SEO vs. SEM: Learn The Meanings and Main Differences

SEO vs. SEM: Learn The Meanings and Main Differences

When you manage to get your content ranked in the first organic position on the search engine results pages (SERPS), you can expect to see an improvement in your average click-through rate (CTR). In other words, the higher you can rank your content and the more visibility you can gain on key searches, the more traffic you can drive to your site.

So, it’s good to have a solid understanding of SEO and SEM to market your brand effectively. Both strategies can help you build your digital presence, but there are key differences between them. We’ll explore everything you need to know about SEO and SEM in 2023, including:

What is SEO?

Search engine optimization (SEO) consists of strategies and techniques you can use to improve your discoverability on Google, Bing, and other major search engines, such as Yahoo. Brands use SEO to help boost their organic visibility by creating content that aligns with what their customers and search engines like to see.

Through tactics like content marketing campaigns, SEO helps site owners “communicate” with Google. They create content that Google’s algorithm will recognize as a high-value answer to specific search queries that their target customers ask.

Since SEO is such a broad topic, we’ll explore a few of the core areas that businesses will focus on to make the pages more friendly for the search engines.

SEO-focused areas

As you start your SEO strategy, here are a few of the key areas to focus your attention. Each area helps to make your content more appealing both to the search engines and to your customers.

On-page SEO

On-page SEO centers around the factors that you’ll optimize on an actual page you create for your website. With these techniques, the goal is to demonstrate your page has the best answer for a specific search query. In other words, you want to match the user intent of the searcher. For this reason, you’ll use keyword research to understand customers’ search terms and check for semantically related keywords. Implement the terms likely to show up in content on your targeted topic, and use them to create a well-written piece of content that answers the user’s question.

In particular, you’ll use SEO strategies such as:

  • Comprehensive keyword research: To make the most out of your content, you’ll want to conduct comprehensive keyword research to ensure you include both heavily searched terms as well as any that are somewhat related. Keyword research will help you hone in on the topics that matter the most to your target audience. This will help you know the type of content most likely to interest them. You also learn the language they use to describe their problems so that you can mirror that language and further demonstrate your relevance.
  • Headline, page title, URL, and meta description optimization: You’ll want to be sure each of these four on-page areas includes the keyword you’re targeting. This helps to broadcast your relevance to both the search engine and your target audience. You want the search algorithm to match your content with people making applicable searches. When they see your page on the SERP, you also want potential customers to immediately see that your page will answer their question. Including the keyword in these key parts of the page helps to highlight your relevance.
  • Optimize images: Through alt text, for example, you can make sure your images are accessible to both all users and search engines. Search engines cannot interpret images, therefore they are blind to what an image contains unless you tell them. With alt text, it’s clear to the search engine what’s within the image, and understanding how it’s connected to your contempt can add value to your page. Some users cannot see your images as well either because their computer does not load them or they use website readers. In this situation, the alt text creates a better overall user experience.
  • User-friendly design: Your content should present in an easy-to-read layout—using plenty of white space and bullet points or lists—so that it’s scannable. This helps users respond more favorably to your page. They can find the information they seek, browse the page easily, and otherwise stay engaged with your site. As users stay longer on your site, this tells the search engines that your content is valuable and should rank well.
  • Thoughtful internal links: To keep users on your site, you’ll want to be mindful of what internal links you include on your page. Internal links can help you bring your visitors from one page to another within your site. Boosting this engagement helps to build a site reputation for the search engines, as they see visitors reacting favorably to your content. As people move around your site, they also become more familiar with your brand and more to become a lead or make a purchase.
  • Page speed and mobile friendliness: Google prioritizes pages viewable on multiple devices that load quickly. Pages that load slowly result in more people clicking off. This produces a poor user experience that Google does not want to see in the results they display on the SERP. Google also uses page speed as a metric within its ranking algorithm.
  • User intent: Google also wants to display pages that align well with what the user wants to accomplish. For example, the search engine might return video clips along with text results for “how to” questions and the top local results with contact information, reviews, and a label on the map for queries that indicate a search for a local business. Therefore, as you design content, you want to make sure that you align your content with the likely user intent. Run searches using your key term to better understand how Google interprets this query. Aligning your content development with the type of content Google displays for this query can increase your chances of a high ranking and boost your user engagement.

Off-page SEO

Alongside these elements that you use to create your content, you also want to incorporate off-page SEO strategies that will help bolster your page’s reputation throughout the digital ecosystem. As other people engage with your content, link to your material, and otherwise mention your brand, it helps to influence the “opinion” that the search engine holds on your content.

Some useful strategies include:

  • A diverse backlink portfolio: Generated through a targeted link building strategy, a high-quality backlink from another website signals to Google that your content is authoritative.
  • Company and product reviews: Your industry likely has various sites that encourage people to leave product reviews. Encouraging satisfied customers to leave positive reviews can help to enhance your brand's overall reputation.
  • Brand mentions: Usually, when you earn a backlink on another site, you’ll also get a brand mention, which will help increase your SEO and build your authority (particularly if the anchor text connects directly to your site).
  • A targeted public relations campaign: Whether you’re launching a new product or service or have some other new content you’d like to share, another off-site SEO strategy to take advantage of is a PR campaign. You’ll want to find a list of publishers relevant to your industry and see if you can earn coverage and a backlink for whatever it is you’re offering.

Technical SEO

Finally, the last core area of SEO consists of the technical aspects of the SEO process. These parts of SEO require a bit more understanding of how a site works and what Google wants to see from a technical standpoint:

  • Core web vitals: These factors focus on user experience. The three areas Google looks at include Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS), and First Input Delay (FID). These encompass some of the more technical aspects of your site, including page speed, drop-down menus, etc. Google has indicated that they use these metrics to gauge the page experience of a user. These page experience signals have been incorporated into the Google algorithm and thus directly impact how you rank on the SERP.
  • International attributes (Hreflang): If you have multiple language versions or different targeted sites for different countries, such as an English version for the U.K. versus the U.S., you will want to make sure that you have the HREFlang tags set up correctly. Hreflang tags tell Google when to display different versions of your site to provide users with the optimal user experience.
  • Crawl optimization and your crawl budget: Google will crawl a certain portion of the pages on your site, depending upon when you update your site and your popularity. In other words, a high-traffic site will get crawled more often, and more pages crawled than a very small site that sees only a few hundred visitors per month. You want to ensure Google focuses on crawling the more important pages, making sure you have no error pages that waste your budget, getting rid of pages that provide no value, and using robots.txt to block crawling when needed. For example, if you have a duplicate page to provide customers with a printable PDF of something, you do not need it crawled twice.
  • Indexation and sitemaps: You also want to create a sitemap outlining all the pages contained within your URL and make sure that it’s uploaded to the Google Search Console. Sitemaps help the search engine better understand your site and its structure.
  • Optimize your URL and its structure: Finally, you want the structure of your URL itself to make sense. Customers and search engine bots should know where they are on the site by looking at the URL and easily know how to navigate up a level or back to the homepage.

What is SEM?

SEM, which stands for “search engine marketing,” refers to paid advertising. refers to paid advertising. With SEM, you pay for ads to appear in response to particular queries. You want to study the keywords your customers will most likely search for and create high-quality paid ads that will appeal to them and can direct them back to your site. You then upload the ad to an ad manager, like Google Ads, and create a bid. Your bid specifies the amount you’re willing to pay for someone to click on your ad.

The ad platform then weighs all of the different ads proposed for a given search and will select the one that matches best. Calculations depend on weighing the highest quality match and the highest bid. Paying for each time someone clicks on your ad is known as PPC ads or pay-per-click advertising (PPC campaigns). The other major search engines, including Bing, also have paid ad options.

Bing Ads functions similarly to Google Ads by matching the ad copy with particular search terms.

Both SEO and SEM play important roles in building your presence on the search engines. They help you get your brand name and website in front of potentially interested searchers, but they do so in different ways. We will explore some of the key differences you need to note.

SEO vs. SEM: Main differences

As you begin to delve into SEO and SEM strategies, you’ll quickly encounter a few major differences. We’ll explore some of the most important ones with which you should familiarize yourself.

Paid vs. unpaid

SEO strategies are unpaid strategies to improve your organic search ranking, meaning one of your largest investments will be your time. Although you can purchase some tools to help you make the most of your efforts, SEO is largely a free strategy.

But, SEM requires a direct monetary investment: You place a bid on the ads. Each time the ad receives a click, you’ll pay.

Short-term vs. long-term strategy and results

It is also important to note that SEO and SEM look very different from a long-term marketing strategy perspective. SEM can produce nearly instantaneous results. Once you create a quality ad and landing page, you can run your campaign and start getting website traffic back to your page right away. SEM offers immensely convenient benefits for time-sensitive events.

On the other hand, SEO generally requires more of a time investment. It may take a few months before all of your effort to build a reputable site begins to pay off and attract the attention of both customers and search engines. Therefore, SEO takes a bit more time to drive traffic to web pages from the organic search results.

Positioning on the SERP

Depending upon whether you gain your visibility through SEM or SEO, you will also find that your position on the SERP differs. Paid results typically appear at the top of the SERP before the organic search results. They receive an “ad” label. If you achieve a high-ranking organic listing, however, that will appear underneath.

Different search results outcomes

Users will also notice differences in the outcomes of their SEM and SEO efforts. As you build your SEO, your effort begins to pay off cumulatively. Each new effort works together to raise the rankings of a particular piece of content. If you stop making adjustments, the page will remain in the same position unless someone else improves their content and overtakes yours.

On the other hand, SEM is completely dependent on payment. If you stop running campaigns, your ad disappears, which ends your campaign. It will not drive any more customers to your site. It can go from driving 1000 people a day to zero immediately.

Terminology: Working vs. non-working dollars

There are also important differences when it comes to budgeting and accounting for these different areas of marketing. SEO uses “non-working dollars.” The term “non-working dollars” means that there isn’t as fast of a return on the money spent on the strategy. SEM sees a return almost instantaneously, which means that it is said to use “working dollars.” The marketers here expect to see instant feedback from their investment, whether the customer engages with the band or clicks off.


As you build your digital marketing strategy, you’ll want to look at specific KPIs for each tactic. The metrics you use for both SEO and SEM will have some overlap—particularly in helping you understand if you’re truly producing quality content. For example, both will look at the number of clicks the content receives. You can also look at engagement metrics, such as the time spent on the page and the bounce rate.

However, your search ads will also want to gauge your return on ad spend (ROAS) carefully. You can calculate your ROAS by considering the average value of a conversion and how much you need to spend to earn each conversion. If a given customer equals about $60 in revenue and you have to spend $3 on advertising, the ROAS will be $20.


SEM and SEO also tend to differ when it comes to click-through rates. SEM usually produces lower click-through rates because a paid ad will have the word “ad” next to it. Studies have shown that the top organic results tend to have higher click-through rates, which is why you might find that your SEO efforts drive more clicks.

Testing differences

As marketers begin to develop campaigns and track their results, they also like to look for opportunities to test different scenarios to help them understand what might better influence their customers. The advertising industry refers to this type of testing as “A/B testing.” Changing up the text you use in your ad’s CTA, for instance, is an easy way to A/B test.

A/B testing on SEM tends to be easier than SEO because you can see which copy gets more clicks. SEO is a bit harder because it takes much longer to see your results.  

Why you should combine SEM and SEO data

Many marketers find the best results by combining both SEO and SEM strategies. This more holistic approach to improving your site’s rankings can help you better understand what resonates with your customers and deliver a more comprehensive digital marketing strategy.

SEO and SEM can share data to inform strategy

SEM data can provide immense benefits for SEO. Specifically, it can help you understand how your target audience reacts to different keywords. If you run an ad for keywords that you think will play a critical role for your brand but you see a very low conversion rate, you know to make adjustments and avoid these keywords in your organic strategy.

SEO can be leveraged for informational keywords

SEO can also play a valuable role during a customer’s journey—particularly when your customer isn’t quite ready to convert. For instance, if you run a graphic design company, your customers might be searching for more detailed information on color theory. This content won’t necessarily lead to a sale, but it’s still useful when ranking the site. Therefore, you’ll want to use SEO to help improve your rankings here versus paying for the keywords via SEM.

Using SEO and SEM to take up SERP real estate

Using SEO and SEM together can help you dominate the top part of the SERP real estate. For instance, a paid ad campaign via your SEM strategy can get your site ranking within the ads at the top of the SERPs. And by investing in an SEO strategy for similar keywords, you can also improve your chances of ranking for the highly coveted featured snippets. These are the top organic results you’ll find on the SERPs.


Throughout 2021, building your business online requires the use of both SEO and SEM. Knowing how to take advantage of where the two strategies differ and understanding when they work together can help you cement a strong presence on the SERPs—bringing in both paid and organic traffic.


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SEO vs. SEM: Learn The Meanings and Main Differences
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