SEO vs SEM: What’s the Difference?

A set of hands hold up two sticky notes. One says SEO, the other SEM. Caption says: What's the difference?

SEO vs SEM: What’s the Difference?

And Which Is Best for Your Online Marketing Strategy?

Not sure what the difference is between SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and SEM (Search Engine Marketing)?

This post is for you.

Today, we'll be looking at the differences between SEO and SEM, their pros and cons, and how you can use both to power your online marketing strategy.

Let's dive in.

The Difference Between SEO and SEM

Google results can be divided into two main categories:

  1. organic results
  2. paid results

While SEO focuses on optimizing a website to get traffic from organic search results, SEM focuses on getting traffic and visibility from organic results and paid search results.

Understanding Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

The Goal

SEO is a slower process in which the website domain owner works to improve their website visibility and ranking with various strategies.

SEO can be divided into three categories:

  • On-Page SEO: On-page SEO refers to how a webpage is created. Creating your page using tools like keywords in your content writing can help your page rank well on Google and other search engines.
  • Off-Page SEO: Off-site SEO refers to building trust with the search engine by adding backlinks in your website and better integrating it into the web as a whole. The better your backlinks, the better you’ll rank!
  • Technical SEO: Technical SEO refers to how your website is built—its architecture. Good site architecture allows search engines to easily crawl and index your pages, improving your results.

Understanding Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is a broad term that refers to all types of marketing related to search engines.

SEM includes SEO, but it's not the whole picture. The other major element of SEM is Pay-Per-Click (PPC) marketing, which allows users to purchase ad space on Google and other search engines to market their services or products for relevant search results.

Let’s explore SEM and PPC marketing in a bit more depth.

How it Works


With PPC, a website owner will bid on a keyword. The higher you bid, the higher up on the search page your ad will appear. You will pay the amount you bid on whenever someone clicks on your site.

Quality Score

Like user interaction within SEO, PPC has a quality score determined by how users interact with your site. This feature works to figure out if your ad is a good match for the search by deciding its CTR (clickthrough rate). If you get a good quality score, you will get a discount on your bid.

Key Differences

While both SEO and SEM have significant benefits, they also have significant differences that you should consider, mainly: time and cost.


While paid ads will automatically show up on the first page, it takes time to build a strong website presence using SEO alone. On average, it takes up to two years to rank on the first page of Google with SEO.


Many people opt for SEO because they see it as free, but it’s important to recognize that it takes a lot of time, energy, and resources to succeed with SEO. You’ll need to pay to find keywords and hire writers, graphic designers, and coders to work on your site. The good news is that once you rank, you’re set – you don’t need to do much to maintain the ranking.

SEM is more expensive up front, and your place on the page is not guaranteed. The moment you stop paying, your ranking will disappear.

What to Do?

When to Focus on SEO?

We recommend focusing on SEO when:

  • You have a limited budget
  • You can rank for informational keywords (“what is” and “how-to”)
  • You understand how to write good content
  • You have time to wait for the results
  • You’re good at link building

When to Focus on PPC?

We recommend focusing on PPC when:

  • You have a consistent budget for ads
  • You can easily manage an AdWords account

When to Focus on SEM?

If you feel like you have the time, the research and the knowledge to handle both SEO and PPC—go for it! Otherwise, one or the other is an excellent start to any online marketing strategy.

Need the SEM Experts? LinkNow's Here to Help

For all things SEO- and SEM-related, LinkNow has you covered. We develop content-driven marketing campaigns to deliver consistent results for our clients. Whether you're looking to create a new ad campaign or boost your site's ranking in the search results, we're here to help.

Call us at 888-667-7186 or email for a free consultation.

Liked this post? Got some more SEM tips to share? Let us know your thoughts by commenting below!

John Wickham

Author: John Wickham

About John Wickham

John Wickham is Senior Content Writer and Strategist at LinkNow Media. An SEO expert, he writes to empower small-business owners by giving them the information they need to market themselves. His love of the written word is matched only by his love of ancient history, as well as the semi-colon.