• Toucan Insights Staff

SEO vs SEM: Which one should you use?

rocky balboa knocking drago

Source: https://arielestebanart.artstation.com/projects/ba9OLv

In the realm of Search Marketing, there are 2 distinct strategies that you can apply to increase your page rank. They are called SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and SEM (Search Engine Marketing, which could also be found as SEA, the A standing for Advertising). This is where a lot of people get confused.

Both strategies have the goal to increase your online visibility and drive traffic to your website. This is where the similarities stop.

Reading on, we will explain these two terms and what differentiates them. We will also give general advice on when you should use one of them or both.

What is the difference between SEO and SEM?

There are two types of results on search engines, organic results, and paid results.

Paid results are usually placed above organic search results and the former has a small sign saying ‘Ad’ in front of them to make it clear companies paid for those ad spots.

Both have different characteristics and they can be used independently or simultaneously to increase your brand visibility on search engines.

SEO is an organic strategy that is used to increase your website ranking for organic search results.

This practice consists of providing value to your visitors through your content. SEO also entails a technical aspect that is aimed at boosting website performance.

SEM refers to the paid strategies that companies use to promote their offerings through digital advertising campaigns that show up at the top of the search results page. These tactics aim to bring a specific target audience through advertising campaigns to a specific webpage.

This approach includes PPC (Pay-per-Click), CPM (Cost-per-Mile), and CPA (Cost-per-Acquisition) as their main approaches.

What is SEM (Search Engine Marketing)?

search engine marketing example

SEM is often inappropriately described as being an umbrella term that includes unpaid strategies (SEO) and paid strategies.

Search engine marketing is a strategy that uses paid tactics to advertise websites on search engines. It is often associated with pay-per-click (PPC) marketing because you are usually paying for every click your ads get.

Additionally, marketers use other common paid tactics like CPA (cost-per-acquisition), CPM (cost-per-mile), and CPS (cost-per-sale) to run their ads.

SEM involves creating and optimizing ads on search engines. It starts with defining a monthly budget to control how much money you want to spend on your ads.

In your ads account on Google you will have the option to choose between different target audiences as well as a list of ad formats that best suit your niche:

  • Text ads

  • Display ads

  • Video ads

  • Mobile ads

  • Shopping ads

  • Local ads

  • Hotel ads

  • Responsive ads

  • Comparison Listing ads

After this, you will need to research and define the keywords to create the ads campaign. Each ad will receive a quality score that indicates the relevance between the keyword, the ad itself, and the web page you are advertising. A higher quality score means:

Higher position relative to your competitors

Depending on your industry, competition could be very high within paid search results. By improving your ads you will increase your chances of getting them placed above those of your competitors even if they bid more money for a specific keyword.

Better discount on ads

Google rewards people who put more effort into creating high-quality ads by reducing the price of each click they receive.

Also, Google is getting more and more selective about their ad space and who they put over others. This is the main reason why they decided to introduce the ad-quality score to make sure that the most relevant ads appear in the first place.

What is SEO (Search Engine Optimization)?

keywords example

Search engine optimization is the other subunit of Search Marketing (the other one being SEM), which refers to non-paid strategies aimed to attract users to websites on search engines.

SEO can be divided into 2 categories

On-page SEO

This type of SEO involves making changes to your website in order to improve your page rank. The goal is to create valuable and appealing content for your users.

This also includes reducing your website loading time and optimizing your website to be mobile-friendly, to name a few.

Also, you have direct control over these factors.

Off-page SEO

It refers to all the external strategies developed outside of your website that help to improve your visibility on search engines and bring more traffic to it. The goal is to get external sources to refer back to your website with the aim of increasing your perceived authority.

Among the main approaches are including backlinks from other websites, increasing the number of positive reviews, and having more advocates and shares on social media.

With this approach, you have less control and an indirect influence on these factors because other parties out of your direct control are involved.

Did you know about the dark side of SEO? Read more here: SEO Strategy: What is and Why you need to Avoid Black-Hat SEO practices.

3 Similarities and 5 differences between SEO and SEM

First, let’s look at the SIMILARITIES between SEO and SEM.

1) Topic Research

For both strategies you will need to start out by researching specific keywords for which you want to rank your website and that are related to your brand.

Therefore, you first need to recognize your audience and understand what their biggest needs and wants are. By knowing this, then you can search for keywords that are related to a determined theme.

Out of these topics, you will select the ones with the highest search volumes and you will research and benchmark your industry to comprehend the current market state.

2) Continuous Optimization

For paid search, some people might think that once you have developed your ads, you will never return to them. The truth is that you have to constantly optimize them to see if there is any update regarding the ads’ performance.

For SEO you need to create your content based on the best practices recommended by the search engines. Due to their regular updates, it can happen that you drop in page rank when new ranking factors are introduced. Therefore, you always need to be aware of the latest implementations.

Furthermore, it is crucial to stay up-to-date with your industry and the latest changes that top players implement.

3) Measurement of Success

The goal of SEO and SEM is to drive more traffic to your website.

Basically, they are two sides of the same coin that is called Search Marketing. It is important for both strategies to quantify the performance of each action in order to optimize the strategies accordingly.

Improving the CTR (Click-through-rate) is one key metric to determine whether both SEO and SEM are being successful or not.


Contact Toucan Insights Now and book your FREE consultation meeting.


Now, let’s see what DIFFERENTIATES them.

1) Quality Measurement

The quality of an SEO campaign is determined by how optimized your website is as well as how relevant your page is for the users’ search query. Additionally, the perceived level of authority within your niche is compared to the authority level of other sources.

For SEM, quality assurance relies on Google’s quality score. This score is based on the relevance between the ad, the keyword, and the page you want to advertise for. Higher relevance among these 3 components means a higher quality score.

2) Level of Control

You can’t control who sees your page on organic search results. Everyone who puts in your keyword or a variation of it will -most probably- find your website listed at some point after scrolling through the results.

Paid search lets you specify the target who you want to see your ads. For instance, you can adapt the settings for geographics, demographics, and behavioral targeting. This lets you target the audience you think is more prone to convert and become your customer.

3) Testing

You can immediately see the results of your paid search campaigns after publishing them. This provides you with the knowledge and control to optimize your campaigns. This insight allows you to evaluate your ads and landing pages quicker than with SEO.

For organic search campaigns, you will need to wait several weeks until the search engine properly ranks your web pages. After this, you will then be able to conduct a performance analysis and implement the necessary changes in your strategy.

4) Value: Long-term vs short-term

While SEM provides immediate results and gives you a headstart in terms of performance, it will become costly over time. On the contrary, with SEO you will need to wait to see the results but they will grow exponentially over time. Then your hard work will start to pay off.

5) Workload

Regarding the workload, you will need to put in more effort at the beginning of your organic search strategy to build up a solid content foundation. Once you have achieved a high page rank, you will need to focus on optimizing the content from time to time in order to maintain your ranking position.

On the contrary, SEM demands less effort to be created but you'll have to invest more time to optimize your ads to keep the performance of the campaign at the highest possible level.

When should you use SEO or SEM?

Now that you know the difference between SEO and SEM you are able to decide which one is better for you.

Before you decide, it is important to compare your website and strategy to that of your competitors. The goal is to identify if there is an opportunity in the market. You should identify both established and trending keywords and topics that present an opportunity for your business in your industry.

Especially when you are just starting out with search marketing, you should pay attention to your budget and define the maximum cost per click you are willing to pay for a relevant keyword. If the costs are too high, then you might consider putting your effort into your SEO strategy.

If your website still has room for improvement (in terms of design and value to your audience), then it would be better to prioritize your SEO before spending money on ads that will attract visitors to your underperforming website.

If you think you have a clean and user-friendly website, then you can start creating ads to further expand your visibility to more prospective target audiences.

Your industry's experience also plays an important role when deciding what strategy you want to start with.

When you already know who your target audience is and you are confident about your ability to communicate valuable content to them then you can plan your long-term SEO strategy.

Otherwise, if you are new in your niche you can start by gathering data about your target audience with SEM. Testing a few campaigns with paid search can provide you with the necessary information to see what works and what doesn’t before you start developing an in-depth SEO strategy.

In conclusion, SEO and SEM should work together to provide an enriched experience and performance. It could be the case that you have a great SEO campaign without SEM, however only having a well-optimized SEM campaign won’t survive without a sound SEO strategy.


Still unsure about which strategy is best for you? Book a FREE Consultation Meeting with Toucan Insights and receive tailored advice for your SEO/SEM strategy.