It’s no secret that search engines have massive control over online traffic, but you may not know the extent.

Believe it or not, Google Ads alone generated over $147 billion in revenue last year, far ahead of any other ad platform.

When it comes to dominating the search results, you have two options; SEO or SEM. So, what’s the difference between the two, and is one better than the other?

Well, we’re here to clear that up for you. Let’s settle the score on SEO vs SEM and determine the best strategy for your business.

What Is SEO?


Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of optimizing your website’s content to rank higher on specific search engine results pages (SERPs).

For example, if you sell cars and you want to rank higher for the keyword “Subaru Forester,” then you could make plenty of web pages and blog posts dedicated to “Subaru Forester features,” “Review of the new Subaru Forester,” and others.

Then, assuming you’re posting quality content, Google will eventually recognize that your brand is a credible authority on this particular car model, and will be more likely to match you with users who seek out that information.

However, there’s a lot more that goes into it than that. Google has high standards based on the quality of your website, the technical code on your website, and even off-page factors.

Essentially, without doing much else, you’re trying to make Google happy just by eliminating red flags, demonstrating industry competency, and allowing them to crawl on your website.

Consequently, when Google rewards this strategy, it will pay off by driving free, organic traffic to your website.

There are three arms of SEO: content marketingSEO Link building and the On-page SEO optimization of website data. Content marketing deals with the type of content that is placed on your website,

Link building refers to off-page SEO through backlinks to your website, while the on-page optimization of analytics data involves meta titles, meta tags, website speed, and other search engine crawler readable data.

Website SEO Optimization

Two categories affect your website when it comes to search engine ranking: on-page factors and off-page factors.

On-Page SEO Factors

On-Page Factors are items that are under your control and can help your website to become more search engine friendly. Let’s take a look at what you can do to help boost your on-page SEO.

SEO Content Marketing Is Key

No matter what you do, if the material that is displayed on your website is not written and presented in a useful way, you will have a difficult time ranking your site on SERPs ( Search Engine Result Pages) Organically. You must provide more than just a product or service. You must also provide value.

If you are not updating your website content regularly, most search engines will minimize the crawling of your website and assume you contribute little to no value to the consumer. So, if it’s been a hot minute since you’ve updated your website, relevant content creation would be the first place to start.

Structuring the URL on your Webpages

On your website, every page and link will have a URL. When you create the URL on the backend, make sure that you are using keywords that are common in your industry within the URL.

Title Tags of your Website Pages Mater

Every web page that you have on your business website needs to have a title tag. These tags are used when defining the title of the search listing. Keep it short and sweet, and always include keywords that you are trying to rank for without over doing it.

Check your Keyword Density

This metric helps to identify how much a particular keyword appears on your page. You want to go for a ranking of 1.25-1.5 for true optimization.

Website XML Sitemap

An often overlooked portion of the website, the XML sitemap, is crucial in helping search engine bots to index the pages on your website. Be sure to have this as it makes it much easier to rank for your desired keywords.

CSS Validation

This factor helps ensure that your website runs free of bugs that could cause needless crashes and frustrated consumers.

Image Alt Tags

When using images on your web page, always make sure to label them with keywords pertaining to your product or services.

Internal back links

You should always strive to link other articles that are relevant to each other within the content itself. Not in a way that could be perceived as spam, but in a way that provides value to the client. for example, here is an internal backlink to our On-page optimization services.

Off-Page SEO Factors

Off-Page Factors include items that pertain to tactics not necessarily controlled by you or done on your website. Let’s take a look at a few of the most important ones.

SEO Link Building / Backlinks

Backlinks from quality websites are a great way to boost your authority in your industry. The more other reputable webpages link back to you, the higher your domain authority and the higher you would rank on SERPs.

To accomplish this, you will need to enlist the help of multiple SEO backlink building services like Guest posting on other websites, creating citations on relevant directories and many more that you can read up on in our Ultimate Guide to SEO backlinks. Another quick way to get this accomplished is to include your website into your signature when posting on forums. Each time you post that link is listed on another website, thus helping with promotion.

Keep it relevant. Link schemes and other tactics are banned by Google guidelines. Optimizing your site for SEO is one thing, but trying to use shady tactics that are the SEO equivalent of get-rich-quick schemes will only hurt you in the long run.

NAP Citations on Local Directories

NAP citations are ideal when looking up how to rank locally. The more places you have your business name, address, and phone number linking back to you, the better. So hit up those sites such as Google’s My Business, or one of the other thousand business listing sites, and get to typing. You can also use Citation building services to take care of this pain sticking link building strategy.

Brand Mentions

In an unknown aspect of off-page SEO, Google has admitted to noticing brand mentions in content. In their patent, they infer that their system can detect those mentions from third-party blogs that may not necessarily have a link back to the site.

Often, people will use brands as an example, proving that they are a respected resource of knowledge. How heavy this weighs on the search engine bots is unclear, but it’s good to know that Google is looking out for those mentions.

In every marketing strategy, there must be a section that discusses your Search Engine Marketing (SEM) also known as Pay Per Click Marketing (PPC). But before you can market on a search engines, you must understand the basics.

Benefits of SEO

Search Engine Optimization

Unlike any type of ad, SEO can be done entirely for free, if you’re willing to learn how it works. Of course, very few businesses attempt this, as there is so much to learn, but in theory, there is no need to spend money.

With all the information available online, savvy business owners may do their research and learn all about how SEO works and how to implement a strategy.

However, in most cases, you can consider SEO a “buy once, cry once” investment for your website and every blog post that follows.

Also, the benefits are long-lasting. You don’t have to keep pouring money into an SEO campaign as you would with PPC ads, and the money you do put in doesn’t have a limit on growth.

For example, if you spend $90 on a PPC ad, you will only get $90 worth of traffic. However, if you spend $90 on a blog post and it takes off, there is no need to spend an extra dollar, even if it drives millions of users to your website.

Lastly, organic traffic is simply superior to paid traffic. People trust organic search results, which is excellent for PR, building brand awareness, driving conversions, and establishing brand loyalty.

Downsides of SEO

The one looming downside of SEO is the upfront investment of either time or money.

For a proper SEO strategy to flourish, a business needs a strong, responsive website and a great content marketing strategy, at the very minimum.

Now, content marketing can take many forms, and businesses won’t have to spend much to keep this going.

On the other hand, developing a modern website with state-of-the-art UX features will take either time (and a learning curve) or cash.

However, this is a one-time expense. Once an SEO strategy comes to fruition, showing up on the first page for relevant searches is enough to keep a business afloat for years to come.

Also, there is no guarantee in SEO. That’s not to suggest that any marketing effort offers guarantees, but with SEO, you could find yourself playing the “guessing game” for months at a time.

What Is SEM?

Wood letters of SEM and definition on wood background

While SEO seeks to drive organic traffic, search engine marketing (SEM) attempts to skip the line.

If you’ve searched on Google before, you know that a few advertisements pop up at the top of the results most of the time, followed by the organic results.

The point of SEM/PPC ( Pay Per Click / Paid Search marketing) is to ensure that your ads or website links appear in front of your target audience and for you to get charged when hey actually interact or click on your ads.

Simply speaking SEM/PPC is an online advertising effort on the part of your company to use paid promotions to put your company in front of potential customers.

There are many PPC marketing formats that you can use, including the following:

  • Text ads
  • Video ads
  • Image ads
  • Social media ads
  • Remarketing ads

These advertising methods are used on a myriad of platforms, such as Google, Bing, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and others.

Launching a PPC ad campaign can be the first tactic in your arsenal of SEM strategies. Targeting potential consumers based on geography or industry can help you pinpoint those who are more likely to make a purchase.

Keywords are at the heart of PPC, and a bid strategy is what keeps them going. The keywords used in your ad campaign are what help connect your ad to a particular search. Your bid is what helps get that ad in front of the potential consumer.

Of course, as many as 94% of us skip over the search ads in favor of organic content, but that doesn’t matter. SEM is still widely effective for what it is.

Optimizing Your Website For SEM/PPC Marketing

SEM/PPC is a way for businesses to effectively reach new customers, increase their profits, and lower their overall costs of advertising.

SEM/PPC is a go-to for marketers as the results are measurable and trackable, they’re quick to implement, see results from and you are in full control.

Running a PPC campaign is fairly simple for an experienced marketer:

  • Choose the platform for your PPC efforts.
    • Twitter/ Facebook/ Google/ GDN/ LinkedIn
  • Choose the type of ad
    • Search/Video/App/Image
  • Determine your budget and bidding strategy
    • Cost per click/ cost per view/ cost per acquisition
  • Customize your search terms, audience and create ad groups
  • Decide where your customers will land once they click on your ad.
  • Track results

Benefits of SEMNotebook with Toolls and Notes about SEM,concept

For one, SEM allows you to skip the line. Developing an SEO strategy comes with no guarantees of ranking anywhere close to the first page. Now, we’re not suggesting ads don’t come with risk, but they are far easier to control.

Consequently, there’s even a joke in the marketing world: “Where did the SEO specialist hide the dead body? On the second page of Google.”

Well, as most web users know, there’s plenty of truth to that. How often do you go onto the second page of search results?

For that reason, showing up at the top of the SERPs, whether organically or not, is worth every penny. You can still get similar benefits of SEO like building brand awareness and revenue, but with near-instant results.

Downsides of SEM

Now, there’s one obvious “con” when it comes to SEM, and that’s the ongoing costs. For SEO, the need for upfront cost tends to be higher, but the results also last much longer (on average).

On the other hand, SEM tends to follow a PPC structure, meaning that you lose money every time someone clicks on your ad without buying anything.

Unfortunately, most ads have conversion rates of under 2%, so if you aren’t making up for the cost of each click 50 times over, then you may lose money in the short term.

Of course, revenue isn’t the only goal of an SEM campaign, as building brand awareness may help build revenue in the long term. However, it’s something to keep in mind, especially when operating on a tight budget.

Generally speaking, small businesses should spend around 8% of revenue on marketing, and most of that will go toward ads, especially in the early days.

A Roadmap for SEO and SEM Success

Portrait of a happy business owner hanging an open sign on the door at a cafe and smiling

We have all heard the saying, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” This phrase is more than just a saying you found on Pinterest or stitched on a pillow. This phrase holds for millions of business owners around the world.

For a business to succeed, one must implement an Internet marketing strategy that is targeted towards your key demographics, has clear and measurable metrics, and is fluid enough to change as the situation changes.

Marketing your company or product to increase profitability is the overall goal of your marketing strategy and should be based on your market research. The internet is where you will accomplish this task.

Is Digital Marketing Worth It?

The internet allows businesses, who were once limited by the radius their shoppers were willing to travel, and the inability to reach new markets across the world.

By 2023, the same study mentioned above has calculated that there will be 300 million Online shoppers in the United States alone.

Even if you limited your e-commerce efforts to the United States, that is a much larger pool of people than those that live within driving distance of your physical location.

So how do you reach those people? How do you market your business to the hundreds of millions of people searching online for the type of product or service that you sell?

You are not the only person on the internet that is selling these types of products or services, so how do you stand out?

Similarities Between SEO and SEM

SEO and search engine marketing share a medium, namely Google, so you would expect there to be commonalities between the two. Well, they have more in common than you may think.

Keyword Research

keywords semrush

Between both SEO and SEM campaigns, keyword research is essentially the same, and it acts as a key pillar for both. Keywords are the only way for Google to match your content with the appropriate user.

We used the example with the car dealership trying to rank for specific models, but this could be for anything. It all starts with some brainstorming for relevant keywords to your industry that users are likely to search.

From there, using the proper keyword research tools like Semrush, which will tell you related keywords, you can develop a list of keywords to use in both strategies.

These tools will tell you (relatively) how much traffic a keyword gets, how much competition there is, and the average cost-per-click on Google Ads.

Once you have a handy list of the right keywords, using a healthy mix of short-tail and long-tail keywords is the perfect strategy for ranking in the short term and long term.

Short-tail keywords are terms like “SEO”, whereas long-tail keywords could be “SEO content writing services near me.” The reason you want to use both is that long-tail keywords have less competition, making them easier to rank for sooner.

Conversely, short-tail keywords have a lot of competition, but far more traffic, making them an excellent long-term goal that could drive exponential growth.

Tracking Metrics

Man viewing website traffic analytics data on laptop computer

Using tools like Google Analytics, tracking metrics for both SEO and SEM campaigns is very similar.

For example, to understand user retention, you will look at your bounce rate. You will also want to know how traffic is coming in, what it’s doing, how it interacts with your site, and more.

Total clicks, referring domains, core web vitals, and user experience metrics are also critical to improving both conversion rates and organic traffic.

What Is the Main Difference Between SEO and SEM?

We understand the confusion; “search engine marketing” and “search engine optimization” don’t sound all that different at first glance and they have some important similarities.

Well, for one, SEO takes a lot of time to develop into a lucrative strategy. You may spend months working on an SEO strategy before ever seeing any benefit, which leads to so many businesses abandoning their strategies. So, what’s the best approach?

SEO vs SEM: Which Is Better?

Of course, there’s no definitive winner between the two that’s better for every business. There are too many factors at play to make that distinction.

However, what we can say is that, overall, a successful SEO strategy is better than a successful SEM strategy when we consider long-term ROI. The upfront costs are more expensive and there is slightly less security involved, but when it pays off, the results last.

If a business shows up on the first page of a few relevant Google searches with decent traffic, that could be enough to keep their business afloat for years.

Conversely, SEM will only work as long as you continue to put money into it. However, that’s not to say that they don’t have a place in a modern marketing strategy.

SEO and SEM Marketing Go Hand in Hand

Both SEO and SEM/ PPC have their place in your overall marketing strategy. Any good business person or marketer will know that in order to truly optimize your marketing strategy, you must include both and use them accordingly.

Search engine marketing and search engine optimization should be considered two sides of the same coin. SEO is what helps marketers lay a solid foundation for SEM, which is why you cannot really have one without the other.

Having a website that is optimized with strong keywords, links, and relevant content is what helps the search engine marketing ads to convert potential customers into continuous customers at a much better rate and have them keep coming back instead of bouncing as soon as they land on your website.

Which Is Right for Your Business

female entrepreneur found the right way to digital marketing

If anybody tells you that you should only use one of these marketing tools, then you can ignore any other advice they offer you.

Generally speaking, a combination of SEO and SEM is tremendously beneficial. SEM can help you drive traffic, build brand awareness, and generate revenue in the short term while you build your SEO strategy over the long term.

Keep in mind, SEO and SEM aren’t right for every business, as some won’t even rely on SERPs for their traffic.

For example, why would a video game company put too many resources into SEM when they could demonstrate their products’ features more effectively with video marketing?

Moreover, businesses will need to consider the nature of their industry, demand for short-term revenue, and long-term goals to determine where to allocate the most funds. However, SEO and SEM are both effective tools, especially when used together.

How Can I Get Started?

Mature businessman working at home using lap top and smart phone, start working to improve business online

If you want to start with SEO or SEM, we always recommend starting by improving your website. Both marketing strategies are fully dependent on the quality of your website, so take user experience and responsiveness seriously.

From there, you can build these campaigns yourself, but there is a large learning curve involved without any guaranteed payout. To limit risk, we suggest hiring fully-managed SEO services.

Every business, regardless of its ad success, should be trying to build an SEO strategy. Once it pays off, your need for ongoing ad expenditure will sharply reduce.

Otherwise, you can start your SEM campaigns as soon as possible with the right keyword research, web design, and clear brand identity. Once you have that, you can start generating revenue as soon as possible.

Start Growing

They both have their place in the sun; it all depends on what you need at this moment. If you are an established business with years of experience, then chances are you do not have to put as much focus into SEM.

However, if you are just starting out and need the exposure, then you will need to look at how much you can spend when it comes to your search engine marketing and SEO.

Generally speaking, if you are a new business; you should do both at the same time and have your PPC initiatives cover the costs of your SEO marketing as it takes a while for SEO to show results.

But if you can’t afford both, then definitely start with SEM to see instant results.  Now that we’ve settled the score on SEO vs SEM, there’s no time like the present to get started.

Remember, SEO takes time, so give your company every opportunity to start generating revenue as soon as possible. Once your strategies come to fruition, you can just sit back and watch the organic traffic flow!

There are many nuances that go into SEO vs SEM, so hiring a professional to help guide you is always the right choice.

For details on how we can help you get the most out of your business marketing strategy, check out our website for more information or book a 30-minute free SEO and SEM consultation with one of our none commissioned experts.

Keep reading our blog for our latest digital marketing tips and feel free to contact us with any questions or for help with your strategy!