SEO vs. SEM: Practical Differences and Which To Prioritize

It’s no secret that we marketers love our acronyms (CTA, CPC, MQL, PPC, etc.).

Two that are regularly misused are SEO and SEM, and that’s fair enough because they have a lot in common.

However, SEO and SEM are not the same, and they require vastly different skillsets, investments, and timeframes to see results.

In this guide, we will examine the key differences between SEO and SEM. We’ll explain what each acronym means in practice and when you should prioritize 1 over the other.

Table of Contents

SEO vs. SEM: What’s the difference? 

SEO (search engine optimization) is the process of improving and optimizing website pages to show up in organic search results. SEM (search engine marketing) is an umbrella term that encapsulates SEO but also includes paid tactics such as PPC (pay-per-click).

Confused? Fair enough. 

To make it more confusing, these terms (and therefore the difference between SEO and SEM) seem to differ from marketer to marketer.

Some use SEM as a synonym for PPC (and Google Ads, which is the main form of PPC search marketing, with Bing Ads second), and they contrast SEO and SEM by stating, “SEO is organic, SEM is paid.”

However, this duality is more appropriate when comparing SEO and PPC. PPC is paid (it literally has the word pay in the name), and SEO is organic.

SEM, then, is the holistic approach that includes both tactics.

sem vs seo
SEO is a part of SEM

Here are a few examples:

  • If you’re writing and optimizing relevant content for your audience, you’re doing SEO.
  • If you’re running paid ads on search engines (like Google Ads, previously Google AdWords), you’re doing PPC.
  • If you’re doing both, you’re doing SEM.

What is SEM and how does it work?

As we’ve just discussed, SEM includes both search engine optimization and paid search methods.

To give some context, let’s break down each of the SEM arms in more detail.

What is SEO and how does it work? 

SEO stands for search engine optimization, and it’s all about optimizing the content on your site (landing pages, product pages, blogs, etc.) to show up organically in search engines.

This is an incredibly valuable tactic for business, as it’s a way to build long-term organic traffic from search engines to your site without having to pay for each new visitor.

Here’s how it works.

Suppose you search for the phrase “subject line generator” on Google. Here’s what you’ll find:

google search for subject line generator
Google search for subject line generator

Each result is coming up organically (that is, nobody is paying to push their page in front of potential customers). Unlike the other 327 million other pages, those in the top 10 come up because they’re optimized for that particular search term.

Okay, so how do you actually do SEO?

There are many ways to influence your SEO results, and it’s worth noting that Google and other search engines don’t exactly say, “Hey, do this, and you’ll get on page 1.”

However, w can break SEO practices down into 3 broad categories.

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On-page SEO 

This is what most people think when we talk about SEO. It’s about optimizing the content (primarily the words) on each page to match the search intent for a specific phrase.

This includes aspects like:

  • Reasonable use of the search term you want to rank for within the content
  • Including semantically related keywords
  • Ease of readability 
  • Use of structural aspects like images, lists, tables, bullet points, and subheaders
  • Using the search term in places like the URL slug, meta description, subheaders, and image alt tags
activecampaign seo url slug
Example of an optimized URL slug

Off-page SEO 

Off-page SEO is all about getting links to your page.

This includes internal links from other pages on your website and backlinks (links from other websites).

The general concept is that if a website links to your page, it’s an indication that your page is a valuable resource, and search engines take this into account.

Technical SEO 

Technical SEO refers to the structure and architecture of your site pages. It asks the question: how easy is it for Google spiders (bots that crawl and index pages and ultimately determine your search positions) to crawl this site.

It involves fixing broken links, improving page load speeds, ensuring mobile-friendliness, solving duplicate content issues, and so forth.

What is PPC and how does it work? 

PPC stands for pay-per-click, and it’s a form of search advertising where marketers pay to secure an ad spot at the top of a search engine results page.

google search for buy pink shoes
Google search for buy pink shoes

Note that in the above image, the first 2 results have the word “Ad” beside them, but the third doesn’t.

This indicates that the first 2 pages are PPC ads, and the third result is an organic ranking (the result of solid SEO practices).

PPC has an obvious benefit: it gets you straight to the top of a given search page. Of course, if someone does click on your ad, you’ll have to pay (pay per click), whereas this isn’t the case if they click on an organic search result.

So, what’s involved in running search ads?

Bidding 

Search ads don’t come with fixed prices. It’s more like an auction.

Each marketer tells Google (or whatever other search engine they’re using) how much they’re willing to pay for each click.

The highest bidder gets the top spot, though search engines often include more than 1 ad spot in a search.

In this example, Clevertap has placed a higher bid than OutplayHQ.

google search for buy sales engagement platform
Google search for buy sales engagement platform

Quality score 

Search engines don’t want you running ads on search terms that don’t make sense, as this diminishes the quality of the user’s experience (you can’t run an ad for pink shoes on the search term “sales engagement,” for instance).

Google uses something called “quality score” to judge this, which is a metric that measures how good a match your ad is for that search term.

High-quality scores can even earn you a discount on each click.

Ad copy 

Running the ad is one thing. Getting people to click on it is another!

The likelihood that searchers will be motivated to click on your ad and check out your site (influencing your conversion rate) mostly comes down to the quality of your ad copy.

Google uses this (the frequency of ad clicks) to understand how relevant your ad is, impacting your quality score.

PPC vs. SEO pros and cons 

Both SEO and PPC are powerful, valuable tactics for growing website traffic.

But, they’re very different practices, and each has pros and cons. Let’s explore the benefits and drawbacks of each.

SEO pros and cons 

We love SEO, and here’s why:

  • There’s little to no cost involved in getting started.
  • It’s a highly scalable approach.
  • Winning visibility on search engines helps position your brand as an industry and topic authority.
  • Once you’re ranking, organic results are essentially free.
  • ROI from SEO can be very high.
  • Organic positions make for a less intrusive customer experience.
seo pros and cons
SEO pros and cons

Like everything, though, SEO also has drawbacks:

  • It’s a long-term strategy, requiring patience and significant time investment.
  • There are no guarantees that you’ll rank, even if you do everything right.
  • Investing in a high-volume, high-quality content-based marketing strategy can be expensive.
  • It can require more than just content creation to do well.
  • Just because you’re on page 1 today doesn’t mean you’ll stay there.
  • Search engines change their algorithms all the time.

PPC pros and cons 

Many marketers enjoy PPC for its more straightforward approach. Here’s why PPC is a valuable tactic:

  • It’s a shortcut to the top of the SERPs.
  • You can start seeing results immediately.
  • PPC can influence traffic towards important content you want to rank in the future.
  • The budget is a lot easier to control.
  • The ROI from PPC is straightforward to measure.
ppc pros and cons
PPC pros and cons

It’s not all roses and butterflies, though. PPC has a few marks in the “cons” column, too:

  • Some keywords can be expensive to win, especially when bidding wars occur.
  • Though you can start seeing results instantly, you’ll generally first need to invest some time and money in testing.
  • PPC requires a bit of technical knowledge to do well.
  • It can be a costly approach in the long term.
  • Your results stop when you stop paying.

SEO vs. PPC results and timelines 

In general, SEO takes longer to see results than PPC does.

That’s because it takes time to produce and publish content, for search engines to index your pages, for the overall authority of your domain and brand to improve, and for user engagement signals to influence your search rankings.

The general rule is that you’ll need to invest for a good 6 to 18 months before SEO starts paying off, but if you do everything right, you should start seeing some results earlier (e.g., your pages begin to climb positions). However, it might take a while longer before you can really begin attributing revenue.

On the other hand, PPC can deliver results from the get-go, though you’ll usually need to invest a few weeks or months in testing to get your ads running efficiently.

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SEO vs. PPC costs involved 

SEO is super scalable. An experienced entrepreneur or business owner can get started at effectively no cost.

At scale, though, there are a ton of costs to consider:

  • Writers and editors
  • Publishing
  • Project, time, and task management platforms 
  • Keyword research and optimization software
  • Website maintenance and technical SEO support
  • Backlink outreach
  • Design

There are fewer facets to manage with PPC, and you can easily set your daily or monthly budget, distributed across the various search queries you’d like to run ads against.

At the highest level, PPC is more cost-effective in the short term, but SEO is far more cost-effective in the long term.

Which should you choose, SEO, PPC, or SEM? 

Still not sure which of these digital marketing strategies fits you best? Here are a few quick guidelines.

When to invest in SEO 

The best reason for investing in SEO is when long-term, sustainable, organic growth is important to your business or when the budget is limited.

SEO can take very little budget to see results (obviously, the more you invest, the better results you’ll see), and it’s highly scalable.

At more advanced levels, you can supplement content creation and publishing with additional tactics, such as link building, repurposing and distribution, and technical optimization.

When to invest in PPC 

By contrast, PPC is a better fit for organizations that:

  • Need more immediate results
  • Have a desire to measure return on investment easily
  • Have the financial capability to invest in testing and engage in bidding activities 

The best marketing plan combines SEO and PPC

Ultimately, the most successful marketers will use a combination of SEO and PPC strategies.

Yes, you may need to focus on 1 to begin with, but they create a more holistic approach to search engine marketing in tandem.

If you’ve got the budget, invest in both, but prioritize SEO for its long-term sustainable growth potential.

Conclusion 

Though SEO and PPC (together, SEM) are valid tactics, you might have noticed that we have pushed a little harder for SEO in this debate.

That’s because SEO is, by and large, the best way to deliver long-term, sustainable, organic traffic growth.
So, if you have to choose just 1, our recommendation is SEO for sure. Learn more about how to get right in our webinar: How to create a long-term, effective SEO strategy.

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