If you ever felt powerless when you had to choose between SEO and SEM, this article is for you! Over the years, we helped a lot of our clients make the right choice for their business, so we thought we should gather all the ways to make this decision in a single article.

Grab your tea or coffee mug and let’s dig in! We’ll start with a bit of background, OK?

Irrespective of the industry they are in, companies and brands have long since realized the importance of an online presence and the role it plays in their growth.

However, having an online presence is not enough, especially since almost everyone now has some sort of presence on the internet. If you want to beat your competitors, you have to choose your tactics carefully.

The most common of these tactics are SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and SEM (Search Engine Marketing).

When applied correctly, these two methods can deliver meaningful results.

Easier said than done, right?

You see, each has its own merits. Used together, they work like magic!

But in order to effectively utilize them and how to make a choice between them, you need to understand how each works and the value it brings to the table.

To put these two strategies into perspective, let’s dig in and find out exactly what they are and how to use them as part of your overall marketing strategy.

seo vs sem

What is Search Marketing?

According to Search Engine Marketing, “Search marketing is the process of gaining traffic and visibility from search engines through both paid and unpaid efforts.”

Think about it this way: customers start their buying journey with a query or search on search engines. Search marketing is ensuring that the brand or product you are offering is served to the customer right when they need it, through the search engines

This can only happen if you optimize your website or brand organically or with a paid ad.

Search Marketing includes:

SEO: this is where you earn traffic for your website or brand by boosting your rankings in SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages).

SEM: this is where your website or brand earns traffic through paid listings or ads.

The term search marketing evolved from Search Engine Marketing, which now refers to paid activities.

Both SEO and SEM are techniques used to increase a brand’s visibility on search engines. The difference between the two is that SEO is organic, while SEM is paid.

Why is Search Marketing Important?

Today, almost everyone goes to the internet whenever they need to find products, services, or information.

Remember the phrase, “Google it” or “Google is your friend”? Of course, you do! You probably just used it or you just “Googled something.” When a noun (a brand name, to be specific) turns into a verb, you know it’s more than mainstream.

If someone wants to buy a product, chances are that they will first look it up with the help of a search engine. This marks the start of the purchase journey for the consumer.

This exercise alone explains why every company or brand wants to be featured on the first search engine results page (SERP)

Therefore, search marketing is crucial for companies that want to grow.

According to a study by Chitika, sites on the first page of Google search results get 92 percent of all the traffic generated by a query.

The study also shows that websites that appear as number one on the search engine results page have a competitive advantage over websites below them.

best ballet for toddlers search

Image via showing SERP for “best ballet shoes for toddlers” search

What is Search Engine Marketing (SEM)?

SEM is a form of marketing that involves using promotions to increase a website’s visibility in SERPs, through advertising and optimization.

SEM previously referred to both SEO and paid search activities, but today it only means paid search.

Some common terms for SEM activities include:

  • Paid search advertising
  • Cost-per-click (CPC)
  • Cost-per-thousand-impressions (CPM)
  • Paid search ads
  • PPC to mean Pay-per-click or Pay-per-call

With SEM, you get a higher level of control since you increase a searcher’s chance of finding your website on SERPs.

In SEM, you tell Google the terms for which you want to be found. Google shows your ads and charges them whenever someone clicks on the ad and gets directed to their website (PPC).

CPC/ PPC is typically used to sell search ads, as it’s the easiest one to measure the ROI of. However, CPM may also be used in some cases.

How Paid Search Works

As an advertiser, you can create a Google AdWords account, a Bing Ad account or Yahoo Search Ads account. Then, you will need to find the keywords you want your ad to be displayed for.

For example, if you sell running shoes, you can choose keywords like “running shoes,” “Nike running shoes,” “cheap running shoes,” “discounted running shoes” and so on.

Keywords have a maximum CPC assigned to each decided by the advertiser. That’s you! In other words, you get to decide how much you want to spend on each keyword depending on its importance to you.

Each platform has its own guide and tutorials on how to get started. Here is a link to get you started on Google AdWords.

The PPC ads are displayed when an entry matches the keywords on the advertiser’s list. These are referred to as sponsored links/ads on SERPs.

They can appear above, beneath or adjacent to organic results.

Still sounds complicated? No problem! Our SEO/SEM consultants would be happy to help you make the most out of your SEM budget.

sem ads

Image via Internet Marketing

What is Search Engine Optimization?

Search engine optimization is the process of gaining web presence through unpaid efforts.

It’s the process of maximizing visitors to your website through organic, free, natural or editorial search results on the search engines.

All the search engines show result pages that include videos, content or local listings ranked and shown depending on what that search engine considers relevant. If your website is SEO-friendly and properly optimized, you don’t have to pay to appear in these results.

organic and paid results

Image via Organic listings are in the green box and paid listings in the red box.

How Does Search Engine Optimize Your Site: Search Engine Optimization Tips

The Google algorithm is constantly changing, but this does not change the components of SEO — on-page, off-page, and technical optimization.

On-Page SEO

On-page SEO refers to tactics you can use within your site to improve its ranking on SERPs. These include:

Keyword Optimization

Keyword optimization is the most important thing when it comes to on-page SEO. You have to pay extra attention to long tail keywords since they fit the search patterns of today’s internet users. In fact, 9.3 percent of keywords with a high search volume of over 1M contain 3+ words. To optimize your website, write content around keywords your audience is searching for.

In the SEO vs. SEM “battle,” one thing is constant: on-page keyword optimization. It doesn’t just help with SEO, but also with better ranking paid ads in SEM campaigns and with lowering your cost per click.

The rationale is quite simple. In both SEO and SEM, keyword optimization signals search engine bots that a page is relevant for a certain topic, so it has to rank higher.

Title Tag

This refers to the webpage title or main heading on SERPs. It’s referred to as the H1 tag. Include relevant keywords to boost your pages searchability.

Meta Description

The short description that appears below the URL on SERPs is referred to as the meta description. It’s also found below the headline on social posts.

It describes the content on the page. To optimize the meta description, include relevant keywords in it so that the search engine crawlers can pick them up.

A free search engine optimization technique is to write a meta description that’s below 300 words. This ensures that all the words written show on the search results.


Starting with July 2018, Chrome (Google’s web browser) started marking all HTTP sites as “not secure.” This was after the Chrome 68 release. All websites have to adopt HTTPS encryption.

Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) is an encryption that ensures that credit card information, usernames, and passwords are sent through the site without being intercepted.

It improves the security, visibility, and trustworthiness of your site. SSL enabled sites are also preferred by Google which makes it essential for boosting your website’s visibility.

Again, a secure website will get you better results in both your SEO and your SEM campaigns. Security is vital, so unsecure websites are usually penalized.

Alt Text

An alt text is a phrase or word attributed to a picture to help it get indexed on search. Use relevant keywords that help the images rank for the specific phrases you want to rank.

Internal Linking

Internal linking is another web page optimization best practice. It refers to linking content to related pages on your website. It keeps visitors on your site engaged for longer and makes it easy for search engines to crawl your site.

Page Performance

Make sure your web pages:

  • Take the shortest time to load
  • Are mobile responsive
  • Do not redirect
  • Do not have a lot of CSS/ JavaScript to slow them down
  • Have a great URL Structure

To optimize your website for search engines, use an organized URL. This allows search engines to easily crawl your website pages.

It also makes it easy for visitors to navigate from page to page. The URLs should contain keywords reflecting pages they direct to.

One of the best search engine optimization tricks is the use of topic clusters.

The model calls for creating content around a broad topic you want to rank for. This content will have specific keywords that are related to and linked to each other.

This creates search engine authority and prevents your URLs from competing against each other.

The topic clusters are built on a pillar page. This covers all the topic aspects on one page. It also allows room for in-depth content for detailed cluster posts that hyperlink to the pillar page.

In short, the pillar page will cover a topic in broad while the cluster content will address specific keywords that relate to that topic in-depth.

Not sure if your on-page SEO is done properly? Request a website analysis from your developer to optimize your website for search.

on page seo

Image via My Tasker

Off-page SEO

Off-page SEO comprises page ranking factors that happen off the website. These include:


Backlinks are a huge factor when it comes to off page SEO. The more sites you have linking to your page, the more authoritative you become on Google.

However, the links should be relevant, of good quality, and not spammy. Irrelevant backlinks will get your page penalized.
Google wants quality backlinks not a lot of backlinks.

The following are ways you can get quality backlinks:

  • Guest blogging
  • Mention influencers in your content. If it’s good content, the influencer will share it.
  • Your SEO consultants can browse popular blogs for broken links then approach the owner with information on the broken link. You then ask them to link to relevant and updated content you have written on the same subject.
  • Use infographics. According to HubSpot, infographic content is shared and liked 3 times more than other content forms.

Domain Authority

Domain authority is the metric that measures your website’s authority and, consequently, your popularity and ranking potential. The higher you score, from a range of 1 t0 100, the better rankings you have. You can increase your domain’s authority by:

  • Using links from a variety of authoritative sites.
  • Creating compelling content that leads to engagement.
  • Asking websites with high authority scores to link to your content. The content must be better than the one they have linked to and relevant.

Ensure People Can Find Your Product or Service

You can do this by matching your products to customer needs. Start by matching descriptions, titles, and keyword phrases to your ideal customers’ search intent.

Make sure that your content is shared and that it gets engagement. This means knowing who your ideal audience is and what their needs are.

Promote Your Content on Social Media

When people want a service or product, they extend their search to social media to find reviews and ask questions about it.

Your SEO team should ensure that your brand is on social media, that it is interacting with customers, and that it is an online resource for your social media community.

They must also build relationships with social media influencers. They have a huge reach and are connected to other influencers. Another way to increase engagement is through comments on forums, discussion boards, and blogs.

Answer questions or drive discussions on sites like Quora and Reddit. This, however, does not mean spamming these sites. Quite the opposite! It means being where your customers are and leaving thoughtful comments that may lead to visits to your site and reputation building.

Create quality content. This includes logos, taglines, text, videos, images, social media information, phone calls, blog text, signage, white papers, etc. Any form of content that represents your brand should be of high quality.

Experiment with all kinds of content to increase your site’s visibility. Enlist the help of a professional SEO consultant to help with making sure you are optimizing your website for search engines and for your audience in the right way.

the 8 elements of good off-page seo

Image via Moz

Technical SEO

Technical SEO refers to website optimization techniques that help with the indexing and crawling phase. These techniques help search engines crawl, access, interpret, and index data on your website easily.
Technical SEO does not involve content or website promotion. It’s about optimizing your website’s infrastructure.

The best practices for technical SEO include:

  • Specifying whether your preferred domain will have a WWW or not. This ensures that search engines do not encounter duplicate content or indexing issues that could lead to page rank loss. Choose one and stick with it.
  • Optimize your robots.txt. This directs search engines bots to the right pages to crawl and index.
  • Use Google’s Accelerated Mobile Project (AMP). This will increase mobile searches due to quick loading on pages. It will also boost traffic and make it easier to use mobile for search.
  • Optimize your URL structure by making sure it’s short and descriptive, that it has no unnecessary characters and that it has targeted keywords.
  • Improve your website structure and redesign navigation.
  • Use a breadcrumbs menu to guide search engines on your website structure and to help users easily navigate the pages.
  • Structured data and SEO. Structured data makes it easier for Google to understand your content. It increases the chances of search engines matching your content to relevant queries.
  • All pages should have canonical URLs. Ensure that pages with similar content can be accessed via any gadget. This specifies which page should be shown in search results and prevents crawlers from seeing pages as duplicate content.
  • Optimize your 404 page. This is the page visitors see when they search for a page that does not exist or mistype the URL.
  • Optimize and submit your XML sitemap to search engines.
  • Ensure correct pagination and multilingual settings.

So far so good. We’ve covered the basics of both SEO and SEM. Now let’s compare and contrast to make it easier for you to know where to put the bulk of your budget.

SEO and SEM: Similarities and Differences

SEO and SEM are both techniques that improve traffic to a site, increase reach and customers visiting the site.

Similarities between SEO and SEM

  • They both help a brand appear on the first pages of SERPs. They help brands show up when users search for specific keywords.
  • In both SEO and SEM, you need to use keyword research to help identify keywords you need to target.
  • They drive more traffic to websites. SEM and SEO both use strategies aimed at ensuring better click-through rates and more visitors.
  • To get a website to succeed in both, owners must fully understand their audience and their needs. They both require the use of segmentation and understanding of buyer personas. Knowing the needs of audience personas to create relatable and relevant content that provides solutions to users is the key to SEO and SEM.
  • They both require constant testing, monitoring, and continued optimization.

seo vs ppc

Image via Thryv

Differences between SEO and SEM

Search Results

SEO search results appear as organic results with featured snippets. SEM search results include an Ad designation. They appear either at the top of the page, at the bottom or on the side of the search results page. They also have an ad icon next to the placement.


Pay nothing for SEO* but pay every time someone clicks on your ad in SEM. You have to make sure that you constantly put in $$$ for your ads to appear.

*In theory, SEO is free. This means that you don’t pay Google or another search engine for your content to appear. However, writing SEO-friendly content and making sure that both your on-page and off-page SEO are on point WILL cost. It may only cost time (the hours your team puts in), but this doesn’t mean it’s free.


Organic traffic in SEO is shown to anyone while in SEM it’s shown to a select target audience. SEM allows you to specify the audience you want to view results by filtering them based on location, age, habits, income, etc. SEO, however, does not allow you to choose who will see your results.


SEO results take time while SEM results are immediate.

As soon as your ad is launched, it’s starts showing up in SERPs. You also have the choice to increase visibility or stop showing them. SEO is, however, acquired over time and takes longer to show results.

SEM allows you to test whether a tactic is working. This is because you can switch it on or off, revise the ad, change target audiences, or change the landing page. You can tell the difference between different strategies you apply.

SEO does not allow you this flexibility, and it takes time to monitor changes and differences.

You gain value over time with SEO. It grows your brand over time, and the results are lasting. SEM is, however, only active as long as you are paying for the ad to show.

There is a higher click-through rate with SEO if you appear at the top of SERPs. You can use SEM even if you are not on the first pages to get more links.

click through rate

Image via Zero Limit Web. The graph shows the click-through rate (CTR) of clicks received on websites on that position in search. The top three results get the highest traffic.

SEO vs. SEM: Which One Should You Choose for Your Brand?

Ready to make a choice based on the info above?

If not, it’s OK.

We still have a few tricks to show you.

The most important one of them is that there is no one size fits all in choosing between SEO and SEM. Don’t make your choice based on what your friends or your competitors do. Your company is unique, and it has unique needs.

Read below to find out how to make the right choice for YOU.

Start by considering:

Your Competition

If there is a lot of competition for keywords you want to target, use SEM. Use SEO if there are gaps you can fill with organic content.

The Market

Are you new to the market and would like to test ideas and how well your product does in the market? Use SEM. If you’ve been in the industry and know that it has long-term value, then SEO will be the way to go.

Cost Per Click Cost

How much is your cost per click? If it’s low, use SEM. If it’s high, use SEO.

How long do your customers take before they can purchase products or services? If they already know what they want and buy immediately, use SEM. If they need to consume more content to make a decision, use SEO.

Incorporating Both SEO and SEM Into Your Marketing

To create a strong online presence, we advise you balance both SEO and SEM. Incorporating both gives you the best of both worlds.

Ideally, a new brand should start with SEM to gain some traction. While this is happening, you can start building your SEO so that, in the long run, you stop paying for costly ads and rely solely on organic traffic.

Here is how to do it:

  • Data you collect from your SEM campaigns can be used to convert organic visitors. Optimize for keywords that worked in your SEM campaigns. This ensures that you continue ranking for the same keyword even after the SEM campaign ends.
  • Using both SEO and SEM increases traffic to your site and visibility on SERPs.
  • Use SEM to target keywords with higher ROI and SEO to target expensive keywords.
  • Keywords that perform well in the SEM campaigns can be used in the meta descriptions while organic traffic generated can be directed to landing pages that did well in the SEM campaigns.
  • Before adding certain keywords to your SEO strategy, run small test SEM campaigns on them to see if they are worth optimizing.

seo and sem cycle

Image via Caged Ether

One last bit of good news: you don’t have to do any of the above on your own! At DigiGirls, we have created and implemented countless SEO and SEM strategies for clients of all sizes. We’d love to help you gain visibility and boost your ROI from both. Let’s talk about it!