What is SEO & SEM?

By | October 16, 2021

SEO and SEM, a powerhouse for your business

SEO vs SEM. Which is better and why.

Now, before we let them fight it out, perhaps I should mention that SEM and SEO can and in many cases should work together in harmony.

In reality, they are two different sides to the search engine marketing coin but the implementation of each one is completely different.

In this post, I’ll get into:

  • What is SEO and SEM?
  • What are the benefits of each?
  • What are the best applications for each?

Before getting into the difference between SEM and SEO, let’s first understand what search marketing is.

Search Marketing 

Yes, SEM and SEO are both subsets of search marketing. Search marketing refers to any marketing tactic designed to generate targeted traffic for a brand from within the search engine results pages (SERPs).

The primary goal of search engine marketing is to have content positioned in the most prominent places in the SERPs.

To truly understand this, we need to first (briefly) understand what search engines are trying to achieve. (I know, this might seem obvious, but stay with me, this will help you understand where SEO and SEM fit it.)

Let’s do a little thought experiment…

Picture someone typing a query into Google. What are they trying to do?

In essence, they are asking the search engine a question. In other words, they are hoping that the search engine will bring them a piece of content that will answer their question.

They hope the oracle will spit the answer out so that they can go on their merry way.

For the searcher to be satisfied, they want the answer to be direct, with as little friction as possible.

This means the most prominent place on a given SERP is the first place the searcher will look at. In other words, right at the top. Understanding this, we can now understand where search marketing comes in.

Both SEO and SEM are designed to feature a given piece of content as the answer to the search query by positioning it in the most prominent position.

The difference is in the implementation.

What Is the Difference Between SEO and SEM? 

Now that we understand the goal of search marketing, let’s examine where SEM and SEO fit in.

There are essentially two ways to position your content in prominent places on SERPs:

  • SEO – A strategy designed to convince search engines that your content is the best answer to a given search query
  • SEM – A strategy that uses paid advertising to feature a piece of content in prominent places in the results pages

Let’s dive a little deeper.

What is Search Engine Marketing (SEM)? 

What is search engine marketing?

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is the process of using paid advertising to position content in the most prominent positions on search engine results pages.

Like I mentioned above, when the searcher types a query into a search engine, they are asking the oracle (in this case the search engine) a question. SEM marketers are paying search engines to position their content as the answer to the searcher’s query.

For example, when a searcher types ‘best selling books’ into the search engine, they are (obviously) asking the oracle what the best selling books are.

When the searcher sees an ad, they are seeing a potential answer to that question.

How this works is…

Advertisers pay to have their ads show up on specific keywords. When they do that, search engines include the advertiser’s request to show the ads as part of an auction.

They then position the ads based on factors such as:

  • The advertiser’s bid
  • The quality of the ads
  • The quality of the landing page the ads are sending traffic to

To understand this, you must understand one thing.

Search engines will only be successful if they serve their users by answering their questions. This means it’s in the search engine’s best interest to only show high-quality ads that are relevant to the searcher’s query.

Not delivering this would be perceived as a bad user experience. In other words, when you see ads that are not relevant to your search or you see ads that are low quality, you would consider the ads as spam.

Having spam on the search engine results pages would lower the user’s perception of the search engine. That’s bad for business.

To deal with this, each search engine has its own ad quality guidelines.

So, for instance, when someone types a query into Google, Google assigns an Ad Rank to each of the potential ads for that search. Google will then calculate based on the Ad Rank of each ad where it will appear on the results page.

For your ad to rank at the top of Google, you must ensure that your ad and landing page are of the highest quality, ensuring the user has the best experience possible.

If you can do that according to Google’s Ad Rank factors, you stand to see a potentially low cost per click and a high position. Getting this right should award you better visibility and guarantees you a large number of visitors.

The great thing is, it can happen fast.

What is SEO? 

What is search engine optimization (SEO)?

SEO is the process of designing a web page that convinces the search engine that this piece of content is the best and most qualified answer to the searcher’s question.

Now, to truly make this happen, many different actions are needed. (In fact, too many to mention in this blog post.)

For instance, let’s start with the content itself. Good SEO starts with content creation. The reason is the content should be designed with SEO in mind right from the start.

So before creating anything, the content creator will typically research what SERP they want their content to show up on. And don’t forget, each SERP is designed to answer a searcher’s question.

This means the content should be designed to truly answer the query adequately. What’s more, it should be qualitatively better than the content that already appears on the target SERP. There are many steps to doing this well. I’m just covering this in a top-down, big picture manner.

Once the SEO creates the perfect piece of content, the content still might not rank well.

This is because just having great content isn’t enough for search engines. It must come from an authoritative source. Search engines use a variety of off-page signals to evaluate whether a source is authoritative.

Now that you have a basic understanding of SEO and SEM, let’s compare them.

The Benefits of SEO and SEM: Short Term Boosts or Long Term Growth 

Here are some big-picture benefits of each approach.

Since SEO is an organic strategy, actually achieving results can take months. What’s more, not being strategic in your SEO plan, in the beginning, could produce poor results downstream.

SEM on the other hand can be implemented quickly. This means you can see traffic within a day of creating a campaign. What’s more, its fast implementation, lets you quickly see what works and what doesn’t, allowing you to change your strategy midstream.

This makes it great for getting quick traffic boosts and testing ideas.

Another big advantage of SEM is you can pay to have ads appear on SERPs with commercial intent. On the other hand, achieving that through SEO can be difficult because it’s difficult to build links to commercial content.


SEO is a long-term game, which is its greatest advantage.

You see, with SEM, when you turn your ads off, your traffic disappears. With SEO, once you have a well-established organic presence, you can get traffic for years to come. And, once your site becomes authoritative, you can experience exponential traffic growth.

This means if you are in it for the long haul and you plan your SEO strategy well in advance, SEO can easily outpace SEM.

SEM vs SEO – What Strategy Should You Choose 

Now that you have a basic understanding of SEM and SEO, the question is when should you focus on SEM and when should you focus on SEO?

To understand this, let’s examine how SEM and SEO serve users.

In general, when there are ads on the SERPs, the SERPs are divided into sections. The ads generally appear on the top of the SERP. The organic results are found below that.

Google SERP showing ads

Now, as I mentioned above, the primary tactic in search marketing is to position your content in the most visible place on the SERPs.

In other words, at the top.

Occupying these high visibility positions will increase your chances of getting the most traffic.

So, in the example above, the ads occupy the most prominent spots and result in the most visibility. Therefore, if all you focus on is organic traffic, the ads will certainly diminish your click potential.

This will no doubt significantly decrease your traffic.

Instead, an SEO marketer might want to focus on a different SERP.

However, in many cases, there are no ads displayed on the SERPs. When this happens, the most prominent places are taken up by organic results.

Google SERP showing organic video results

As you can see in the example above, the first thing the searcher sees is the video snippet. Next, they see a video box and after that, some good old-fashioned blue links.

In the example above, the video snippet is featured because Google was ‘convinced’ that the video answers the searcher’s query better than any of the other content.

And, as I mentioned above, SEO is a strategy designed to convince search engines that your content is the best answer for the search query. In other words, the video was featured due to video SEO.

SEO & SEM, A Powerhouse for Your Business 


By now you should have a good basic understanding of both SEO and SEM.

The question is, how do you implement these strategies into your business? Do you leverage SEM’s short-term value? How do you plan for long-term SEO growth?

And once you’re at it, how do you target each SERP? Which ones will give you more value if you pay for advertising? Which ones should be incorporated into a larger SEO strategy?

From my point of view, all I can do is ask. Only you can answer those questions based on your unique business needs.

About The Author

Darrell Mordecai

Darrell is a content marketer at Rank Ranger. While working as the SEO manager at a small marketing agency, Darrell discovered his **** of marketing and SEO.

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