What is the difference between SEO and SEM?


SEO, or search engine optimisation, focuses on improving organic search rankings, while SEM, or search engine marketing, involves paid advertising to increase visibility on search engine results pages.

The difference between search engine optimisation (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) is that SEO is a strategy focused on improving your website to rank better in search results, while SEM focuses on using both organic and paid search strategies to get more traffic and higher rankings.

Want to learn more about the difference between SEO and SEM? Keep reading to see a comparison of the specifications of both strategies!

P.S. Curious about your website’s search engine performance? Use our free SEO checker tool to get your free SEO score and audit, as well as tips and optimisations to improve your site’s SEO performance!

SEO vs. SEM comparison

Get a complete summary of SEO vs. SEM in this table:

Difference Between SEO and SEM

SEO stands for Search Engine optimisation.SEM stands for Search Engine Marketing.
It is a part of SEMIt is a superset of SEO and is used to generate traffic.
Results will take time to appear.Immediate result.
Suitable for low-budget companies.Suitable for big-budget companies.
 Compared to SEM, SEO has a higher click-through rate (CTR)Compared to SEM, it has a lower click-through rate (CTR).is lower than SEO.
traffic potential is unlimited.The traffic potential is being hampered due to financial constraints.
It is inexpensive.It is expensive.
Long-term benefits.Short-term benefits.
 SEO improves the visibility of the website.SEM improves small business sales.
Since organic content is required, there is less competition.Competition is high in targeted areas.
The SEO search result doesn’t target any audience.The target audience is targeted through SEM search results.
Example: Backlinks creationExample: Google Ads

What’s the difference between SEO and SEM?

The main difference between SEO and SEM is that SEO focuses on optimising your website for higher rankings and traffic in organic search results. While SEM focuses on organic and paid search optimisation and strategies for achieving higher rankings and visibility,.

To understand this main difference, it is important to note that Google’s search results consist of two main categories: organic search results and paid search results.

The goal of SEO is to get your website ranked higher in organic search results. Organic search results are the websites that appear below sponsored websites. In other words, you don’t need to pay to get ranked in organic results.

The goal of SEM is to get your website ranked higher in organic and paid search results. Paid search results are the first three websites that appear when you perform a search, identified by the “Sponsored” tag above the page title.

Paid search is also known as pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. So, SEM is basically a broader term that includes SEO and PPC, which means SEO falls under SEM.

SEO vs. SEM: Overview and Key Features


SEO is a digital marketing strategy that involves continually optimising your website for higher rankings in organic, non-paid search results.

SEO involves many different activities to improve your search engine optimisation on your site and across the web. These activities generally fall into two categories:

  • On-page SEO: On-page SEO refers to optimisation efforts that are done on your website, such as updating title tags, publishing a new blog post, or improving page speed. When it comes to on-page SEO, you have complete control.
  • Off-page SEO: Off-page SEO refers to optimisation efforts that are done outside of your website, such as conducting outreach, optimising social media profiles, or sharing content. When it comes to on-page SEO, you have complete control.
  • Technical SEO: Technical SEO refers to optimisations that help Google and other search engines crawl and index your website. This can include things like improving your page speed or internal linking.

Some key SEO action items typically include:

  • Optimising page titles and meta descriptions
  • Keyword research and analysis
  • Site and server optimisation
  • Content creation and optimisation

With these practices — and others we haven’t listed — you tell search engine users what to expect from your page and then deliver with your body text, multimedia, and other site elements. This lets your visitors know that your business is savvy and in tune with the needs of your customer base.


SEM is a general term that includes SEO and a variety of paid advertising strategies that work within search engines.

The five popular SEM strategies are as follows:

  • PPC
  • Local SEO
  • Display advertising
  • Shopping or product advertising
  • Remarketing

Like SEO, SEM works across several different strategies, including:

  • Account structure: Your account structure, which goes from account to campaign, ad group to ad, helps your business organise your advertising strategy and optimise your ad spend. FFor example, advertisements for female trainers should, in principle, be included in the same advertising campaign.
  • Bid: Your bid determines how much your company will pay for a click on your ad (up to a maximum). Some platforms, like Google Ads, offer automated bidding options that can help your business meet its unique goals while staying within your advertising budget.
  • Quality Score: Your Quality Score, a measurement unique to Google Ads, reflects the quality and relevance of your ad. A higher quality score means a lower cost-per-click (CPC) as well as better ad placement.
  • Ad assets: Your ad assets range from your copy to your images and your videos. When you optimise your ad assets, you increase your chances of delivering relevant ads to your business that improve your click-through rate (CTR).

If you plan to use SEM vs. SEO, research different ad platforms, such as Google Ads, Microsoft Advertising, and Facebook Advertising. This way, you can learn how they evaluate and present ads, allowing you to maximise their effectiveness.

SEO vs. SEM: How long does it take to get the results?

There are clear differences between SEO and SEM in terms of the time it takes:

  • SEO: About three to six months
  • SEM: Immediately, or as soon as your ads launch

Many factors can affect your turnaround time for results.

For example, your SEM campaign might not produce results right away. Instead, you might need a few weeks of ad data to fine-tune your targeting to increase your conversion rates. Or, your SEO campaign might need even more time due to building backlinks or fixing issues from an SEO audit.

SEO vs. SEM: How much do they cost?

SEM and SEO can also vary based on their cost.

However, in most cases, your average medium-sized business will invest the following in SEO and SEM:

  • SEO: $750-$2000/month
  • SEM: $9000-$10,000/month

With SEO, you don’t have to pay anything to rank in organic search results or when someone clicks on your website. So, while you won’t need to pay anything to Google or any other search engine to get higher rankings, you may still face some costs.

For example, you may face fees for using SEO tools that help you monitor your site’s performance. Achieving organic rank through SEO can take a lot of hard work, whether you do it yourself or hire an experienced SEO firm like WebFX.

With SEM, you’ll pay for your paid search or PPC ads upfront. While you’re likely to get some quick results with PPC, it’s important to note that once you stop paying for PPC ads, your ads will disappear and your traffic will decrease.

With SEO, however, once you start ranking, you’re pretty much set and don’t need to put in a lot of effort or money to maintain those rankings.

SEO vs. SEM: Which Should You Use?

While SEO is the preferred option in many cases, there are more benefits to SEM than to SEO in some situations.

For example, you should use SEO when:

  • You can wait three to six months to see online traffic, leads, and sales
  • You want to use a digital marketing strategy that doesn’t rely on monthly ad spend
  • You have the time and resources to actively manage SEO (or your SEO agency does)

In contrast, you should use SEM when:

  • You need to generate traffic, leads, or sales immediately
  • You want to build your presence in highly competitive search results without waiting for SEO
  • You have enough money, time, and resources to handle your ads on a weekly basis.

In general, your preference for SEM or SEO will depend on your needs and time commitment.

Is SEO or SEM right for you?

Are you unsure about which is better for you, SEM or SEO? We have answered questions like “What is the difference between SEO and SEM?” on this page. What benefits can SEM and SEO provide?” and more. But if you’re still confused about which strategy to use, you’re not alone.

The objective of your marketing campaign will determine how you respond to that query. In an ideal world, your website would have an excellent, high-performing SEO strategy that is one component of a complete SEM campaign.

You’d also have PPC campaigns targeting dozens of key demographics, hyper-focused local ads reaching people in locations near you, and an advanced, AI-powered remarketing campaign that delivers personalised product recommendations to visitors who discover your website through search engines.

It’s possible to create a great digital marketing campaign that incorporates elements of SEM.

It may not be realistic for all businesses, but starting with two of the more common SEM channels, like SEO and PPC, is a great start. You can begin reaching your market through paid and unpaid channels within search and start attracting new business and growing your company!

Frequently Asked Questions: Difference Between SEO and SEM

What is the main difference between SEO and SEM?

The main difference between SEO and SEM is that SEO (search engine optimisation) focuses on optimising your website to achieve higher organic search engine rankings, while SEM (search engine marketing) involves SEO and paid advertising strategies, such as pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, to increase visibility in search engine results.

How does the difference between SEO and SEM affect marketing strategies?

The difference between SEO and SEM affects marketing strategies in terms of cost and speed. SEO is typically a long-term strategy that takes time to build organic rankings but provides lasting results. SEM, particularly through paid ads, provides immediate visibility and traffic but requires a budget for ad spending. Combining the two can create a balanced and effective marketing approach.

Why is it important for businesses to understand the difference between SEO and SEM?

Understanding the difference between SEO and SEM is important for businesses because it allows them to effectively allocate resources and develop a comprehensive digital marketing strategy. By knowing when to use organic tactics and when to invest in paid advertising, businesses can maximise their online presence and reach their target audience more efficiently.

Can you explain the difference between SEO and SEM in terms of ROI?

The difference between SEO and SEM in terms of ROI (return on investment) lies in timeframe and cost. SEO often requires upfront investment in content creation and optimisation, but over time it can provide a greater ROI because it generates free, constant traffic. SEM can provide faster returns by increasing immediate traffic and conversions, while advertising spending requires ongoing investment.

How do the goals of SEO and SEM differ?

The goals of SEO and SEM differ in their approaches to gaining visibility and traffic. SEO aims to improve the quality and relevance of a website to rank higher in organic search results while focusing on long-term growth and sustainability. SEM, on the other hand, aims to quickly attract visitors through paid ads while targeting immediate results and specific campaigns. Understanding the difference between SEO and SEM helps businesses set proper goals and measure success effectively.

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