SEO vs SEM: Which One Will Take Your Business to the Next Level?

SEO vs SEM: Which One Will Take Your Business to the Next Level?

7 mins read459 Views Comment
Syed Aquib Ur
Syed Aquib Ur Rahman
Assistant Manager
Updated on May 27, 2023 13:40 IST

Learn the major differences between SEO and SEM, through easy to understand examples.


The broad objective of SEO and SEM is increasing search engine visibility using relevant keywords. This is the only point where the two types of digital marketing meet. 

As both are search marketing approaches, anyone new to digital marketing must know the key differences between SEO and SEM. 

SEO is for Organic Reach Only

Search engine optimization (SEO) deals with gaining organic traffic. In contrast, SEM involves using paid ads on search engines and their networks. 

The SEO Approach

SEO pros focus on improving website traffic organically. SEO is always a long-term marketing strategy where results start appearing roughly around six to eight months. 

Keyword Research and Topic Clusters

SEO-trained experts perform keyword research based on the intent of the search. 

In general, this is to create a strategy for using target keywords relevant to the business. It can be choosing high search volume keywords as pillar content and creating topic clusters of relatively lower search volume keywords. 

Let’s take an example where ‘SEO’ is the target keyword for the pillar content for an Indian website. Its monthly search volume in India is around 94K to 100K, which may vary across different SEO tools and locations. 

Now, a rough topic cluster around this topic is choosing related keywords that support the pillar content, and they may have less search volume. A related cluster can contain the topics, such as

  • Keyword research  – 12K SV
  • On-page SEO – 600 SV
  • Link building – 2.4K SV

There can be more topics in this list that SEO professionals will choose so that all the clusters together contribute to the pillar content. Based on that, the website covers all the topics related to the world of search engine optimization. And that signals to Google or Bing search crawlers to rank that website on top of search results. 

The higher the ranking, the better visibility the website gets. Hence, more revenue, more credibility, and more value to the target audience. 

Got it?


Now, this approach is quite a time taking process, and it’s never easy but not impossible to rank on the first page of search engines. Mainly because the topic ‘SEO’ is extremely difficult to rank for. In other words, this is known as keyword difficulty (KD). On tools, including Ahrefs or SEMrush, the KD for the search term SEO is around 97 to 100. 

If there is only pillar content and no topic cluster, Google’s search algorithms will not consider the website trustworthy or too relevant. 

Search Engine Ranking Factors

For the sake of this topic, we will focus more on the Google search engine. 

Google has about 200 known ranking factors. Some folks in the industry mention that there are around 2000. 

What this means is that web pages must meet such criteria. There are also direct and indirect ranking factors on Google that pros in the industry must consider. 

Some well-known are high-quality backlinks, mobile-friendliness of the website, and user experience on the page. These are clubbed under broader categories based on the page level, user experience level, brand voice, and special Google algorithm rules, among many others. 

Main Elements of SEO

It is essential to consider that Google, as a search engine, is dedicated to providing the best user experience for any search query. 

While you read about the ranking factors and how specialists do keyword research, there are a few other elements. 

On-Page SEO deals with how the page appears to the user who visits the link through the search engine results page. 

This can include aspects such as 

  • URL structure that is logical and neither too long nor too short
  • Crafting and presenting content logically and interlinking relevant pages that help the user understand the page’s topic in more detail
  • Being clearly visible on mobile and page does not take too much time to load because of heavier images
  • Ensuring the topic headlines and title tags clearly define the keywords chosen
  • Writing meta descriptions to explain what the article is about

Off-Page SEO is all about gaining website traffic from trustworthy sources. One of the key practices here is link building, where another website refers to one citing that it is a trustworthy source. 

Put simply, you have full control over on-page SEO. For off-page, your website content or content creator has to be trustworthy enough to be linked on by other authority sites or known authors in the niche or industry. 

Apart from this, there is technical SEO that deals with the site structure and speed of the website. This is also for enhancing the user experience across the website. 

Explore SEO courses from the best platforms. 

SEM is Mostly Paid Advertising

Search engine marketing (SEM) is a paid strategy for running different types of ads on search engines. Marketers here focus on bidding keywords, writing copies, and creating landing pages. 

Approach in SEM 

Among the most popular types is pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, where marketers pay platforms like Google for each click on the ad. 

Running Paid Google Ad Campaigns 

Google Ads remains the major platform for search engine marketing. There are many forms of sponsored ads on Google and its partner websites. There are search, display, and shopping ads to consider here. 

One of the major differences between SEO and SEM is that search engine optimisation is primarily used for increasing/improving website traffic. In contrast, there can be multiple reasons to use SEM. 

That’s why it is important to identify the goal of the ad campaigns first. The way marketers will choose keywords will depend largely on what the objective is. 

If the campaign’s objective is lead generation, the focus will be on targeting specific and relevant keywords to the products or services the business offers. 

These could include long-tail keywords that have a lower search volume but a higher intent to convert, such as ‘buy product/service’ or “request a quote for [product/service].” 

On the other hand, for brand awareness, the focus should be on targeting broader and more general keywords related to the industry or niche. 

This could include keywords related to the benefits of the product or service, such as “affordable [product/service]” or “high-quality [product/service].”

Campaign Budgeting 

Search engine marketers who are Google Ads specialists bid on keywords based on the cost of keywords for each click. Targeting keywords in SEO and SEM are dissimilar in the way of looking at keyword costs. 

In SEO, you necessarily do not look into CPC (cost-per-click) of each keyword. But, keyword difficulty is a common aspect of research in both SEM and SEO. 

Search engine marketing professionals have training on how to set budgets for ads and for each keyword. 

The budget set for the campaign can be daily, weekly, or monthly. It will depend on the campaign objectives, competition in the market, and the available resources. The specialist has to set the budget in such a way that it will deliver the desired results while being cost-effective.

Once the budget is set, the specialist will determine the bid amount for each keyword or ad placement. The bid amount is the maximum amount the advertiser is willing to pay for a click on their ad or for each impression of the ad.

The bid amount is important because it helps to determine the ad’s position on the search engine results page (SERP) or other partner websites of Google. 

The general rule of thumb here is the higher the bid, the higher the ad’s position in the SERP or on other websites, which can lead to more clicks and conversions.

Check out the top platforms offering Google Ads courses right now!

SEO vs SEM: Key Differences in a Nutshell

Parameter SEO SEM
Results Takes at least 6 – 8 months Can take a day or a few days
Is it Free Traffic? Yes, but you will need to spend on tools and content team, and more money than SEM to maintain it No, it will only work when you bid on the right keywords, and it can be economical depending on the type of campaign objectives
Metrics Organic traffic, bounce rate, page load speed, backlinks Cost-per-click (CPC), click-through-rate, conversion rate, quality score 
Main Purpose Make a website organically rank Best for quick brand awareness and driving sales

Parting Thoughts

So these are the main differences between SEO and SEM. It is important to remember that both are equally important to use for sustained success. Ultimately, in the SEO vs SEM debate, both win, as each serves different purposes for varying marketing budgets.

About the Author
Syed Aquib Ur Rahman
Assistant Manager

Aquib is a seasoned wordsmith, having penned countless blogs for Indian and international brands. These days, he's all about digital marketing and core management subjects - not to mention his unwavering commitment ... Read Full Bio