

SEM stands for “search engine marketing.” That includes SEO and pay-per-click (PPC) advertising (those sponsored results that you can set up through Google Ads ).

Like SEO, SEM is also used to show up in search results and get traffic. However, SEM includes both organic and paid methods, not one or the other.

What Is PPC?

PPC advertising is what you can set up if you want your content to be shown in the sponsored areas of the search engine results page (SERP).

While PPC includes keyword research, there’s more to it. You’ll also need to do the following:

  • Determine how much different keywords will cost to use in an ad.
  • Set your bid, which is how much money you’re willing to pay per click.
  • Create an ad that’s both compelling to your audience and relevant to the search query.
  • Target the segment of your audience that should see the ad.

Since PPC is a paid avenue instead of an organic one, it’s part of SEM but it’s not part of SEO.

SEO vs SEM: Speed of Results

SEM can be either fast or slow depending on the methods you use.

  • SEO can take a long time. A very long time. You can speed this up by choosing keywords with a lower search volume. (See the graph below.)
  • PPC advertising can have instantaneous results. Your ad will begin showing in search results right away, so you could get traffic that quickly, too.
A graph showing the ranking of keywords by search volume.

Whenever you conduct keyword research, you’ll see the search volume and difficulty for the word. Low-volume keywords with low difficulty ratings are the easiest ones to rank for.

Will you get all the traffic possible for your topic? No. But you may get more traffic with lower-volume keywords than with higher-volume keywords even though, overall, there are more people searching for medium- and high-value keywords.

SEO vs SEM: Cost

Another big difference between SEO vs SEM — or, more specifically, SEO vs SEM with paid advertising — is cost.

The cornerstone of SEO is that it’s based on organic traffic. By definition, that means non-paid traffic. More specifically, it means that you don’t pay when a user clicks one of your links.

PPC, on the other hand, is paid advertising. Every time a user clicks on your link, you pay. As a result, PPC and SEM cost more than SEO.

SEO isn’t completely free, though. It costs money to use SEO tools unless you stick with freebie services. Usually, you’ll want to upgrade to a paid tool at some point as your website grows.

Also, both SEO and SEM have a cost when it comes to the time you spend and the effort you put forward. You have to consider how much you pay in man hours to produce and rank SEO content vs. PPC content.

Here’s another point to keep in mind: With paid traffic, you’ll likely lose traffic as soon as you stop running ads on the links. With SEO, your ranking and traffic can stay relatively steady without doing anything to the content or paying for sponsored placement.

The long-term payoff you can get from SEO will sometimes outweigh all that time you put in upfront.

SEO vs SEM Paid Advertising: Which One Should You Choose?

There’s no single answer to this question. When it comes to the better choice between SEO vs SEM, the real question is what’s best for your brand and your goals right now. The keywords you want to rank for matter, too.

When To Choose SEO

SEO is the best way to go if you’re trying to rank content for informational keywords. That means that the user is in the first stage or two of the marketing funnel. They’re not yet ready to buy; they’re only collecting information right now.

Since the user isn’t ready to convert, you’re not going to get anything back for the money you’d spend on PPC ads. The return on investment (ROI) is going to be super low or non-existent.

Also, consider the mental roadblock. In general, consumers don’t love advertisements because they’re bombarded with so many every day.

When the user is ready to buy something, they may want the quickest path to finding it, so they’re more likely to click on a sponsored link. But if they only want to learn something, they’ll skim right over the ads because they’ll assume those links are trying to sell them something.

When To Choose PPC

PPC doesn’t perform so well when people are looking to learn something; it should be reserved for those times when the user wants to buy something.

It’s even more useful to opt for PPC if your buying-focused keywords are hard to rank for because there’s a lot of competition. You’ll be able to get traffic right away and direct the user to a landing page or product page where they’ll convert.

Using PPC and SEO

You can measure keyword performance from your PPC campaigns and create SEO content using the keywords that result in the most conversions. That way, if you want to pause PPC ads at some point, your ranking may still be high enough to drive organic traffic thanks to your SEO efforts.

Final Thoughts About SEO vs SEM

To recap, the purpose of SEO is to get your pages ranked organically, meaning without paying for placement. SEM refers to traffic and visibility from organic and paid search — not just paid search. PPC is the method used to sponsor content in search engines.

SEO and PPC are both ways to market your brand and website using search engines, which means they’re both SEM.

For help getting more traffic to your website, check out our free SEO checklist for new websites.

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