SEO vs SEM: What is the difference?

In this digital age, search engines play an essential role in our lives. Whether searching for information or looking for something to buy, we’ll often use Google or other search engines to find it.

This means that the success of a business can rely heavily on how well they rank on these search engines. Suppose you can’t make the first page of a search engine results page. In that case, attracting consumers and generating revenue may be difficult.

The good news is that you can improve your rank by using strategies such as search engine optimisation (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM). These terms are often used interchangeably, but that would be a mistake. They both have similarities, but they also have very important differences.

To help clear this up for you, this article will explain what SEO and SEM are, the differences between both, and when to utilise each so that you can rank better on search engines.

The main difference between SEO and SEM is that SEO generates website traffic organically, whereas SEM generates traffic through pay-per-click (PPC) ads. As such, they are two sides of the same coin.

Both play an important role in improving your website visibility from search engines, but they have different uses. Let’s explore them in more detail, along with their use cases.

Search engine optimisation (SEO) deals with increasing the amount of organic traffic to a website by improving its position in search engine result pages (SERPs).

The search results on search engines such as Google are ranked according to certain factors. Nobody knows exactly what all the factors are – there are too many – but we do know that they fall into three main categories. You have:

  • On-page SEO – Creating content and including keywords that users are searching for
  • Off-page SEO – Building your website’s authority so search engines consider your website high-quality
  • Technical SEO – Optimising your website to make it easier for search engines to find and ‘understand’ the content on your web pages

SEO deals exclusively with organic traffic, which means that website visitors come from natural means, i.e., without paid ads. You can increase your website traffic through paid search strategies – something we’ll explain later – but not having to pay money to do so is a major benefit of SEO.

Visitors from organic search results will also improve the quality of traffic on your website. Instead of visitors who accidentally clicked an ad and bounced away a few seconds later, you’ll receive visitors who consciously decided to click on your page. This also improves the user experience and user engagement on your website.

As such, SEO is seen as a great long-term strategy to improve your website’s overall visibility and credibility without having to pay a single penny.

What is on-page SEO?

On-page SEO refers to curating content on your website that users are searching for, thus maximising the amount of traffic you receive.

One of the main ways this is done is by utilising keyword research. Keyword research will identify certain words and phrases users often type in search queries. All you need to do is ensure these keywords are strategically sprinkled throughout your website, such as in headings and the body of text, without indulging in "keyword stuffing". The goal is to match your website’s content with the user’s search intent.

As the name suggests, search intent is the information the searcher is looking for. For instance, someone searching for ‘shoes’ is likely shopping for new shoes. As such, they will want to see transactional search results. On the other hand, someone searching for ‘how to replace a boiler’ is likely searching for informational search results.

Curating your content to match the type of search intent is a big part of on-page SEO. Alongside your content and keyword, it also involves making changes to your:

  • Headings
  • URL structure
  • Title tag
  • Meta description
  • Images

What is off-page SEO?

Off-page SEO is improving your website’s trust and authority to show search engines that your website has content that users find useful, thus making them rank your website higher. This is done away from your website.

One of the main strategies of off-page SEO is link building. Link building involves generating backlinks, which is when an external website links back to your website. Backlinks are essentially an endorsement of your website’s content, indicating to search engines that your website should rank higher than your competitors. Google and other search engines consider backlinks as one of the most important factors when ranking a website, hence why it’s such a crucial aspect of SEO.

However, not all backlinks are treated equally, which makes it a little tricky. It’s better to receive a backlink from a relevant or high-authority website. For instance, a backlink from a Guardian article will be far better than receiving a link from a small blog with little traffic. Also, the anchor text must be relevant and have the appropriate tags.

But link building isn’t the only way to improve your off-page SEO. You can also use the following:

  • Social media marketing
  • Getting good customer reviews
  • Improving overall branding

What is technical SEO?

Technical SEO involves making it easy for search engines to find, crawl, and index your web pages.

Search engines want to provide the best results to their users in the shortest time. For them to deem your website as rankable for a certain search result, they first need to be able to find your content.

They then need to crawl it, which means reading the code to determine what the content is. Think of this as them understanding your web pages and deciding whether it matches the search intent.

Search engines then need to index your website. Indexing involves storing and organising your content in its database – essentially logging your website as a potential search match or not. Once this has been done for your website, the search engine will rank you against your competitors based on how relevant it thinks your content is.

You can improve your website’s technical SEO by:

  • Making your web pages load as fast as possible
  • Increasing site speed on both desktop and mobile
  • Ensuring it has structured data
  • Making sure it is secure

You will increase your chances of ranking considerably by ensuring all these technical SEO aspects are optimised.

Search engine marketing (SEM) is an umbrella term for driving more traffic to your website using search engines. In truth, SEO falls within the SEM category. Still, SEM also includes paid advertising – also known as pay-per-click ads.

So whilst SEO increases traffic via organic search results, PPC increases traffic from paid search results. SEM is often used synonymously with PPC ads, which is how we’ll use the terms to avoid confusion.

As opposed to SEO, which is seen as a long-term strategy, the benefit of SEM is that it can help you immediately impact your target audience. By using Bing or Google ads to display them to relevant customers straight away, it allows businesses and brands to increase their brand exposure instantly, which can provide fast results.

Plus, since you only pay per click, you know your money has gone towards a clickthrough, making it quantifiable and measurable. PPC ads are also relatively easy to set up and maintain, which means most of your work will be front-loaded – once the ad is active, you can take a step back and let it run. But you’ll still need to analyse the data periodically and make relevant changes.

SEM can be quite costly, especially if you’re creating large-scale ad campaigns, because the more clicks you receive, the more you’ll pay. You can set limits on your overall budget, but that will also limit your results. This means that SEM is as expensive as you make it.

If you want to claim the number one ad spot on a search engine’s front page – which will generate more traffic – you’ll also be expected to pay much higher than if you were in the third spot. You must also consider which keywords you want your ad to appear for. The higher the competition for a keyword, the more you’ll have to bid for an ad spot, drastically increasing costs.

You can see results from SEM almost immediately. For instance, you can create and release an ad campaign in the morning and already begin to see results by the afternoon. The pay-per-click model means that your ad will be fast-tracked to the first page immediately, so your clickthrough rate should increase straight away. However, it can take between two to four weeks to see sizeable results.

This can be great for some businesses since you won’t have to play the long game as you do with SEO. Creating valuable content, generating backlinks, and improving your website’s loading speeds so that search engines eventually rank you higher is a process that can take anywhere between a few months to a few years.

However, it does mean that your results will also stop as soon as you stop running your ad campaign. This is because you haven’t optimised your website to gain organic traffic. As such, the results from an SEM strategy are directly correlated with how long you engage in it. So if you want to see long–term results with SEM, you’ll have to keep doing it, making it an infinitely long process.

Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to this; your digital marketing strategy will depend on your business goals, budget, and time available. However, we can give you some general recommendations to help you choose between paid vs organic.

When to focus on SEO

Generally speaking, developing organic traffic will be beneficial for any website and should be done regardless as a long-term investment. But you should adopt a 100% SEO-focused strategy if you have a limited budget.

Also, suppose you’re looking for long-term results that will continue to generate traffic and revenue passively. In that case, an SEO focus will be best. This typically lends itself to more informational keywords and content such as ‘how to’ guides. Remember that while you will have to spend a lot of time curating quality content and optimising your off-page and technical SEO, you may not see a return on this work for months or years.

As we mentioned earlier, backlinks are an important part of SEO. If you have the network and capability to achieve good quality backlinks from high authority websites, then focusing on an SEO strategy will help your website rank on search engines.

When to focus on SEM

SEM can be a great strategy for those with a consistent ad budget. This is because you can set an upper limit on how much you want to spend each month or over a full campaign, so once that limit is reached, your ads won’t show anymore. This simplifies the process since you can track how much you spend at all times.

Generating PPC ads involves targeting the right keywords, directing users to the correct landing page, and writing good copy that entices consumers to click. So you also need to know how to manage a Google Adwords account, as that’s where all your data will be, and also how to test landing pages to see which ones have the highest conversion rate.

SEM tends to lend itself towards more e-commerce websites where the user is looking to buy a product or service, especially for keywords that are difficult to rank for. For instance, ranking for “buy shoes” will be difficult. You’ll face competition from worldwide brands such as Nike, Adidas, JD Sport, Footlocker, etc. In this scenario, running PPC ads will be better as you can rank immediately against these brands.

But that doesn’t mean that you should abandon SEO completely.

When to focus on both

If you’re a one-man business, you may struggle to do both SEO and SEM as they can be full-time jobs. However, if you have the budget and staff to optimise your website for SEO whilst managing PPC ads simultaneously, engaging in both may be best – particularly if you offer a product or service that visitors can purchase.

If your team doesn't have the time or expertise to focus on SEO, then an outside agency can help take the strain. It can save you time (and money) in the long run and by talking to an expert, you know your website and content will be optimised for your audience and the SERPs.

SEO and SEM are two sides of the same coin – to generate website traffic. SEO does this by increasing organic search traffic, whereas SEM uses pay-per-click ads. Both are useful tools that will help your website’s visibility.

SEO is ‘free’, but will cost you a lot of time, particularly in the beginning. It’s a slow process that can take a while to pick up steam, but its effects are long-lasting once it does. On the flip side, SEM has a monetary cost, but you can see results as fast as up to a few days. However, your traffic will return to zero once you stop running your ad campaign.