SEO vs SEM: Which is better for your business?

SEO vs SEM: Which is better for your business?

If you’re looking for ways to boost sales or increase brand awareness for a business, you’ve come to the right place.

You may have heard the terms SEO and SEM casually thrown around when discussing digital marketing strategies, but what do they actually mean?

Although SEO and SEM are both forms of search marketing that businesses can use to reach their target audiences on search engine results pages, such as Google or Bing, they are in fact very different.

Search Engine Optimisation focuses on using keyword research and search intent to improve organic results, while Search Engine Marketing is a combination of both optimised content and paid ads.

But which search marketing strategy is better for your business? What about the cost of SEO vs SEM? How do they differ and are they similar in any way?

Stick around and stay awhile, as we explain the main differences between SEO and SEM, the costs associated, and how business owners and marketers can maximise each tactic to increase visibility and performance in search.

SEO vs SEM: What Is The Main Difference?

Okay, so what you may know so far is that SEM and SEO both fall under the umbrella of Search Marketing.

This means they both use search engines to drive traffic to your website. The key difference being that one drives organic traffic, the other uses paid search.

SEO vs SEM - Search Marketing Engines

If we were to summarise each marketing tactic, it would look like this:

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), uses organic tactics to improve search results (where you rank on Google’s search engine results page):

SEO vs SEM - Organic Results SEO

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) uses paid methods to appear on search results (appearing as a Google ad at the top of search engine results page):

SEO vs SEM - Paid Results SEM

In order to illustrate the differences between SEO and SEM visually, here’s a quick overview below of how the two compare:

Factors SEO SEM
Brand awareness Yes No
Traffic potential Unlimited Limited by budget
Keyword opportunities Unlimited Limited by budget
Cost per click Free Paid
Value over time High Low
Testing market fit No Yes
Marketing strategy Inbound Outbound and Inbound
Segmentation Low High
Tracking Low High
Instant results No Yes

Now, before we go any further, we’re going to run you through what exactly is SEO and SEM.

So, when the time comes to discuss marketing plans you’ll sound like a pro.

What is SEO?

SEO, or otherwise known as Search Engine Optimisation, is the art and science of driving organic, or unpaid, traffic to your website through search engines.

It involves making changes to your website to make it more attractive for search engines to reward you with higher rankings based on the quality and relevance of content, among other things.

For example, creating and optimising high-quality content on your website to include specific keywords that are relevant to what users are searching for, is one of many factors Google uses to rank your website.

The tricky part is understanding what else you actually need to do. Google relies on hundreds of variables to score and rank your website. So, it’s not quite as simple as whacking together a few blog articles or changing some headings on your website.

The good news is that SEO includes hundreds of tactics you can use to help you increase your search rankings. These tactics can be categorised as the four core pillars of SEO.

4 SEO Pillars

Technical SEO 

This SEO pillar focuses on improving the technical health of your website by making technical changes to increase crawlability and indexing. It is not so much to do with optimising content, but rather the infrastructure of a website and how it is perceived by search engines.

More recently, Google has started to consider a set of specific factors linked to technical aspects that ties into the overall user experience on a web page.

Known as Core Web Vitals, takes into consideration a number of factors, such as how long it takes for a page to load before the user is able to see and interact with it. Or, if elements move around on the page as it is loading.

It’s basically Google’s way of giving your web page a score based on overall “page experience”.

The best way to put it —

Think of your website as a messy bookshelf with broken hinges and a shaky leg. Along comes the local handyman and installs new hinges, bolts them to the wall and even rearranges all of your books by alphabet. This is the process of technical SEO to your website. Search Engines appreciate a robust, fast and easy to access a website.

Technical SEO techniques can include:

  • Improving site speed
  • Optimizing images
  • Cleaning up codes and scripts
  • Implementing newer technologies
  • Making sure your website is mobile-friendly
  • The structure of your website, how easy it is to navigate
  • Improving the structure of data and how it’s perceived by search engines
  • Web core vitals: Largest Contentful Paint (LCP), First Input Delay (FID), and Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS).

Often this is the first step an SEO agency will take in getting your website ready for organic growth.

On-page SEO 

This SEO pillar involves strategies in optimising the content on individual web pages to help search engines understand the context of the content and its relevance to the types of searches users are making. Improving on-page SEO can help boost your businesses rankings on search engine results pages.

On-page SEO strategies can include:

  • Keyword research and optimisation
  • Matching content to relevant types of search intent (what people are searching)
  • Avoid repeating too much of the same keywords (keyword stuffing)
  • Enrich your content with semantically related phrases
  • Write content for humans not for search engine crawlers
  • Including keywords in titles and headings
  • Making sure content is simple and easy to read
  • Making sure all meta descriptions and title tags are enticing
  • Create short and descriptive URLs

Off-page SEO 

This SEO pillar can be best described as a trust-building exercise done outside of the website to help improve rankings. It involves building a website’s reputation and authority by including links from other high-quality sites, managing local citations, among other things.

Off-page SEO strategies can include:

  • Link building, getting links from reputable websites with high authority
  • Building and managing local citations
  • Optimising and managing your Google My Business
  • Earning more positive reviews


There are many reasons why content is king, but more specifically, it’s one of Google’s main ranking factors. Google will reward you with higher rankings if your content is highly relevant to what users are searching for, among other things.

Content strategies can include:

  • Using keyword research tools and exploring keyword ideas
  • Writing on an in-depth topic
  • Matching content to relevant types of search intent (what people are searching)
  • Including long-tail keywords

How does SEO benefit your business?

SEO can prove to be a formidable form of online marketing, providing a two-pronged approach that not only helps build brand awareness and trust for your business.

But, with the right strategy, SEO can also help business owners boost their website rankings, bring in more qualified traffic and ultimately increase conversion rates. An effective SEO management agency can often help uncover opportunities or customers that you may not otherwise have anticipated.

Key benefits of SEO include:

  • Improves website ranking
  • Improves customer attribution
  • Increases sales and leads
  • SEO is highly measurable with plenty of tools and metrics
  • Builds trust, brand awareness and credibility
  • SEO works around the clock 24/7, driving offline sales

So, how does Search Engine Marketing compare?

What is SEM?

If someone mentions SEM, or search engine marketing, you wouldn’t be wrong if you immediately thought of Google Ads or PPC campaigns. Previously, SEM was an umbrella term that covered search engine marketing in general, which included SEO and PPC.

But as time has passed, the term SEM has evolved and is now generally considered to be the PAID aspect of search marketing.

Hence, you thought of Google Ads or PPC campaigns.

Pay-per-click marketing is typically used by businesses to gain immediate visibility on search engine results pages and involves creating and optimising ads with an allocated budget.

Google Ads, for instance, allows business owners to set up ads using specific keywords related to their industry, products and services. You’re also able to narrow down your audience by selecting location, age, and income, among other factors.

This means when potential prospects search for those key terms — and they fit the criteria — a highly-relevant ad will appear at the top and bottom of their search results page. Are they reading my mind?

However, Google Adwords is just one form of search engine marketing, other types of SEM campaigns to consider, include:

  • Shopping Ads
  • YouTube Ads
  • Display Ads

The purpose of these ad campaigns is to encourage people with transactional intent to click-through to the next page where they are then prompted to take an action, such as making a purchase.

How does SEM benefit your business?

Google Ads is a form of search engine marketing and is one of the most effective platforms businesses and marketers can use to promote their services and products. It allows business owners to target potential customers with transactional intent — those who are ready to purchase — with highly-relevant ads.

Key benefits of SEM include:

  • Reach your target prospect instantly with highly visible ads
  • Generate revenue quickly by targeting those who are ready to purchase
  • Increases brand awareness, trust and credibility
  • Test new services and products with ease
  • Easily test, measure and optimise ads to scale
  • Promote your products for a highly segmented audience
  • Choose what products and services you want to advertise
  • Select which channels you want to place your ads
  • Customise your offer based on what users are searching for
  • Measure results in real-time

SEO vs SEM: What are the costs?

The main cost difference between SEO and SEM is that you pay for every user click with paid advertising — known as cost per click (CPC).

How to Calculate CPC - Google Ads

How to Calculate CPC – Google Ads

CPC refers to the amount you pay for each visitor you generate from your ads. Your CPC is determined by a number of factors, including which keywords are being targeted, maximum bid and the quality of your content.

Essentially, you will be charged every time someone clicks on your ad. Whereas you don’t pay a cent each time someone clicks on SEO results. However, that’s not to exclude the time, work and budget invested into creating good SEO content and making sure it’s optimised.

It’s important to note, Search engine marketing platforms, such as Google Ads, is not a ‘set and forget’ method of online advertising. In fact, Google will actually penalise you and increase how much you pay if your ads aren’t optimised. If you don’t have the time yourself, you’ll have to have an experienced adwords management agency in your corner, to help run a tight ship when it comes to these campaigns.

So, when you hear those horror stories of ad budgets being drained in a single day, it’s because they don’t understand how Google Ads really works.

To summarise, SEO is a long term strategy that keeps on giving, working around the clock to drive qualified traffic to your website through highly relevant content. While Pay-Per-Click campaigns, such as Google Ads, help give you immediate results and quick wins by paying for clicks.

Here’s how SEO and SEM are similar.

SEO vs SEM: What are the similarities?

Any effective digital marketing strategy will combine the best of both worlds to help drive more leads and sales than any other form of Search Engine Marketing.

  1. SEO and SEM both help to improve the visibility of your website.
    Both SEO and SEM ensure your business appears in higher ranking positions on search engine results pages whenever users search for a specific term related to your industry, product or service.
  2. SEO and SEM both aim to drive more qualified traffic to your website.
    Both SEO and SEM employ tactics, such as keywords and relevant content to get more users to click and generate more qualified traffic to your website.
  3. Help you gain a deeper understanding of your audience.
    There’s analytics for just about everything, including how many people clicked your ad, how many users visited a specific website from search results, and how many users converted, among others.
  4. Both SEO and SEM use keyword research to identify the best keywords to target.
    Keyword research will reveal what your target audience is looking for specifically. This will allow you to create and optimise content that is most relevant to them and increases your chances of appearing on the search results page.
  5. Both SEO and SEM can be optimised to improve performance.
    Despite SEO being a long-term strategy, both SEO and SEM campaigns can be continually optimised to improve your return on investment.

SEO vs SEM: What is the difference?

Before you’re able to determine which is better for your business, we’ll need to go a step further and dive into the differences between SEO vs SEM.

If we examine the search results page…

  1. SEM search results include an ‘Ad’ icon, while SEO does not.
    You can immediately tell which search results are the result of SEM, as they will have an ‘Ad’ icon next to its placement. Whereas SEO placements do not.
  2. SEM search results allow for ad extensions, SEO only shows featured snippets.
    Directly beneath that, you’ll find that SEM results also have ad extensions, which may include Location, Callouts, Sitelinks and Lead Forms.These ad extensions can help increase website traffic by directing people to where they want to go based on user intent. SEO results only have featured snippets. 

    Speaking of search intent…
  3. SEM allows you to select which audience will see your ad, while SEO does not.
    While both methods of Search Marketing allow you to target an audience, you can only select specific audiences through SEM.
    While setting up paid ad campaigns, you’re able to select different types of filters, including location, age, income, and more to narrow down on who actually sees your ad.
    Tip Optimising your audiences can drastically improve the quality of your leads and reduce your cost per click. You’re not able to do so with SEO, however, there are other means to target audiences based on search intent using long-tail keywords, among other things.
    As for the costs of SEO vs SEM…
  4. You pay for every user click on SEM results, while SEO results are free to click.
    This is where the term pay-per-click, also known as PPC campaigns, come into play.
    Search engine marketing is a paid ads campaign, this means your business is charged every time a user clicks on the result.SEO results, on the other hand, are free of charge and do not cost you a cent when people click on an organic search result.
  5. SEM has immediate results, while SEO takes time to ramp up.
    Because you’re paying to be at the top of a search engine results page, you can experience — with the right strategy — quick and easy wins almost immediately.
    You also have the freedom to turn them on or off and tweak audiences if data shows there’s less traffic during a certain period of time.
    With SEO, it can take months or even years, before your business begins to rank on the first page of search engines.
  6. And this is why SEM is better for testing than SEO…
    Because you can immediately turn SEM paid ads off and on, it’s a great strategy for testing. You can quickly revise your ad copy, target new audiences, and change landing page content to test your new tactics.
    This flexibility allows you to see differences in your strategies immediately if you’re still reading this right now, give yourself a pat on the back. You’ve made it! Alright, the moment you’ve all been waiting for….

SEO vs SEM: Which is better for my business?

Just to quickly recap, here’s what we covered so far:

  • What is the main difference between SEO and SEM
  • What is SEO and how does it benefit your business
  • What is SEM and how does it benefit your business
  • What are the costs of SEO vs SEM
  • What are the similarities and differences of  SEO vs SEM

So, the question is, SEO or SEM? Which is better for your business? This will very much come down to a few considerations.

Questions SEO SEM
What are your business goals? Drive long-term growth

Improve your website

Build trust, credibility and awareness

Test new product or service

Increase monthly sales with immediate and scalable wins

Are you currently conducting any forms of Search Marketing? You’re an established brand with a strong organic presence online You have little to no online visibility on search results pages
What are your margins? Competitive keywords, high cost-per-click and low product margins Low cost-per-click and within your budget
How do customers purchase your product or service? Longer buying cycle

Customers need to research, read blogs, read reviews, compare brands

High search and transactional intent

Customers know what they want and will buy it immediately

What are your competitors doing? Lots of opportunities for organic content A lot of competition for keywords in your industry
What is the current state of your website? The website is fairly optimised for SEO

Performs well in organic search

High-quality content targeting relevant keywords

Poor website speed

Lack of content

Needs a lot of SEO improvements

The power of combining SEO and SEM

In an ideal situation, the most successful businesses are the ones with a Digital Marketing Strategy that combines the best of search marketing, that is SEO and SEM.

Individually, each channel has its own strengths and weaknesses and depending on where your business is at, it may be beneficial to do one over the other.

Combined together, these two powerful marketing acquisition channels give businesses access to a wealth of opportunities, driving both short-term and long-term growth from millions of people using search engines every day.

Any business wanting to leverage SEO and SEM, would benefit from finding a partner that has a Google Ads specialist and a high performing SEO management team under the same roof. Collaboration between the two can be incredibly powerful and deliver results that might not otherwise be possible.

Are you ready to take your Search Marketing to another level?


Updated: November 10, 2022
Leon Dougall

Leon is Invicta’s content specialist and has a bachelors in Journalism. He fell into the world of digital marketing and copywriting and has never looked back. Intrigued by customer journeys and consumer psychology, Leon specialises in creating a seamless, omnichannel experience through his engaging content.

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