SEO vs SEM: What are the Main Differences?

SEO vs SEM: What are the Main Differences?

If you were looking to grow your online business, you have certainly come across concepts of SEO and SEM. For many, however, these terms might seem confusing and uncertain about the exact differences and parameters between those two. To clarify the objectives and distinguish the similarities between SEO and SEM, SEO copywriting Chicago made this a comprehensive article in the hope of making you effortlessly understand and apply the benefits of both to your business growth strategy.

What are the SEO and the SEM?

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

SEO is optimizing a website to increase the site’s traffic in qualitative and quantitative ways. SEO gets its traffic from organic search results. It aims for unpaid traffic rather than paid and direct ones. The SEO practices consider continuously optimizing a website to rank higher in SERPs. SEO is a method that involves four approaches: off-page SEO, on-page SEO, technical SEO, and keyword research.

Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

SEM is a format of internet marketing that aims to increase website visibility in search engine results primarily by paid advertising. It’s paid search marketing that promotes a website, services, and product in search results. SEM as a procedure involves SEO; therefore, everything that considers SEO also applies to SEM. However, besides SEO, SEM also involves PPC (Pay-per-click), which has its own properties. This implies that SEM focuses on gaining both organic and paid traffic.

In practice, the brand pays for advertising (PPC) from Google, Microsoft, or Yahoo ads, so advertisers’ brands appear on the search results page.

Paid ads can optimize campaigns and ad performances in an ongoing process. Additionally, it allows you to set a budget, use multiple ad types, create attractive copies, and analyze the campaign’s success and other performances.

SEO and SEM differences

The capital difference between SEO and SEM is that SEO earns search visibility while SEM purchases. This implies that SEO relies its competitiveness on relevance and quality while SEM rests on budget.

The cost

SEO and SEM incorporate the costs that affect the return on investment (ROI). SEO costs consider the expenses of personnel involved in creating an SEO; it takes time to perform the results. However, these results bring higher ROI due to their combined returns. Contrary to SEO, SEM has a quicker enhancement period, quickly generates revenue, and demands a lower lift. SEM costs less than SEO in the short term, but if we are looking for 24 months, then SEO wins.

Time to see results

While SEM results come almost immediately, SEO can take months to gain meaningful traffic. This aspect allows a company to realize its priorities and opt for an adequate strategy. For example, SEM is a great strategy for companies that require rapid traffic drive for seasonal sales or other temporary events. On the other hand, if the company is establishing a website or hub with many keywords that should attract the compounding value of traffic in years to come, then SEO is the only solution. This is probably the biggest advantage of SEO over SEM, the ability to remain the webpage at the top of the search results pages and generate revenue for years requiring a minimal further investment.

SEO takes a significant initial investment to create content and develop links; however, after reaching the first search page, the page self-sustains its ranking position. Contrary to SEO, SEM losses its potential to gain leads and traffic once the campaign stops.

Opportunities for testing

As SEO takes time to see its results, so is the opportunity to review and test the impact of keywords and content strategy. On the contrary, SEM provides fast results, and therefore, the ability to test and evaluate ad copy, keywords, and bidding strategy is available as soon as a campaign is launched. The benefit of fast testing is its opportunity to improve landing pages quickly and impact better strategy performances.


In terms of SERP real estate, SEM only secures the ad position, site links, and extensions, while SEO offers a wide range of options to capture SERP real estate. You can utilize different and multiple assets in SEM and appear in many listings in search results, such as featured snippets, videos, image carousels, graphs, People Also Search links, and many more.

Click-Through rate (CTR)

In this category, SEO also wins by generating higher CTRs than SEM. Some research shows that the average CTR for all industries in Google ads is approximately 3,17% for search. At the same time, for the organic positions, this rate goes up to 34% for the first position, while for the third position, it’s estimated between 8 and 18%.


When it comes to trustworthiness, SEO is more successful in gaining trust in searches. This is due to the searchers’ awareness that the purchased position is relative, while organic search delivers earned position.

SEO and SEM similarities

The crucial correlation between SEO and SEM is that they focus on keywords to drive traffic. Even though they use different tactics in targeting the keywords, their goal is the same, which is to convert traffic into leads and sales.

Brand awareness

Both SEO and SEM build and boosts brand awareness. However, due to its high costs, SEM is often not sustainable at the top of the marketing funnel, while SEO is usually used at the bottom and the middle of the funnel.

Increasing traffic

SEO and SEM increase website traffic; while SEO uses an effective meta description and title tags, SEM attracts traffic with compelling ad copy.

Final Thoughts

Although there is a subtle difference between SEO and SEM, you need to understand the weaknesses and strengths of both strategies to make a convenient marketing decision. Your choice will depend on your needs, goals, business growth stage, competitors, and others. Sometimes you will opt for combining both strategies, and other times you will decide to invest in one that suits your requirements.

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