Small businesses have to generate traffic from search engines to grow online. But there’s a lot of confusion between organic and paid search (SEO vs SEM), and which is best for your business.

In this post we will cover:

  • The difference between SEO vs SEM
  • How SEO and SEM can work together
  • Whether to invest in SEO vs SEM
  • SEO vs SEM Frequently Asked Questions

Let’s dive into the differences between SEO vs SEM.

What is the difference between SEO vs SEM?

SEO and SEM are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference between the two practices.

SEO stands for search engine optimization and refers to the practice of increasing performance in organic search engine result pages.

SEM stands for search engine marketing, and refers to money-backed search engine marketing activities like buying PPC (pay-per-click) ads.

The difference is that SEO is about making your site better for search engines, while SEM is about making your paid advertisements better.

The difference between the search results is that one is a paid ad, and the other is displayed by Google organically through an algorithm as the best result matching a user search query.

What does this mean to a small business? If you are engaging in SEM and advertising on search engines, you will pay a search engine like Google every time a user clicks on your advertisement. If your website appears organically in a search engine result page, you will not pay for every click to your website.

In other words, the difference between SEO vs SEM is two letters: Ad.

What is included in SEM?

Let’s further break down our definitions of SEO and SEM by looking at what is typically included within each practice.

Here are different SEM campaign types:

  • Search Ads
  • Dynamic Search Ads
  • Retargeting Ads (RLSA campaigns)
  • Mobile Ads
  • Shopping Campaign Ads

Here are different SEM management activities typically performed:

  • Create ad copy
  • Add keywords
  • Manage budget
  • Execute Bid Adjustments
  • Monitor Quality Scores
  • Check for conversions
  • Adjust campaigns based on performance

What is included in Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?

Now that we have covered SEM, what is typically included with SEO?

Here are different types of SEO:

  • On-Page SEO (Content)
  • Off-Page SEO
  • Technical SEO

Here are types of SEO management activities performed:

  • Keyword Research
  • Content Development (On-Page)
  • Content Marketing (Off-Page & Social)
  • Website Optimization (Search Console notifications, Technical SEO checklist items)
  • Adjust campaigns based on audits


How SEO and SEM Work Together

Not that we’ve covered the differences between SEO and SEM, how do they work together?

SEM is a great way to immediately get visibility on search engines. You can target a keyword and show your advertisement on a search engine result page overnight. SEM marketing tactics are especially helpful for small businesses just starting out.

On the other hand, SEO can take between 4-12 months to see results. The benefit of SEO is that if you are successful in getting your content to prominently display on search engine result pages, then your website can receive clicks from users at no cost to your business.

Every business has a target number of leads need to achieve their goals. At the outset of a digital marketing strategy, SEM and paid advertising can help achieve the target number of leads while SEO begins to work in the background.

Over time, SEO should reduce or replace paid advertising spend in order to achieve the target number of leads at the most efficient cost per lead.

Could you solely rely on SEM to drive leads? Of course. But, you will be subject to rising ad costs and gradually your cost per lead will increase along with your costs per click.

Could you solely rely on SEO to drive leads? You can, but you should be aware that SEO will take time to drive results, and the first few months will not generate much (if any) lead activity.

If you are starting a new venture, SEM and paid advertising may be your best investment.

If you are an established small business looking to generate more sustainable and predictable lead flow, then SEO may worth the investment.

Should I hire two SEO / SEM agencies, a Full-Service agency, or invest in either SEO or SEM?

When looking for experts to help with SEO and SEM, there are a few things to consider.

When our company first started, we launched as a full-service agency that offered both SEO and SEM.

What we experienced as an agency was a lack of expertise and a conflict of interest.

Lack of Expertise

There are 14,000+ digital marketing companies listed on Clutch, and 50% of them have less than 10 employees. The majority of digital marketing companies don’t have the bandwidth to be an expert in all areas, but most of them still offer all services.

Conflict of Interest

There is also a conflict of interest with firms who offer both SEO and SEM.

SEM and PPC agencies naturally want to increase a paid advertising budget as it means more to manage, higher compensation, and more conversions that can be “claimed” for the client.

SEO agencies want to reduce paid ad budgets as it equates to more organic clicks, more management, and more organic conversions “as a result of” SEO efforts.

SEO and SEM work well together as demonstrated by the graph above. But in order to ensure optimal performance from both sides, the conflict of interest needs to be removed.

When considering hiring a marketing company, make sure to ask about their approach to the conflict of interest between SEO vs SEM.

SEO vs SEM Questions

Here are some frequently asked questions regarding SEO vs SEM.

Which is better SEO or SEM? 

Both SEO and SEM have their place within a digital marketing strategy.

SEO is better for more established businesses who are looking to drive inbound leads organically and are willing to invest in a long-term optimization process.

SEM is better for businesses who are looking to drive inbound leads quickly and are willing to pay for the traffic to get those leads.

Either way, both SEO and SEM increase the likelihood of your business being found online.

Does SEO help SEM? 

According to Google, Google Ads do not help SEO, and SEO does not help SEM.

Is paid search the same as SEM? 

Yes. SEM refers to money-backed search engine marketing activities like buying paid search PPC (pay-per-click) ads (such as AdWords).

Is SEO Free?

SEO is the practice of attracting free organic traffic through free search listings. However, SEO often requires an investment of either time, management fees, or both.

Is SEO Paid?

Paid SEO refers to Search Engine Marketing (SEM). Search listings are free, and cannot be purchased because of the trust users have in Google search.

Why does TDSB only offer SEO? 

our interests and our client interests are one and the same. We succeed by helping our clients succeed. We cannot enjoy a harmonious relationship without sharing success with our clients.

When digital marketing providers offer both SEO optimization and PPC advertising services, we feel that marketing objectives are inevitably compromised. Marketing agencies naturally protect their own interests rather than helping small businesses succeed.

It is because of this that we never offer PPC advertising services. This gives our clients the peace of mind that we will never undermine their best interests with marketing strategies intent on boosting our profit margins instead of the bottom line of our clients.

Some agencies don’t believe that a distinction between search results and advertising is all that important.

Google does. And we do too.

What else?

If you are curious about learning more between SEO vs SEM, we would encourage you to visit these resources:

  • Google Ads: SEO vs PPC (Another blog like this one, except written by Google)
  • Google Honest Results (Why there is not a compromise between SEO vs PPC)
  • The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine (Google’s “founding” paper written at Stanford. Useful to understand the core of how Google began)
  • Google Ads Resources (All the information you want to know about Google Ads)
  • Google Search Console (How your content is performing organically on Google)

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