The SEO vs SEM battle: Their biggest differences and what to opt for

May 07, 2021

We are taking a look at the never ending battel of seo vs sem

In a world full of acronyms, often the two most important marketing channels like SEO and SEM get very easily confused. However, SEO and SEM are basically two sides of the same coin, they represent two very different approaches to get visibility on the SERPs. So why is there even a battle of SEO vs SEM?

Let’s start by clarifying their meaning and purpose, what is SEO in digital marketing and what is SEM in digital marketing? SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization while SEM stands for Search Engine Marketing. They both represent fundamental practices that can help you get ranked on search engines such as Google, Bing and Yahoo. 

That being said, it raises the question of who wins in the battle of SEO vs SEM when it comes to your business.

Before diving into their differences and similarities, let’s explain each of them in detail.

What is SEO in digital marketing?

The story of SEO started in the mid-1990s and the term has had a rough past but its meaning stayed unchanged and its purpose undisputed.

SEO is the only marketing channel to this day that can bring your website and/or your website’s pages increase in visibility and traffic through an organic and non-paid way. Put in simple words, SEO is the best friend that will for sure bring quality to your website in the eyes of search engines (mostly Google) and as a result, Google will give you a better ranking position.

There are four pillars of SEO, that you will need to take into account when you are optimizing your web page:

  • Technical SEO – where you need to improve site speed, crawlability, mobile-friendliness and indexing.
  • On-page – where you need to optimize the factors like title, headlines and metatag to make the page more understandable to search engines 
  • Content – where you need to create quality solutions that match the searchers intent i.e. use the right keywords.
  • Off-page – or otherwise known as authority building through backlinks.

If you want to attract your target audience and to do that naturally – SEO is the way to go.

What is SEM?

Search engine marketing is a strategy that uses paid techniques to help you gain better search engine placement. It is a form of paid advertisement and it displays your webpage on Google as a Google Ad, always on top of the organic search result with a small icon in front of your URL in the SERP.

SEM is also called PPC (Pay-Per-Click) and it entails using a tool like Google Ads for the purpose of setting up a PPC campaign that essentially allows you to purchase a rank in the top of the SERP. It allows you to bid against your competitors for certain keywords, so before setting up a campaign make sure you do extensive keyword research and competitor research.

Everytime a searcher clicks on your Ad, you get charged. That being said, why would you use SEM as a part of your digital marketing strategy? The first reason is that you got to spend money to get money. The second one is that every second there is a rise in the number and in quality of competitors and you want to stand out in the marketplace in an effective way that brings you visibility, relevant traffic and potential clients.

Key differences between SEO and SEM

By going deeper into understanding what is SEO in digital marketing and what is SEM, we got to know and list some of the differences that initially sparked up the battle of SEO vs SEM.

SEM outranks SEO

Google offers the paid ads on Position Zero marked with an “AD’’ icon, so even if you get the Fist Position with SEO you can still be below your competitor’s SERP on the search engine.

You don’t pay for SEO, you pay for SEM.

You have to take into consideration the budget of your marketing campaign. Depending on the campaign created, you pay for every single click on your ad (CPC Cost-per-click) or for CPM (Cost-per-thousand-impressions) which potentially can cut into your return on investment if not executed right.

While with SEO you don’t pay a dime for the clicks on your listing.

Instant results vs long term results

It can take up to months to see any results with SEO, but SEM shows almost instant results as long as your campaign is live and your bids are sufficient.

That means that the return on investment with SEO is increasing over time, with SEM is immediate and final.

SEO works 24/7, SEM works from 9 to 5

PPC campaigns have a start and finish dates, you can even tell Google ads the day, hours in which you want your campaign to run. So we can say that a PPC campaign has an expiration date while an SEO optimized page lives on forever.

SEM is a one night stand, SEO is a relationship.

You only have to get it right one time with a PPC campaign. If you create it by the laws of SEM it will bring you brilliant results, but for that campaign only and for that time only. Once the campaign is over you can experience a significant drop in traffic, leads and sales.

SEO requires maintenance, long term commitment and constant tweeking and updating. It is important to expand on the success you have made with SEO and constantly work on it to keep and improve your rankings.

Purchase-and-forget vs devotion

Ads serve the immediate needs of the searcher, psychologically speaking, ready-to-bye mindsets will always be drawn to the quickest way to satisfy their needs. SEM is king to these types of searchers.

On the other hand, SEO captures the searchers that find themselves in all the sections in the marketing’s buyer funnel. If SEO is done correctly that breathes in trust so it is safe to say that the chances are high for you to turn them into a devoted and loyal client. 

Difficulty to test

A PPC campaign (ad copy, audiences, landing page content) is easy to test, adapt and change. And the changes can be done quickly to deliver more affecting results

Although SEO testing is a part of the SEO strategy, it can’t be done with the same time efficiency as SEM simply because the algorithm doesn’t allow it.

Who wins the SEO vs SEM battle?

Let’s get one thing straight. You can’t run an ad on a non SEO optimized page. You can get even better results with a PPC campaign for a first position SEO optimized page.

SEM and SEO work hand in hand and they both want something in return. For SEM you need to dedicate a certain budget, for SEO you need to dedicate time and energy. While the battle of SEO vs. SEM continues to rage in the community, they represent harmonizing forces of the marketing world that will in return help you with brand awareness, website traffic and potential leads.

Depending on your business objectives and goals you can choose one or the other. Take time to understand what is SEO and what is SEM in detail and how using them can bring your company closer to success. Before making such a decision, inform yourself as much as possible and don’t hesitate to ask questions.


Last but not least, always have in mind that neither SEO or SEM will work for you if you don’t create high quality content that gives the searcher what they want. If you want (and you should) implement one or the other or both (best case scenario) in your marketing strategy, make sure that the team behind them does them justice.

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