What Is the Difference Between SEO and SEM

Both SEO and SEM go hand in hand when it comes to a cohesive strategy for a website; however, the two also differ vastly from each other.

Primarily, the most significant factor that distinguishes SEO from SEM is that for SEO, you don’t have to pay for traffic. Technically, you might be paying for SEO, content, website, etc. services, but at the end of the day, from the search results, SEO aims to get your traffic from regular search results, or any form of rich snippets, map packs, or knowledge panel presence. In other words, any form of search result, that is not paid for.

In the marketing world, SEO channel or traffic is also synonymous with organic channel/traffic or natural channel/traffic. They all mean the same thing!

With those critical details out of the way, let’s take a bit of a deeper dive into the differences.

Difference 1: Hierarchy of Things

In the entire marketing ecosystem, SEO happens to be one of the marketing channels/tactic.

SEM (Search Engine Marketing), on the other hand, happens to be a separate marketing channel too, but also encompasses SEO. On a high-level, though, and realistically speaking, SEM is used more in the context of paid search activities — a famous one being Google Adwords. It can also include activities like display advertising, and similar.

Difference 2: Analytics & Measurement

All things being the same, SEM can paint a more direct picture of money spent vs. ROI, while SEO doesn’t have that kind of a direct correlation. SEO can take a very long time (depending on a bunch of other factors), while the results from SEM can be more instantaneous in nature.

Difference 3: Visibility in Tactics

There are tons of tactics that can be used for SEO & SEM. But similar to the difference above, it’s (comparatively) harder to tie an SEO tactic (conditional on what it is) with direct results — simply because organic search listings are dependent on so many factors that are not public, while with SEM, again, you can have a more direct correlation of tactics applied with revenue.

Difference 4: Audience Targeting

With SEO, you may need a lot of iterations to eventually bring traffic from your target audience, whereas, with SEM, you can quickly get traffic from your target audience — assuming you have the money for whatever it takes.

In essence, that’s precisely the benefit of paying for traffic. You get more options, transparency, and reporting.

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What Should You Be Using for Your Website?

Ideally speaking, both! But I know the answer is not that straightforward. A lot of the factors play a hand here, such as:

  1. Budget.
  2. Dev Resources.
  3. Design Resources.
  4. Current traffic, if any.
  5. Existing technical standings of your site.
  6. More, contingent on your situation, desire, and willingness.

What you should definitely never stop, is SEO (Obviously, please evaluate based on your needs). In my humble opinion, SEO is the panacea of all marketing pains, a pinnacle if you will, of a formidable marketing tactic. I mean, who wouldn’t love to get an incredible amount of traffic from SEO — so much so, that you won’t have the need to pay for it?

I am certainly not suggesting stopping on SEM efforts either, because if SEO is making some serious noise for you, SEM can add to it. However, if you are forced to choose between the two (all things being the same; and again depending on your circumstances), I’d say stop SEM. For instance, I am not investing at all in SEM right now, but I am heavily, in SEO.

It should also be pointed out that for brand new websites — especially eCommerce, or any other sites that have a product to sell, SEO can take a while to get you results. If you’re short on time, you will be better of investing more in SEM, as it can allow you to market faster. However, due to the newness, it’s also indispensable to begin SEO as soon as it’s convenient, because it will need a lot of nurturing. So, the earlier you start, the better!

How Can the Two Channels Work Hand in Hand?

One of the primary ways, both SEO, and SEM are driven, is through keywords. The learnings from one can be applied to the other, and vice versa. It should also be noted that SEO (albeit not directly all the time), is essential for an effective SEM. Site being mobile-friendly, easily crawlable, etc. can enhance your other SEM efforts.

Imagine that your target keyword is “black oxford shoes.” If you’ve done a remarkable job with SEO, and SEM (the paid part), in theory, you can capture top ads, plus top regular (non-ads) listing in search results. Not only can this bring you extra traffic, but it also serves as great branding. You’d be dominating!


Both SEO and SEM are paramount to a successful traffic acquisition strategy. Ideally, it’s preferred that both activities are going on simultaneously — and is especially true for larger organizations. However, if you’re a new website, and you have to choose between the two, or are extremely limited on a budget, I’d recommend to evaluate against the following two considerations.

  • Time: Do you have time, but not money? Probably SEO is the choice to get started with. Start with yourself, see how things are progressing, and take it from there.
    If it’s the reverse, you don’t have time, but got money to spend, start with paid SEM activities to get that branding going. At some point, though, sooner than later, invest in SEO. The only caveat I’d throw here is that you’ll likely have to make sure your site is technically sound in terms of crawlability, indexability, content, and design (for good UX), for paid search. So, it may make sense to start on a little bit of SEO anyway.
  • What type of business you’re in: If you are not eCommerce, it’s kind of okay to delay SEO just a little bit, as you’ll have your salespeople working for you. If you’re a brand new blog like me, you probably need more SEO than you think! Sure, if you have money to burn, you can invest in SEM too, but I think you’ll end up paying way more than you should.

In conclusion, these are the basic high-level differences between SEO and SEM.