The great debate: SEO vs. SEM

The great debate: SEO vs. SEM

January 1, 2021
(Reading time: 5 - 9 minutes)

If I were to ask you the difference between search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM), you may or may not be able to tell me. Unfortunately, they are far too often used interchangeably. However, they are very different strategies! The similarity between the two makes it difficult for most small business owners to determine a better fit. Should you invest in one or the other, or maybe both? Let's look at what's the difference and which one you need for business.

SEO and SEM, What are they, and what's, are the differences between the two?

Both of these industry terms get used abundantly, and they definitely work hand-in-hand. When used together, your website may benefit. However, they are not the same thing. 

One way to think about the two is to think about fishing. SEM is like taking a single fishing pole and going over to the honey hole where you know the fish are biting and dropping your line. Now an SEO would be like taking a fishing net and stretching it across the same spot. Both catch fish but only by using the net are you going to stay fed for a while or feed your family. Unfortunately, it takes time to weave the net together, so the fishing pole is a good option while you get started perfecting your macrame. 

SEO = Search Engine Optimization

SEO is a marketing strategy, using keywords people use when using a/an search engine like google and linking the keywords to their site or business. Hence, they appear as close to the top of the first search engine results page (SERP) as possible, To gain exposure for their site or business, which leads to higher traffic and sales. But it's not as simple as one might think. A lot has to go into a site to optimize its potential

SEM = Search Engine Marketing

SEM is also a marketing strategy, but one that uses paid advertisement to link the name of their site or business to a list of keywords that customers might use in their search engine for services. The ad will either appear above the organic sites at the top of the SERP or listed at the bottom. Which is why, if you've ever searched for anything using Google, then you know the first three or four things listed in your search results are all ads and marked as such. Those are all what is known as SEM's, and they go by a CPC (cost per click) or a PPC (pay per click).

What is the difference between SEO and SEM?

Well, the obvious answer would be money. An SEM is paid for, and an SEO is not.

More than the apparent financial difference, SEM is mostly used in the short term to announce a sale or to gain better exposure for a highly competitive keyword, which is extremely difficult to be seen and rank for otherwise. For example, if you are a plumber and you are competing against Roto-Rooter or Benjamin Franklin Plumbing. As you can imagine, these companies have money to burn and gladly buy ads, running up the ad prices. Ads for competitive keywords can become very costly and can add up fast!. SEM's are best when used in the short term, so if you use one, remember you can set a daily budget or the max amount you're willing to pay per day. SEM's are better used as boosters to gain traffic to your site or business and typically are not economically feasible in the long term. SEM should always be used in conjunction with an SEO site for optimal benefit.

SEO or organic search brings more traffic in the long run. Organic search is a search that cannot be affected by paid advertising and is listed by its relevance to a search. Now, if you can't afford any SEM kind of advertising, there are many ways that you can optimize your site to get it to appear high in the SERP by using SEO techniques and content marketing.

Tips And Tricks You Should Know

The White Hat Technique Will Raise Your Search Ranking Based On How Search Engines Rank Sites 

1.) On-Page SEO

This SEO helps search engines understand a page's content. Therefore, giving it a higher ranking in the search by optimizing each individual page of a website to target a specific keyword makes your site more appealing to the search engine.

Keyword Research: Research the most commonly used keywords in searches that have been used for your site's topic or business by going to websites like and registering for free. If your site uses the most common keywords people are asking about, its relevance will be raised automatically in the search engine. 

Creative Content Writing: Your site can't be like any others; if you want traffic and to get noticed, you can't just use the keywords. You need to find a new angle on them and make people want to click on them, giving readers what the other sites are NOT. Or, in other words, answer people's questions!

2) Technical SEO

This SEO will optimize non-content elements of the site and the overall site itself, improving its foundation. 

Site Speeds: Use lower resolution or more transparent media on the landing page for faster site speed. 

Indexing: Make everything organized and clean looking while also making info easy to find 

Crawlability: Make words and buttons bigger for easy navigating.

Site Architecture: Make sure there are several ways to reach, contact, or talk to someone on the landing page, and everything is clearly marked and visible. 

Mobile Friendliness: Make your site or business mobile-friendly. Search engines are used almost more on mobile phones than on computers anymore, and search engines know the difference and rate higher for sights that cater to both. 

Security: Security is vital if you want to build trust and return traffic.

3.) Off-Page SEO

When other reputable website sites link to your site, it shows the search engine that the brand is trustworthy. This type of SEO builds up a website's reputation and authority. This is usually accomplished by connecting it to other high-quality websites by including:

  • Local listings
  • Directory profiles

4) Local SEO

Local SEO comprises a variety of tactics. Most will include a geographic landing page. As the name implies will consist of a geographical location and services or products relevant to the area. They are designed for local search or when a user is searching for the keyword or keyword phrase in combination with the "near me," "city," or zip code determined by Google. Other things will include

Why Good Businesses Use Either An SEO or SEM Or Both

Everybody wants their site or business to appear at the top when someone searches. Obviously, it's a highly coveted position that's extremely competitive. Most people who use search engines like Google, Bing, Yahoo for their search only look at the first page of search results. Why? Because we want everything fast. Having to click through pages of search results is work. Typically people use searches for three reasons:

  • for businesses and services
  • for researching topics to become better educated about something
  • for finding info on people, places, or things

Ask yourself this, when you do a Google search, do you click to the second page of your search results? How about the third page? If they don't see what they want to on the first page, most people will type in a whole new search by altering their wording or "keywords" next, rather than click to a second or third search result. Being listed on the second page of search results is still better than five or ten, but it still gives you less than a 50% chance that a searcher will reach your site or business through their search engine results.

Knowing this, I'm sure you can imagine with both SEO strategy and SEM strategy, the goal is to be seen in order to gain the most traffic. The more traffic to your site or your business, the higher the chance someone will contact you or will share your content with others. There's a lot that goes into each SEO and SEM strategy also both on and off-page. However, the one thing they have in common is keywords. Both strategies are intent-based. Meaning someone is purposefully searching for what you're offering or something closely related.

Target Marketing

It's important to know who and what you're marketing to. Some demographics are broad range like sports or medicine, but even both of those topics are umbrella terms for a much greater list that could attach itself to those words alone. Sometimes being broad helps, and using an umbrella term can sometimes definitely help. But so are a million other businesses that got there first years ago and have established themselves on the internet—making your business page 30 in the search engine. So to optimize using an SEO or SEM needs to be far more specific if not closely related to your actual target audience.

For example, let's say I'm an ice cream fanatic blogger. Now the words ice cream have been taken by Baskin-Robbins and rap songs for at least three search pages. Let's say mint-chocolate chip and a couple of other flavors are taken up also. But maybe through my research, ice cream scooper is wide open or ice cream as one word because sometimes people don't care how it goes into the search bar is also a better chance for you to get on that first SERP as #1.

Which Is Better for Your Business, SEO, or SEM?

With the similarities and differences between SEO and SEM laid out, unfortunately, there isn't a clear winner for most small businesses. Just as you and your business are unique, so should the choices you make. For some, SEM might be just the ticket to break through a ceiling, while it might be cost-prohibitive for others.

If you need help choosing, I would suggest reaching out for a free consultation. We will be glad to help you decide if one is better than the other or if both might be a better fit for you and your business.

Adam Bennett

Written by:  |  January 1, 2021

Adam is the president and founder of Cube Creative Design and specializes in private school marketing. Since starting the business in 2005, he has created individual relationships with clients in Western North Carolina and across the United States. He places great value on the needs, expectations, and goals of the client.

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