SEO vs. SEM: What’s The Difference?

The common question I have often been asked when I meet potential clients,

What is the difference between SEO and SEM?

Well, the explanation is pretty simple.

But, imagine explaining it to someone with little to no digital marketing knowledge. You just can’t throw in some jargon and digital marketing terms.  It will make them more confused.

In this article, I will provide an in-depth explanation of what SEO and SEM actually mean and what are differences between them are.

What is SEO?

SEO is a digital marketing process used to optimize a website to get a higher ranking on search engine result pages. Basically, it’s a method used to get organic search traffic from search engines like Google.

It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, SEO is extremely important. The main reason you get a website developed is to reach your potential customers. But the website alone is not enough. If your potential customer search for your products or services online and you’re not found online, there is no point in having a website in the first place.

That’s why you need to optimize your website for search engines to understand your sites and increase your tendency to rank high on SERPs for the keywords or phrases your potential customers are actively searching for.

The main components of SEO

There are 3 main aspects of SEO

  • On-Page SEO – apply optimization strategies for individual pages and articles on your website to rank for specific keywords.
  • Technical SEO – a technical process to optimize your website for crawling and indexing purposes. Technical SEO helps to get your site crawled by search engine bots and indexed on search result pages without any problems
  • Off-Page SEO – a process of getting links (references) from other relevant sites to increase authority and trust in the eyes of search engines. We often call it “link building”.

What is SEM?

Many resources have mentioned that Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is the combination of both SEO and Paid Ads (Google Ads and Bing Ads). However, from my personal experience, SEM  is a digital marketing process with the sole purpose of getting a brand in front of potential customers through paid advertising.

You actually buy a space in search result pages and other search engine networks. It’s a paid method that helps you to rank higher on search engines without the need for ranking organically. The well-known paid advertising is Google Ads (formerly Google AdWords). There are other ad networks as well but Google Ads is number one when it comes to paid search advertising.

With Google Ads, you can create ads about your products and services(you need to follow Google Ads rules and regulations). You only need to pay when someone clicks on your ad. However, if your industry is highly competitive, the cost per click (CPC) might be extremely high.

You will be astonished to know how much Amazon spends monthly on Google Ads alone.

Its almost $31.4m (RM127,565,640.00). Don’t panic guys.

Amazon makes more than $17.5b per month net sales and the total revenue of Amazon in 2018 was $232.887b which includes all their products and services.

Bing and Yahoo offer a similar services but they are not as successful as Google Ads. According to Statista, Google has a market share of 87.96% and Bing only has 5.27%. So it is obvious that businesses spending more on Google Ads compared to other paid search advertising providers.


I’m a hardcore fan of SEO. Search Engine Optimization is the best digital marketing tactic for long-term results.

Once your website starts ranking for relevant keywords, it will help you generate thousands of visitors to your site. Moreover, your business will get online recognition.

When we look at PPC campaigns, they really do get you targeted traffic from search engines but you have to pay for it. Once you stop running paid search campaigns, the traffic becomes zero.

I agree that SEO requires investment as well. But, the difference is that the traffic you generate organically does not disappear if you stop investing money on the optimization process. It might reduce your traffic but it would not disappear completely.

You need to be aware that the search engine algorithms are often updated. You need to take those updates into account and consistently optimize your website to stay at top of the search engine result pages. Once you stop optimizing your site, your site traffic and performance will start declining.

The advantage of PPC is that it generates instant results compared to SEO. SEO requires a longer time and the right strategy to generate the results you’re expecting for.

Whether you want to choose SEO or SEM, it depends on your digital marketing goals and budget. If you’re looking for instant traffic, paid search advertising should be your ideal choice. If you want long-term results for your business, SEO should be your ultimate choice.

From my personal point of view, it would be better to use a combination of both SEO and SEM if your budget permits you. This is because you will be consistently generating traffic from paid search advertising while working on your SEO efforts. You can slowly reduce your budget being spent on PPC once you start generating organic search traffic.

Rather than waiting for your SEO efforts to produce results, you can start generating targeted traffic to your site and start acquiring the right customers for your business.

Will SEM help SEO?

People with little knowledge about digital marketing often assume that when they spend on paid search campaigns, Google will start to rank their site organically.

You’re totally wrong!

When you’re using PPC, you will target keywords that are relevant to your business and set a specific cost for a click. This has no correlation with your SEO efforts.  There are more than 200 factors that influence organic search rankings on Google, and PPC is not one of them.

Why Search Engine Traffic is important For Your Business?

  • According to Zero Limit Web, the first five organic results on the first page alone accounts for 67.60% of all the clicks.
  • Search Engine Watch has mentioned that 94% of clicks in the SERPs go to organic results.

Search engine traffic is one of the most important sources of traffic from the Internet for any website. People often use search engines to search for solutions to their problems. Google is the first thing that comes to their mind.

When users click on a particular website from the search result page, they are more likely to find the right information they are looking for. The relevancy of the sites displayed on the search result pages is more valuable compared to other sources of traffic.  Although social media traffic is increasing over the years, search engine traffic has the best ROI.


Many digital marketers tend to argue one is better than the other. I would argue that SEO is the best digital marketing effort. But, paid search advertising is better compared to SEO if you’ve just launched your site. You can’t be expecting any traffic if you’re new unless you are ready to pay for the traffic. Don’t get comfortable with PPC and ignore SEO because you don’t want to lose your long-term potential.

Evaluate what is best for your business. You need to fully understand the differences between SEO and SEM and take appropriate efforts to drive targeted traffic that converts.

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