Website Building

SEO vs SEM: Do You Really Need Both?

So you want to take the next step in your digital marketing strategy and grow your brand’s online presence. What is the best way to go about it? SEO or SEM?

First, ask yourself, what are your business goals? Do you want to make a profitable niche website? Are you trying to get your content ranked on the first page of Google? Do you need results immediately?

Let’s look at two popular techniques used for digital marketing, SEO and SEM. First, I will give you a quick overview of each marketing method. Then I will go into a comparison of their similarities and their differences. Finally, I will help you decide which strategy is right for your business.

What Is SEO and SEM?

SEO and SEM are two kinds of digital marketing that play a crucial role in driving traffic online.

Before we compare SEO vs SEM, let’s make sure we’re on the same page and clarify what exactly each term entails. Understanding these terms is the first step in deciding which one is the right one for you.

SEO Meaning and How It Works

So, what is SEO? SEO is an acronym that stands for “Search Engine Optimization.” It is the practice of increasing traffic to your site by improving your organic search results.

SEO vs SEM Traffic Growth

When a search engine analyzes a website, it utilizes programming commonly referred to as web crawlers or spiders.

Crawlers scan your website for many different factors such as keywords. The search engine assesses these factors and uses them to help determine the relevance of your site as it relates to a given search term. Your website appears in its given ranking in the engine’s search results based on this assessment.

And while keywords are a good thing to focus on when implementing SEO, it is not the only important factor. Content quality, content freshness, mobile friendliness, backlinks, and page speed are also important factors to consider when you are implementing SEO.

Let’s take a minute to examine in greater detail a few of the most popular white-hat SEO techniques utilized in today’s market:

  • On-Page SEO: This technique is all about optimizing the parts of your website over which you have control. On-page SEO focuses on keyword optimization in your titles, headers, internal links, and other content.


  • Off-Page SEO: Also known as “off-site SEO,” this technique focuses on things that happen off your website. An example of this is link-building. When different sites link to pages on your website, it helps a search engine recognize that your site offers high-quality content to users.


  • Technical SEO: There is a lot of stuff going on below the surface when you publish a website. This technique focuses on optimizing everything that isn’t content. Aspects of technical SEO include site architecture, loading speeds, and the mobile user experience.

The more time you spend researching SEO, the more overwhelming it may begin to seem. It took me some time before I felt I had a strong understanding of how it all works.

I can tell you, it is possible to learn SEO techniques that yield positive results for your business.

SEM Meaning and How It Works

What is SEM? SEM means “Search Engine Marketing.” SEM uses pay-per-click (PPC) ads, which appear on search engine results pages or other websites, to drive users to your website.

Google Adsense SEM

If you think you want to use SEM for your business, two of the biggest advertisers you should know about are Google Ads and Bing.

Google Ads

Google is the undeniable leader when it comes to search engine popularity and Google Ads offers two advertising networks for businesses:

  • Search Network: Users can create text ads that appear on the Google search engine results page.
  • Display Network: Users can create display ads that will appear on many other sites and direct traffic to your site.

Bing Ads

Microsoft owns Bing and Bing Ads. They also own the Yahoo and AOL search engines. Users who buy Bing Ad space will have ads shown on all three. Many advertisers see the advantages of advertising on one platform and reaching users across Microsoft’s entire search network.

SEO vs SEM: Understanding the Similarities

By now, it is clear that SEO and SEM are two sides of the same coin. Both advertising methods are focused on helping you reach out to users and direct more traffic to your website. They are so similar that many SEO experts use “search marketing” as an umbrella term that covers SEO and SEM (which, in this case, refers to PPC).

Now that we have a solid understanding of what SEO and SEM mean, let’s look at some similarities between SEO vs SEM.

Increases Visibility

Both SEO and SEM help you appear in search results. At the most basic level, both SEO and SEM help you raise your website’s place in the rankings on search engine result pages (SERPs).

Targeted Keywords

Both SEO and SEM use targeted keywords to help users find your site. Whether you decide to use SEO, SEM, or a combination of both, you will need to conduct some keyword research. You need to understand what keywords are the most popular with users. And you need to know what keywords are the most relevant to your brand regardless of technique.

SEM Tool, Ahrefs

Helps Drive Traffic

Both techniques drive traffic to your website. Gaining a better rank on a search engine is only the first part of the goal of utilizing SEO and SEM. The success of both strategies can be judged by the increase in click-through-rate (CTR) to your site.

Understanding Your Audience

Both SEO and SEM to know your audience. There are many strategies to gain a better understanding of your audience. You can use buyer personas, market segmentation, or any other viable strategy that you want to gain more knowledge of your users. This information is crucial when the time comes to optimize your website and develop high-quality content.

Consistent Monitoring and Adaptability

Both techniques require consistent monitoring and adaptability. To get the most out of either strategy, you must monitor your presence on SERPs and your website’s traffic. Changing content, testing new keywords, and analyzing user trends are essential to ensuring you get the most out of your digital marketing strategy.

SEO vs SEM: The Differences

We now know that SEO and SEM are two branches of the same tree, but they are not identical.

So how do they differ from one another? When I look at the two strategies, a few key differences jump out at me that I think could be valuable to you when deciding whether you want to use SEO vs SEM in a particular situation.

Cost Considerations

I mention this first because it is one of the most obvious differences between the two strategies. SEO is free and requires nothing more than time and hard work on your part. If someone clicks a link on an external website that directs to your site, it costs you nothing. The only time you need to consider the financial cost of SEO is if you decide to hire a qualified SEO expert.

Alternatively, SEM works on a pay-per-click basis. Every time a user clicks on your ad, you must pay a small fee. This is important to remember when determining your budget for marketing. Paying for each click on an ad can quickly drain your budget. Consider this before making a decision.

Choosing and Focusing on a Specific Audience

SEM allows you to filter who is more likely to see your ads based on demographics, such as age, geographic location, or income level. These parameters will be factored into when and where your ads appear on SERPs and other websites. With SEO, you can’t achieve that same degree of focused marketing.

Organic Traffic Growing From SEO


You could probably have recognized this one even if I didn’t point it out to you. We’ve all seen the ads at the top of a search results page with tags such as “AD” or “Sponsored.” Many SEM ads also give you the option to provide additional info such as phone numbers, extra links, or other call-outs.

SEO results are organic and appear directly in the results on a search engine. While SEMs most often appear at the top of the page, an SEO strategy will determine where in the ranking your site is placed.

Speed of Results

When you buy ad space as part of an SEM strategy, users will see the ad as soon as you turn it on. SEO is a slower process that takes time to build up and make an impact. This can be important if your content is time-sensitive or you need to see a rapid return on your investment.

As an interesting side note to consider, there is a theory that Google utilizes a “sandbox” to inspect new websites before allowing a site to appear in rankings. If you want to utilize SEO and want to try to minimize the delay before your site appears in the rankings, it may be worth your while to learn how to get out of the Google Sandbox and get ranked quicker.

A/B Testing

One major advantage of SEM is that you can immediately turn any paid ad on or off as you deem necessary. This allows you to understand what is working and what isn’t. Do you think you need to target a different demographic? Do you want to edit your copy and test the difference in impact as it relates to site traffic?

With SEM, you can make those changes and analyze the results.

If you are relying on organic results from an SEO strategy, the impact of your decisions can take longer to develop, and therefore, longer to analyze. You need to ensure that you have a strong grasp of your audience and that you understand how you want to market your content before launching it, because testing new content is a longer process.

Long-Lasting Value Over Time

While SEO takes longer than SEM to begin making an impact, it provides lasting results that will continue to build and grow. The cumulative effect can be a powerful one as your site continues to climb search engine rankings and increase in value.

SEM only works while you are using your ads. If you turn them off or decide you no longer wish to pay for the ad space, the method stops providing value. This means you will need to consider other options for your site.

Should I Use SEO or SEM?

Now that I’ve given you a brief look at the similarities and differences between SEO vs SEM, I want to talk about how to choose which strategy is right for you.

Many companies and entrepreneurs choose to focus their efforts on either SEO or SEM. Others attempt to use both, and that can be a highly effective strategy. The right decision for you will depend on a few different key factors.

When to Use SEO

When should you focus on developing an SEO strategy?

  • You have a limited budget. Whether you are an individual, a start-up, or an established small business, financial considerations very likely factor into how you want to market your website. If your marketing budget is small, then it doesn’t make sense to spend it all on a short-lived SEM campaign. SEO provides a greater value over time and can be a great way to market your business with little to no initial financial costs.
  • You want sustainable growth. SEM and SEO both require ongoing maintenance but SEO is more stable and will continually influence your ranking on SERPs while growing more effective over time.
  • You want to reach a wider potential audience. PPC ads appear on specific sites depending on who you decide to do your advertising with. SEO results will appear on many different search engines and provide you with a greater potential to reach audiences that a more targeted ad might miss.

Website Trafic Using SEM

When to Use SEM

While SEO offers many benefits, SEM provides value in other areas that may be more important to you. Let’s look at a few:

  • You want an immediate impact and the control to make changes. SEO requires a slow build-up to be effective while PPC ads begin to work for you as soon as you turn them on. If you want to target a specific audience and control the performance of your marketing almost in real-time, then SEM might be the right strategy for you.
  • You value data analysis and actionable insights. Using a service such as Google Ads provides you with tools to capture data and study factors such as Quality Scores, conversion rates, and ROI to better understand the effectiveness of your ads.

These detailed analytics can give you invaluable information, especially if you want to grow a website’s profitability with less delay.

  • You have a dedicated budget. If you have established a consistent, dedicated budget for digital marketing, then utilizing SEM can be highly effective.

Having a set budget allows you to better decide when and where you want to place your ads. It also gives you the ability to test and adjust your ads within predetermined limits, which can be important when balancing costs and benefits.

Why Does It Matter?

There is no one right answer when it comes to deciding between SEO vs SEM for your digital marketing. What matters most is the goals you have for your website and the method you feel will work best for you.

Both SEO and SEM are effective tools for marketing and the real power of the tools comes from how you as the user decide to implement them. Chances are you have read through this article and have found aspects of both strategies that you would like to use. Combining SEO and SEM into a multi-channel marketing strategy can be a great idea.

Don’t worry if you are not able to implement both strategies right away. The wonderful thing about SEO and SEM is that they work well individually but can also be used in tandem to develop a more all-encompassing marketing campaign that provides immediate results and continued growth over longer time domains.

Take your time and consider your options. As you continue to develop content, study your audience, and define your business goals. Then you will be better able to determine which strategies are right for you. With hard work and a little planning, you can see your website climb through the search engine rankings and watch as traffic is driven to your business.

Zach Zorn

Zach Zorn is the owner of Money Nomad and an enthusiast of all things tech. Zach has extensive experience creating and managing niche review websites. In 2018 one of his websites was acquired by a private equity firm, igniting his passion even more. Zach also runs an Amazon FBA business that has given him experience with customer service, product manufacturing and design. While in high school Zach helped design several successful apps for Disney. When not on the computer, Zach is most likely off the coast of San Diego or Baja fishing for saltwater game fish.

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One Comment

  1. Nice breakdown Zach. I see the benefits of using a 1-2 punch with both SEO and SEM. I have not used SEM yet but your post makes for a convincing argument for a 2 pronged approach. Well done.


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