The marketing world is full of confusing acronyms—especially if you’re a creative entrepreneur who’s just dabbling into digital marketing to promote your own business.
If you’re trying to grow your website traffic, you’ll eventually come across the terms “SEO” and “SEM”.
SEO and SEM are two methods of bringing search engine traffic to your website.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is focused on bringing organic search traffic to your website without paying directly for traffic.
Search engine marketing (SEM)—if we’re using the more popular definition of the term—is about bringing paid search engine traffic to your website via search engine ads.
In principle, SEO and SEM are very similar. They’re both about making your website show up in search results, attracting clicks, and bringing people to your website with the goal of converting them into a customer. However, the strategies, skills, and tactics to succeed in each realm are quite different.
In this blog, we’ll cover the key similarities and differences between SEO and SEM, the core principles of each approach, and how to succeed with either strategy. We’ll also explore which one is best for your business.
What is SEO?
Search engine optimization (SEO) refers to the practice of creating and optimizing your website with the goal of attracting organic search engine traffic.
Succeeding in SEO requires a high-level understanding of how search engines work and what your customers are searching for, along with a technical know-how of how to create a website experience that tailors both to people and search engines.
Winning the SEO game also requires a dedicated effort to consistently creating keyword-rich, reader-friendly website content that succinctly describes your business and answers your customers’ questions and concerns.
SEO is desirable for businesses because it can mean a steady flow of traffic without having to pay for every ad click. However, there’s a large upfront cost in creating the content that brings SEO results.
To help you wrap your head around the subject, let’s cover the key principles of SEO.
Search engine rankings – When business are new to SEO, they say they want to “rank #1”. In truth, that goal is meaningless, as there are thousands of possible keywords your business could rank for. On top of that, search engine results differ from location to location, user to user, and device to device.
And while it would be great to rank #1 in your area for your primary keyword (e.g. “wedding photographers in LA”), that may be an unrealistic target for you.
Therefore, treat search engine rankings with a grain of salt. It’s better to track your SEO success through metrics that impact your bottom line, such as traffic and conversions. That said, it helps to keep an eye on your general search engine rankings.
Search engine bots – Search engines like Google have what are called “bots” or “spiders” that crawl the internet with the goal of indexing every piece of content. These bots crawl through your website, scanning text and jumping through links until eventually leaving your site through external links.
By crawling your website, these bots are able to make a record of all the pages on your site, the keywords used on each page, and which pages are linked to or from most often. They also do this for every other website, allowing search engines to create a library of all the content on the internet.
Ranking factors – Creating a library of content is a fairly simple task for search engines. Figuring out what content should be returned for a particular search is a much tougher question. For example, if I search “Buy Cars DVD”, I likely want search results about buying the Pixar movie, not a DVD about cars, or a DVD player for my car. And I want the search results to come from reliable companies.
Therefore, search engines have to figure out what content best relates to particular searches, and which websites are most reliable in terms of the content and products they offer.
This is a really complex task! To appropriately rank websites, search engines like Google have complex algorithms that automatically assess a content’s quality and relevance for a particular search.
Google in particular has over 200 search ranking factors that impact whether your website will show up for a particular search. Example ranking factors include:
- Keyword usage
- Heading usage
- Content freshness
- Content quality
- Internal links
- Site security (e.g. SSL certificate)
- On-page experience (e.g. website speed)
- And many more!
On-page SEO: On-page SEO refers to the activities you can perform on your website to impact your search engine rankings. The content on your website is what search engines use to figure out how relevant and authoritative your website is for particular searches. Your website content should be keyword optimized, high quality, and easily scannable.
On-page SEO includes all of the following website elements:
- Page meta titles
- Meta descriptions
- Page copy
- Images and videos
Technical SEO: Technical SEO refers to the architectural structure of your website. The goal of technical SEO is to make your website easily crawlable and discoverable by search engines. When people talk about technical SEO, they’re most often referring to:
- Website navigation
- Internal link structure
- Page speed
Off-page SEO: Off-page SEO refers to any SEO activities that take place outside of your website. Off-page SEO most often refers to earning backlinks to your website. A backlink is when a third-party website links back to your website. This is seen by search engines as a trust signal that your website is of high authority on a particular topic, especially if the website linking to you is also a high-authority website.
For more in-depth SEO tips, check out The Ultimate Guide to Small Business SEO.
What is SEM?
Search engine marketing (SEM) most often refers to paid search ads. I say “most often”, because some people use SEM as an umbrella term to cover both paid and unpaid search efforts. In our case, we’ll just use SEM to refer to paid ads only.
Paid search ads, also known as pay-per-click (PPC) ads, are the ads that show up at the top of search results. They are marked with an “Ad” tag on Google.
Here’s an example of the PPC ads that show up when I search for “SEO”:
Here’s a quick exploration of the most key SEM concepts and terms.
Pay-per-click (PPC) – Search ads are referred to as PPC because you are charged for every click someone makes on your ads. Your overall PPC costs are constrained by a monthly budget that you set, so you don’t have to worry about paying more than you wanted!
Google Ads – Google Ads is the most popular SEM/PPC platform. It rakes in billions of dollars per revenue per year for Google. So when people talk about SEM, they are most often talking about Google Ads, however other search engines also have ad platforms, such as Bing Ads.
Ad auction – The cost of each PPC click is determined by an auction. The cost of each click depends on the amount of competition for that particular keyword. Each competitor’s bid in the auction is determined by their maximum bid and their Quality Score.
Quality Score – Quality Score is a metric Google uses to determine the relevance and quality of your ads and landing pages. It’s based on factors such as your ad’s click-through rate (CTR), landing page quality, and bounce rate. Advertisers with higher quality scores have to pay less for ads, as the system is designed to reward high-quality advertisers.
Ad copy – Great PPC ad copy makes people more willing to click your ads. Your ad copy is made up of a headline, a secondary headline, and ad extensions. Be sure to include a compelling, emotional CTA that drives people to click your ads.
Landing pages – Landing pages are your website pages that people land on after clicking an ad. SEM landing pages should be more conversion-focused than SEO pages, as the goal is to convert your PPC traffic into paying customers.
You can get started with search ads through .
How long does it take to see results with SEO vs. SEM?
As a general rule of thumb, SEM or PPC drives results faster than SEO.
SEM is pay-to-play, so as soon as you turn on your search ad campaign, you will start receiving traffic to your website (assuming you wrote killer ad copy that makes people want to click your ads). The only reason you may not receive clicks through SEM is if the keyword search volume is too low, or your ad budget is too low to compete for your target keywords.
That said, SEM campaigns take some time to mature and gain traction. As you optimize your campaign, you tend to see more bang for your buck, so traffic typically improves over time. However, you can only optimize so far, so PPC traffic tends to level off once your campaign has fully matured.
On the other hand, SEO growth is usually slow and steady. It typically takes at least 6 months to start getting any SEO traction at all, unless you have a content powerhouse behind your business. That’s because it takes time to write content and build enough backlinks for Google to trust your website as authoritative on a subject.
But SEO results can vary wildly. You could hit a homerun on a popular search term with relatively little competitor content and get thousands of pageviews within a few weeks. Or, you could create content for years but never see any traction because your competitors simply beat you to the punch.
SEO vs. SEM: How much do they cost?
The costs of SEO and SEM are largely dependent on your budget.
Both SEO and SEM require you to have a website, whose costs include:
- Website design and maintenance
- Buying a domain
For SEO, your costs come down to how much effort you’re willing to invest. SEO activities can include keyword research, writing content, technical SEO, and monitoring search analytics.
If you do all of these SEO activities yourself, the only cost is your time. If you’re hiring an SEO expert or content writer, it can cost you anywhere from $20-250 per hour, depending on expertise. So SEO costs can vary anywhere from $0 to thousands per month.
For SEM, your costs will include your advertising spend and the monthly services fee of a PPC expert.
PPC ad spend costs anywhere from $1-10 per click, depending on your industry. The average cost per click is approximately $4. So 100 clicks to your website per month would cost you about $400 in ad spend.
And while it is possible to manage your own PPC, it’s best to hire someone else to do it for you, as they’ll get you way more for your ad spend by optimizing your campaign. Most PPC experts or agencies charge a flat rate of at least $200-500 per month, with others charging you a percentage of your spend.
Therefore, SEM typically costs you a minimum of $600, up to thousands of dollars per month.
SEO vs. SEM: Which is right for your business?
An effective long-term marketing strategy should use a one-two punch of SEM and SEO.
To start, build your website following SEO best practices. It doesn’t cost too much time and effort to get the basics right, giving you a solid baseline for SEO success down the road. You may find you naturally get a small influx of organic traffic.
But unless you already have an established website or URL, SEO will take a long time to kick into higher gear. So if you need traffic tomorrow, it’s best to invest more heavily in SEM to start. This will bring in an immediate wave of traffic that can help fill your pipeline.
Over time, if you start seeing profit from your SEM efforts, it’s wise to invest some of those profits back into your website’s SEO. If you can gradually boost your site’s organic traffic, you can start lowering your monthly PPC spend every month, earning the same returns without the same high monthly fees.
However, that’s just advice for the average business case. It’s possible that competition in your area is relatively low for SEO, so it may pay off to go hard on SEO from the start. Or it may be the case that SEO is a losing battle, as your competitors are able to invest thousands (or millions) in creating content.
Experiment with both to see what works best for your business!