What is the difference between SEO and SEM?

differences between SEO and SEM
«The name of our agency, Semseo, is a combination of the two most important online marketing terms: SEM and SEO.»

The name of our digital marketing agency, Semseo, is, in our opinion, a combination of the two most important online marketing terms: SEO and SEM. However, many clients still have questions about their meaning and utility.

Both techniques aim primarily to increase visibility on search engines for our webpage. SEO, or search engine optimisation, involves optimising your website to achieve higher rankings in organic or natural search results—the famous top 10 positions on the first page of Google—while SEM involves getting visits through paid advertising or pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns.

If we refer to the acronym in each case, SEO comes from Search Engine Optimization, and SEM is equivalent to Search Engine Marketing. According to the definitions, SEO seems to be a fundamental part of SEM, but it's actually not the case.

The pillars of SEO

SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) refers to the practice of optimising a website to improve its visibility in the organic (non-paid) search engine results. This involves optimising the webpage's content, structure, and on-page elements such as titles, meta descriptions, and keywords to rank higher in search engine results pages (SERPs) for specific queries. The goal of SEO is to attract more organic traffic to a website by making it more relevant and appealing to search engines and users.

Therefore, organic web positioning or SEO is the process of optimising your website to get traffic from search engines like Google, Yahoo!, Yandex, or Bing, and to get such visits, we must appear in the top positions. Visits that do not entail a cost per click.

There are 3 main pillars of SEO: Technical SEO, on-site SEO, and off-site SEO.

  1. Technical SEO refers to the technical process of optimising your website for the crawling and indexing phase. With technical SEO, you ensure that search engines can crawl and index your website without any problems.
  2. On-site SEO are rules that we must mainly apply at the content level so that the website is optimised for the keywords we have chosen.
  3. Off-site SEO refers to the process of obtaining links or backlinks from other websites with the purpose of increasing the trust and reputation of our webpage in the eyes of Google.

Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

SEM (Search Engine Marketing), on the other hand, encompasses SEO but also includes paid advertising strategies to increase a website's visibility in search engine results. This can include pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, where advertisers pay an amount each time their ad is clicked. SEM aims to increase visibility quickly and effectively through organic optimisation (SEO) and paid advertising tactics. However, SEM colloquially is limited to paying for advertising ads, for example, through Google Ads.

Therefore, SEM is understood as "buying visits" or getting visits through pay-per-click or PPC. Thus, we can create campaigns or search ads on Google and pay for clicks on the ads. Although it is the most common or classic formula, we can also create image ads through display campaigns, Google Shopping campaigns, and even remarketing or retargeting campaigns. And not just on Google, but also on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Gmail…

So, if through SEO we work to obtain the first positions organically, through SEM we pay to appear in front of the search results. The great virtue of SEM is immediacy and guaranteeing that we appear for a specific keyword.

Google Ads (formerly Google AdWords) is the main platform for managing SEM campaigns on Google. Everyone can access and use it, although it is recommended that an agency or professional certified by Google, known as Google Partners and Google Partner Premiers, manage the campaigns.

SEO and SEM: great allies

SEO and SEM are complementary strategies that combine fantastically. However, it's clear that good SEO does not have a direct impact on the price we will pay in our SEM ads, nor does conducting SEM campaigns obtain better SEO for our website.

Which is better, SEO or SEM?

When a client presents us with this dichotomy, the answer is always easy: it depends. And on what does it depend?

  1. The sector. If, for example, we're talking about fashion or an unknown product that the potential customer doesn't know how to search for… then SEM.
  2. If we need immediate results… then SEM.
  3. For everything else… first SEO and then SEM, since SEO does not entail paying for each click and, although it's not immediate, it is cumulative and lasting over time. That is, as long as things are done well.

Therefore, the best option depends on our main objectives at the level of online marketing or digital marketing. If you want to obtain quick traffic, then you can start with SEM (paid search advertising) and work on your SEO in parallel. If you want to create a long-lasting online business without depending on paid traffic, then SEO is your answer for the medium and long term.

Francesc Sánchez
About the author

Francesc Sánchez — CEO

I am passionate about strategic consulting and digital marketing, specialising in SEO. I love automation and the intelligent use of AI.

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