As a fellow business owner, you know as well as we do that search optimization is an essential part of any digital marketing strategy.

Most business owners have heard of SEO (search engine optimization) and know that it’s important.

What they don’t always realize, though, is that SEM (search engine marketing) plays just as crucial of a role in their online marketing success.

At first, SEO and SEM may sound the same.

In reality, though, they are two very different approaches to search optimization.

In this guide, we’ll help you gain a better understanding of both SEO and SEM.

That way, you can choose which one is best for your business.

Read on to learn more about what SEO and SEM are, the key differences between them, and how to decide which one is best for your goals.

Let’s get started!


Have you been using the terms SEM and SEO interchangeably?

If so, that’s okay! Lots of people do.

However, now is the time to learn the differences so you can create and execute a more effective search engine strategy.

What is SEM?

SEM, or search engine marketing, is the part of search marketing that involves a series of paid tactics to help businesses gain visibility online.

This strategy is often referred to as paid search or pay-per-click (PPC for short) marketing.

What is SEO?

SEO, or search engine optimization, is the part of search marketing that relies on organic tactics to help businesses gain visibility online.

With SEO, you don’t pay to show up in Google search results.

Instead, you use a variety of other tactics to show up on top of search engine results because your content is valuable and authoritative.

Some examples of SEO tactics include:


Keyword research and optimization


Gaining back links from other reputable websites (link-building)


Regular content creation


Back-end website updates (decreasing page load times, improving mobile friendliness, etc.)

All of these strategies can be implemented without having to spend a lot of (or any) money.

They involve improving the quality of your website and its content to attract more views and gain a higher ranking on search engine results pages (SERPs).

Similarities and Differences

Initially, it may seem that the difference between SEO and SEM is that one is paid and the other one is technically free — note, we say technically because if you don’t know how to implement one of these tactics, you’ll need to pay someone to do it for you.

However, there’s more to it than that.

There are some important similarities between SEO and SEM, as well as some noteworthy differences beyond being paid vs unpaid.

Similarities Between SEO and SEM

One of the key similarities between SEO and SEM is that both are designed to drive brand awareness and ultimately bring more traffic to your website.

It’s a common misconception that paid SEM is easier than SEO as long as you have the budget to cover the cost of ads. That’s not the case, though.

A good SEM strategy, like a good SEO strategy, is built on research and careful planning.

SEO and SEM both require that you know a lot about your audience and their specific stage in the buying process (our free audience persona template can help you with this!).

Both SEO and SEM also require proper keyword research and utilization.

They also require continuous testing and optimization.

Differences Between SEO and SEM

As you already know, you’ll need to pay each time a user clicks on an SEM result.

However, you won’t pay anything for an SEO result.

Another important difference between SEO and SEM results is that all SEM results will feature an “ad” designation.

SEM results also allow you to select your target audience, whereas SEO results do not.

Another important distinction is that SEM results are immediate.

SEO, on the other hand, takes time to yield impressive results — anywhere from 3 to 9 months, and up to 2 years in some cases (that’s the worst-case scenario, of course).

Which is best for your business SEO vs SEM
As you may have guessed, there’s not a simple answer to the question “Which is better for business, SEO or SEM?”

They both have their strengths and weaknesses.

SEO vs SEM: Testing

When it comes to testing, SEM is typically better than SEO.

With SEM, you can test a wide range of advertising factors, including your copy, your target audience, and your landing pages.

All of this data can help you optimize your SEO and improve your website content to further improve your search engine ranking.

SEO vs SEM: Budget

When it comes to SEM, the moment you stop paying is the moment your results stop showing.

If you don’t have the budget to continue paying for SEM results, you’re going to stop seeing them and your search engine ranking will drop significantly.

This is the beauty of SEO, though.

SEO adds value over time, and SEM does not.

SEO vs SEM: Click-Through Rate

Additionally, SEO has a higher click-through rate (or CTR) than SEM.

For most people, clicking on an organic result is preferable to clicking on an ad result.

A lot of online searchers are wary of sponsored links and ads these days.

They may be hesitant to trust that an SEM result is the best option for their needs.

Organic results tend to be better in these cases because A) they’re free and B) they offer higher long-term value.

Which is best for your business SEO vs SEM

There are times when SEO is better and times when SEM is better.

That’s why, especially when you’re first getting started in the digital marketing world, you need both!

If you have highly competitive keywords, it makes more sense to invest a greater amount in SEM while you work on building your SEO in the background.

If your prospects have a longer buying cycle, investing more in SEM can also help you to build brand awareness while also creating educational pieces to enhance your SEO strategy.

Remember, if you just opened your business and launched your website, nobody knows you!

This is why it helps to invest in SEM while working on SEO at the same time.

Organic SEO Best Practices

Organic SEO Best Practices

If you’re looking to improve your SEO strategy, here are some effective steps you can start taking today:

Use Enticing Titles and Headings

It doesn’t matter if you’re working on a blog post or a landing page. You should always write titles and headings that are clear, enticing, and contain your target keywords. Make people want to click on the content and read more.

Conduct Keyword Research

Your SEO strategy should always include thorough keyword research. There are lots of tools out there, like Ahrefs and SEMrush that can help you find the most relevant keywords that you should be including in your content.

Don’t Neglect Technical SEO

Technical SEO refers to improvements made on the back-end of your website to improve search engine rankings. Improving mobile-friendliness is a top priority for many businesses in 2020, as is increasing page load speed.

Write Clear Meta Descriptions

Your meta descriptions — the text that shows up directly below the content title — should also be clearly written and give a preview of what’s to come if someone clicks on the link. The meta description should also contain your target keyword.

👇 Watch our video below to learn How to Choose Winning Keywords for Your SEO Campaign! 👇

SEM Best Practices

When it comes to SEM, the following best practices will help you to see results right away as you improve your business’s brand awareness and boost conversions:

Use the Right Keywords

Remember, keyword research and usage matter for SEM, too. You’ll see much better results from your paid search ads if you use the right keywords in the titles, descriptions, etc.

Create Personalized Ad Campaigns

Do your best to target your paid ads to a specific audience. Get to know the people who are most likely to buy your products or services — focus on factors like age, gender, income, values, location, interests, and purchase history — then create your ads with them in mind.

Give Each Ad Its Own Landing Page

Make sure every ad directs users to a unique landing page when they click on it. It does take more time to create these landing pages initially. However, they will yield higher conversions in the long run.

Use Consistent Messaging

Make sure the messaging is consistent between your ads and your landing pages, too. If there are discrepancies in language or offerings, people might think they ended up on the wrong page. As a result, they will be less likely to follow through with a purchase.

As you can see, your goal should be to invest in SEM until your SEO is producing similar results.

If you want to get faster SEO results, you need to be on top of your SEO game.

This means your website needs to be completely optimized.

Following the SEM and SEO best practices discussed above is a great starting point.

If you need more SEO content tips, though, we recommend requesting our free website report, which includes an on-page SEO analysis.

This report will tell you exactly what needs to be changed on your website to rank higher on google.

Request it today, or contact us to learn more about our SEO and SEM services.