SEO vs SEM: What You Need To Know

Not only is it vital that marketers understand the difference between SEO vs SEM, it’s also important to understand how both marketing channels can work together to optimise, streamline, and heighten the results of all your digital marketing efforts.

{Article first written for The Hoth}

Whether you have digital marketing strategies that separate your SEO and SEM efforts altogether, or simply use them as umbrella terms to mean the same thing – you could be missing out on a competitive advantage.

Not only is it vital that marketers understand the difference between SEO and SEM, it’s also important to understand how both marketing channels can work together to optimise, streamline, and heighten the results of all your digital marketing efforts.

SEO vs SEM: What Your Need To Know
The confusion between SEO vs SEM begins with the fact that "SEM" is often used as a generalized term for all search engine marketing, both paid and organic.

SEO vs. SEM: The differences

Although the terms SEO and SEM are often (wrongly) used interchangeably, they are in fact 2 different search engine marketing techniques. Both channels can be used by businesses to reach their target customers on search engines like Google, but it’s important to know the differences in order to use them effectively. Using the wrong terms in the wrong context can even prevent you from getting your marketing budgets approved.

The two basic differences between the two channels are:

SEO: Search engine optimisation is a search marketing method designed to draw organic search traffic to your business.

SEM: Search engine marketing is a search marketing method that uses paid tactics to get your business appearing in the right search results.

The confusion between the two terms usually begins with the fact that “SEM” is often used as a generalised term for all search engine marketing, both paid and organic. However, when writing your digital marketing strategy and defining how you use your budget, it is vital that you differentiate the two terms into SEO for organic traffic, and SEM for paid traffic.

For further clarification, let’s take a deeper look into what both marketing channels entail.

What is SEO?

SEO stands for “search engine optimisation”.

At its core, this means taking steps to make your business and products more visible to target customers on search engines like Google.

SEO tactics strive to get your website to organically appear as high up in search rankings as possible. Which consequently will result in more organic traffic and warm leads directing to your business.

If you’ve heard that SEO is dead, you might want to bear in mind that 210 people Google that phrase every month.

In fact, 61% of B2B marketers state that SEO and organic traffic provide more leads to their business than any other marketing channel. And 75% of browsers never make it past the first page of search results on Google – so, SEO is very much alive and well in 2022.

How does SEO work?

To understand how SEO works, we first have to understand how search engines work,

Search engines such as Google trawl web pages, indexing the information and organising it by a long list of ranking factors that attribute the most relevant information to certain search queries.

The aim of these ranking factors is to provide browsers with the most efficient user experience. As a user looking for “best search marketing agencies in Toronto”, you will want the top search results to provide you with exactly what you are looking for.

But as a business that provides those exact search marketing services the browser is looking for, you’ll need to optimise your website with SEO tactics in order to appear at the top of that user’s search.

These SEO tactics and practices include optimising your site via website speed, readability, and pages that are optimised with competitive keywords. As well as content marketing that establishes brand authority by answering burning consumer questions, and link-building that re-asserts this industry authority to Google.

The pros and cons of SEO


  • SEO is free of cost, simply relying on your time, effort, and good strategy.
  • Great for targeting localised traffic.
  • Ranking highly in search results will establish your business as an authority in your field.


  • SEO success and ranking #1 will make you the target of competitors.
  • The algorithms are constantly changing. It is estimated that Google updates its algorithm 500 to 600 times every year.
  • Like all good things, SEO takes time. It may take months to see results.

There’s also no assurances. There’s no promise that your efforts will help you rise through the rankings, which is why many businesses seek the help of

What is SEM?

SEM stands for “search engine marketing”.

Unlike SEO that is used to organically rank a website, SEM uses paid tactics to get a business or product to appear in search results.

These tactics usually include establishing pay-per-click (PPC) ads on search engines. Search engines such as Google offer ad platforms like “Google Ads” that allow you to pay for your business to appear as an advert in relevant search results.

SEM itself includes the actual setting up of the advert, optimising the ad to ensure it reaches the correct target, as well as monitoring and managing the conversions and ROI.

How does SEM work?

SEM campaigns use a combination of keyword research and competitor analysis to ensure PPC campaigns appear in front of hot leads.

Via Google Ads, PPC campaigns can appear in search results, on Gmail, and on Youtube. Every time your ad is clicked on, your business will pay a price.

Not only do you need to make sure your business has one, you also need to make sure it’s accurate and optimised.

Here we’ll explain how to create and optimise your listing, as well as introduce some other Google tools that will boost your local SEO efforts too.

The pros and cons of SEM


  • Effective SEM offers quick access to clicks and conversions.
  • You have control over who sees your ads, and when they see them.
  • SEM is helpful for trialling new strategies and boosting traffic during dry spells.


  • Browsers place greater value and trust in organic results, with the majority of website traffic coming from organic search.
  • PPC ads stop providing results when you stop paying.
  • SEM channels are highly competitive, requiring extensive keyword research to target the most competitive keywords.

Why you should combine SEO and SEM in your digital marketing strategy

Although both SEO and SEM have their downfalls, the impact of these pitfalls can be greatly minimised by combining both channels to work together in your digital marketing strategy.

This is because SEO and SEM both rely on very similar foundations. Both channels require astute keyword awareness, and utilising these search terms and related keywords to reach the target customer.

68% of online experiences begin with a search engine, so search engine visibility is essential. SEO provides this visibility in the long term, while SEM provides this visibility in the short term.

However, optimising your site with SEO best practices can also improve your SEM performance. Providing higher quality traffic, higher conversion rates, and thus an increased ROI.

How can SEO and SEM work together?

  • You can make up for slumps in organic traffic: Slumps in your organic traffic can happen at any time due to sudden changes in the algorithm or heightened efforts from your competition. This would be a tactical time to engage a PPC campaign that boosts traffic. Similarly, you could also rely more on PPC traffic while waiting for your SEO efforts to pay off.

  • Your SEM insights could improve your SEO strategy: SEM campaigns offer valuable insights into keyword performance, conversion rates, and traffic opportunities, which can all be used to optimise your SEO efforts.

  • Supercharge your SEO efforts: For those SEO efforts that have yet to offer a high reach or conversion rate, you can engage a targeted SEM campaign that will place your content directly in front of the right consumers.

Closing thoughts

Too often, digital marketers and business owners consider SEO and SEM to be two entirely separate aspects of digital marketing strategy, or simply confuse the two as meaning the same thing. As much as it is crucial for marketers to understand what it is that makes SEO and SEM different, search engine success also depends on the two being used in a complementary tandem that has been proven to enhance strategies, performance, and ROI all-round.

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