SEO vs. SEM: What’s the Difference and Why Should You Care?

The marketing industry is full of jargon. Today, we are taking a look at two commonly confused terms: SEO and SEM. Search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) are two powerful strategies for driving traffic to your web presence.

But what are the differences between the two? Do you need to have a strategy for both?

And most importantly: how can you use SEO and SEM to boost your traffic?

This post will answer these questions and provide some actionable strategies to get you up and running.

Let’s jump in.

What is SEO?

What is SEO?

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the practice of using various strategies to boost organic traffic flowing from a search engine such as Google to your website. Tactics such as building backlinks or increasing page speed can be used to improve where a page ranks in search engine results. The higher the ranking, the more organic traffic will flow to a website.

Related: What is SEO and why it’s still the best way to get in front of customers with Jon Dawson from Digital Ninjas

SEO is a broad topic and can be split into three main types: on-page, off-page, and technical SEO. Let’s have a quick look at each one in turn. This is in no way a definitive guide but should give you a feel for each of the main types of SEO.

On-page SEO

On-page SEO

On-page SEO refers to optimizing individual web pages. The goal of on-page SEO is to make that page rank as high and for as many keywords as possible.


  • Topic depth  – in general, Google & co. are looking for authoritative content. If a user searches for “best protein powder” it is likely that the top-ranking articles cover the topic in-depth. This is because a long-form article is more likely to answer the user’s question.
  • Reading ease – writing simple and easy to read content – Google wants content that is easy for users to understand.
  • Search intent – understand the difference between informational and transactional queries. Think about “best protein powder” vs “how to make a protein shake”. Optimally, you would aim to rank with a product landing page for the first keyword, and with a how-to post for the second.

Tags & Keywords:

  • URLs – gone are the days where black hat SEOs would stuff keywords into URLs. Now, URLs should be short and describe the page as accurately as possible.
  • Title tags and meta descriptions – this is typically what shows up in the Google search result so it ultimately can influence the user to click on not. Title and Metas should be as enticing as possible – focus on UPSs and always include a CTA.
  • Keywords – Include keywords in important places such as link texts and headings (h1,h2, etc.)

Technical SEO/Website Optimization

Technical SEO/Website Optimization

Technical SEO is all about improving the user experience of your website. Google actively punishes websites that have not optimized the experience with the following areas in mind:

  • Page Speed/Loading Time – make sure your pages load as quickly as possible. As the majority of searches are done from a mobile device, loading time is critical.
  • Mobile First – most searches happen on a mobile device, so build your website with these users in mind.
  • Responsive Design – ensure that your webpages display optimally across all devices. One of the best ways to do this is to use a responsive design such as HTML5.
  • URL Structure – make sure your content is organized in a logical way. Typically, this involves creating topic pages that cover a topic broadly and linking these to subpages that go more in-depth.

Off-page SEO

Off-page SEO

Off-page SEO is as the name suggests anything that does not involve modifying the page to boost search rankings.

Examples of off-page SEO tactics include:

  • Backlinks – gaining backlinks from authoritative websites can boost your ranking.
  • Google My Business – optimizing your Google My Business listing can improve your company’s visibility.
  • Reviews – earning positive reviews for your product can improve your search ranking, as Google picks products with favorable reviews.

What is SEM?

What is SEM?

SEM stands for Search Engine Marketing. SEM is basically gaining paid traffic from search engines. Typically, this is accomplished by paying for ads (PPC – pay per click). One example of PPC is Google Ads, formerly Google Adwords. Users create an ad with a specific goal such as clicks to a website, set a budget, and then define the keywords they would like to rank for. Popular or high volume keywords cost more per click than low volume keywords.

Point of confusion: SEM as a term, used to also include organic traffic. Now, it typically means just paid traffic. Not all SEOs agree but SEM meaning PPC is much more common.

Do you need both SEO and SEM?

Do you need both SEO and SEM?

In short, yes. But for different reasons. Recall that SEO optimizes organic traffic and SEM paid.

One of the main advantages of SEM is that the effects are immediate. The moment you run a Google Ads campaign you will start to generate traffic. However, SEM costs money.

Does SEO play a role at all in paid campaigns? 

Actually, yes! Even though paid SEM traffic is immediate, in order to optimize the conversion rate, your site still needs to perform well. It’s no good getting all that paid traffic if your site is slow to load, your content isn’t readable, and your landing page does not match user intent. So SEO is important for paid campaigns.

What about organic traffic? 

SEO is more of a long-term strategy. It takes time to build authority and climb the rankings. But the effort can be extremely valuable in the long run. Ranking for high-value organic keywords can keep the traffic rolling in for months, free of charge. The example above ranks either as a featured snippet or in the top 2 organic results for the following  high-volume keywords:

This article alone gets over 50,000 views a month. Compare that to PPC where each click costs between $1 and $2. A prime example of the long-term benefits of a dedicated SEO strategy.

Now that we understand the merits of both SEO and SEM let’s look at some actionable strategies to maximize your next campaigns.

Three Great SEM and SEO Strategies

Three Great SEM and SEO Strategies

Try these strategies to maximize your SEO and SEM efforts.

1. Use SEM for keywords that are super competitive

Some keywords are too difficult to rank for organically. How do you know which ones? Check the search volume of the keywords using a tool like Google Ads. Typically, the higher the search volume the harder it is to rank for. It is also worth doing a simple Google search and seeing what other sites currently rank. If the top 10 is full of huge brands you will have your work cut out.

Related: 3 Google Ads Tips to Improve Your Performance

Looking at the search volumes above, you can see that trying to rank for “best protein powder” organically would be extremely difficult as it has a very high search volume and high competition. This is where SEM comes into its own. Even if you are not a brand, you can rank instantly by running a paid campaign.

Once you are running a campaign it’s all about optimizing your conversion rate. Google Ads is not an exact science but one powerful tip is to use A/B testing to make incremental improvements to your ads. Change the copy and see which version converts best. Also, check out our guide on how to write effective Google Ad copy.

2. Use SEO for informational keywords

Informational keywords are where the users want to find the answer to a question. Contrast this to transactional keywords where a user wants to buy something. There are two reasons why SEO is great for informational keywords: 1) they are usually less competitive; 2) it’s easy to build great content to match user intent.

Try to pick informational queries that relate to your business niche. For example, if you sell protein powder articles like “how to make the best protein shake” would perform well. Check out the difference in difficulty in the screenshot above: the informational keyword has a lower search volume and lower competition. This means it would be much easier to rank organically.

3. Run an ad when you gain a featured snippet

A featured snippet – sometimes called position 0 – is where Google shows an information box as the first organic search result. Check out this search result. The first two results are ads from Shopify (who own Oberlo) and Oberlo. The first organic search result is a featured snippet from Oberlo. That means that the brand gets 100% of the above-the-fold traffic. Not bad going.

Start to Master SEO and SEM Today

Hopefully, you found this SEO and SEM introductory guide useful. Follow the tips and tricks listed above and you will be generating more traffic in no time. The key takeaway is this: SEO and SEM are both about picking your battles. Choose the right keywords to go after. For lower volume try SEO and for high volume/high competition stick to SEM. Have you had success with SEO and SEM in your business? Let us know in the comments below.