SEO vs SEM? Or SEO vs Paid Search?

SEO vs SEM? Or SEO vs Paid Search? What’s the Difference, and Which is the Best for Your Marketing?

Since search engines are so important to customer acquisition, it isn’t surprising that there are a lot of terms that describe our outreach efforts. While everyone agrees that SEO is the quest to increase organic traffic through better SERPs, there are still disagreements on how to describe paid efforts. This can seem confusing, but just as social media has organic and paid, so does search engine traffic.

Here’s the thing: just as social media marketing encompasses both organic and paid, so does search engine marketing: (Organic) SEO and Paid Search, often called PPC but not limited to Pay Per Click campaigns. There are other marketing modalities, such as sponsored results and races for the Snippet box. Many people think of this in terms of SEO vs SEM.

But what’s the difference? While some refer to SEM as PPC, I believe looking at SEM = Organic Search (SEO) + Paid Search (PPC) is the best way to look at it so as to clear up the confusion. Just as we only originally thought of social media marketing only as organic, search engine marketing was originally only looked at as being a paid effort. But I would argue that the term “marketing” should not mean either organic or paid and should instead represent both in its meaning. Let’s break down these terms and their types.

What is SEO?

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Search Engine Optimization, better known as SEO, is organically optimizing your website both internally and externally in order to achieve higher search engine rankings. There are several ways to do this, including making sure that you have relevant content for your target customer’s search intent. An effective SEO program requires careful keyword research and quality writing.

Paid search is the exact same as SEO but instead of doing it organically, you are doing it through advertising by paying search engines to have your content appear directly inside search engine results. If you look at the average SERP, you’ll see “sponsored” results. In addition, there are text ads along the side of most search pages. Both of these techniques are part of paid search. However, since paid efforts still need to leverage keywords, you can see how SEO vs SEM works at a distance.

What Types of SEO Exist?

What Types of SEO Exist?

As most of us know, there are many ways to get quality results. In many cases, a mixture of SEO approaches is required. That’s especially true since SEO has become a highly competitive field, and one in which many of the rules change over time.

On-page SEO

In a nutshell, on-page SEO is the use of content creation techniques that make your page more competitive for search engines. For instance, a quality SEO vs SEM campaign will pay close attention to the keywords, headings, and descriptions. SEO tools will help you to find the right keywords and how often to incorporate them in your text.

Another aspect of on-page SEO is pictures and other media. Done right, this kind of media can be indexed by search engines and boost your overall placement. To maximize SEO, you’ll want to add meta descriptions and ADA-compliant text.

Finally, on-page SEO isn’t complete without internal links. This is effective because Google and other search engines rank content in part based on how long people stay on the website. To that end, if people read one page and then jump to another, it improves your overall time on site.

Further Reading: 11 Easily Implementable SEO Tips for Beginners

Off-page SEO

With off-page SEO, the goal is to boost your overall site credibility by linking between websites. One of the best ways to do this is with guest posting on blogs. If you’ve followed my website long enough, you’ll see that I have a lot of guest content. In addition, I help other site owners out by guest posting for them.

Another way to get quality links is by citing high-quality sources. As the old saying goes, you need to give credit where credit is due. And as you link back to the works of others, this helps show that you are a subject matter expert and that sometimes will lead to others linking back to you, either as you gain authority, appear higher in search engine rankings, or some websites reciprocate.

Technical SEO

Technical SEO is another important aspect of getting your website on page 1. This involves making sure that your website functions well for all users. For instance, the site should always load quickly. And with the mobile device revolution, your site should look good even if viewed from a phone. Some sites have a mobile edition, while others choose to make the site mobile-friendly upfront. Overall, the most important thing is that the search engines can easily explore your site.

Further Reading: The 16 Best SEO Tools to Power Your Search Engine Marketing

User experience

At its most basic, user experience is an aspect of SEO that’s based on how easy it is for a customer to read the site. For instance, are your readers understanding your content the way you want them to? If search engines determine that your language is hard to comprehend, it’ll hurt you. Likewise, you need to be answering people’s questions. These are the factors that will keep people reading.


With content SEO, you’re writing content that is specifically intended to boost your site SEO. This means that you pay careful attention to the other aspects of SEO, such as short tail and long tail keywords. Content SEO in this case is an overarching theme of making your content as attractive as possible by using the other techniques above.

What Types of Paid Search Exist?

The next half of the SEO vs SEM equation is paid search. In a nutshell, this is where you pay Google or another search engine to show your ad or content when a search engine user looks for certain keywords or views related websites. You should choose keywords for SEM the same way that you do for SEO, and it really helps when you don’t have a slot on the top page. With that in mind, here are the different types as described by Google.

Search ads

Search ads

This is a mixture of Adwords and paid search results. They are arguably the oldest kind of advertising on Google, and they featured on predecessor search engines as well. With search ads, the most important thing to note is that they are strictly text based. There’s little room for creativity.

Display ads

A display ad is just what you’d think: a picture or video, along with text, that takes advantage of customer’s browsing history. For instance, since I’m a marketing professional I get display ads for every marketing tool under the sun. And on my personal devices, I’ll get pitches for the things I enjoy in my free time. Display ads can be anything from a large popup or banner ad, all the way to a postage stamp-sized icon on the side or bottom of a page.

Shopping ads

Shopping ads

A shopping ad is one of those icons placed at the top of many SERPs that advertises products related to the keyword. In many cases, this product is the actual keyword, but that doesn’t always have to be the case. Either way, this kind of ad is intended for e-commerce brands and other retailers.

Gmail ads

With Gmail ads, a special sponsored email is sent to a targeted group of recipients. For instance, if you are a college that wants to promote a particular program, you’ll target people that either have a high level of education or appear to want one. The ads are placed in social media and promotions folder, but not in the primary folder. In addition, they’re labeled as an ad.

YouTube ads

YouTube ads

Finally, there are YouTube ads. These are videos that play before and during the content which a YouTube user wants to watch. There are two basic ways to have your ad “chosen” for a video. Either it’s a “general audiences” advert, or it’s based on what Google knows about a consumer. Users must watch the first five seconds. After that, they may opt to skip the rest.

Managing paid search campaigns

Of course, like all marketing campaigns, both SEO vs SEM need careful management. Content is important, but so are the prices paid and the audiences reached. And similar to how there are different types of SEO to manage, each paid search effort requires you to manage the following features of paid search platforms:


First, one of the differences in SEO vs SEM is that with SEM you need to bid against other advertisers for ad space. These slots are sold based on keyword, as well as the kind of result you want. For instance, you might pay per impression on text ads, and per conversion for shopping. These strategies help you optimize return on investment.

Quality score

A quality score is just what you’d think: Google’s estimation of your overall advertisement quality. It’s essentially a measure of how relevant your ads are to audiences that see them. With a high score, you’ll get more competitive rates at auction.


It almost goes without saying, but you should always make high-quality ads. One of the ways that many people decide on what to click is the way in which content is put together. And, if someone wants to buy only from their local market, tip-offs like poor language proficiency are a sign they should stay away.


One of the places where there’s little difference in SEO vs SEM is the importance of keywords. Choose the ones that are most relevant to your product. To keep costs down, you can also choose variants of that keyword that are less competitive. A quality marketing tool will help you find these.

Demographic targeting

Finally, you need to choose a target demographic. Adults aged 25-40 is a common choice, but in many cases you may want to pick a different one. In addition, if your products or services are gender-specific then you should consider whether or not your best bet is to target only them. There are, of course, other examples.

Naturally, there are situations when you should focus on paid search, even over SEO. For instance, when building domain authority it will be the only way to get consistent traffic. Even a little later on in the game, for the most competitive search results it will be the only way to appear until you build first page-ranking domain authority which will take time. In other words, because of the high value that Google places on domain authority you’ll have little choice but to pay for great results at first.

Another time to use SEM more heavily is when you have strategic sales / lead generation campaigns that you are investing in through paid media. This helps your other content get discovered. Plus, if your paid search campaigns are getting a high ROI, it’s always a good idea to double down. Similarly, paid search is priceless when you need to inform your overall strategy.

Lastly, paid search can quickly build brand awareness. This is true when you want to make sure you appear at the top of search results for branded search terms, but also to offer your brand as an alternative when people search for your competitors. There’s nothing like stealing some of the spotlight.

With that said, when it comes to the SEO vs SEM debate there’s no question that SEO wins in certain situations. For instance, if you have no advertising budget then basic on-page SEO is critical. Plus, focusing on organic search also allows you to rank for informational keywords not directly related to your products or services. And no matter your stage of site construction, you should ALWAYS be focusing on long-term organic search by investing in building your library of content.

Of course, SEO is important even for companies with big SEM budgets. With quality SEO efforts, over time you should be able to reduce your Paid Search budget to get consistent traffic. Becoming an important destination in your field is critical to long-term website viability.

Further Reading; 10 Top Tips to Increase Your Blog Post SEO

Why You Should Focus on Both

At the end of the day, we’ll never answer the SEO vs SEM discussion by favoring one over the other. A solid digital strategy will boost your content using both techniques. Planned well, your content and advertisements will have a synergistic relationship.

Let’s look at a specific example. Since you can’t organically rank at the top for all strategic keywords – and even if you could you will still be below advertisements – you should try using paid search to rank for those strategic keywords you do not rank high for. This helps keep your website from getting beaten out by the competition.

Furthermore, it’s always a good idea to keep doing what works. For instance, if you are able to get high ROI from paid search, it is another reason to keep doing it: You are literally making money from each ad! As the saying goes, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.

Still, SEO is a very powerful driver of site visits and sales. In the long run, we know that organic inbound search can generate high ROI. While you aren’t paying companies like Google for access to their platform, forming and maintaining a good SEO strategy does cost money in both research and content creation costs.

So while paid search is a great short-term and, if you find your sweet spot, potentially lucrative tactic, in parallel you should always be focused on building your authority with search engines and aiming for growth in your long-term organic search traffic. It can be a tough balance to strike, but it’s worth it. Analytics, along with careful planning, are your best friends.

Hero photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

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Neal Schaffer
Neal Schaffer

Neal Schaffer is a leading authority on helping businesses through their digital transformation of sales and marketing through consulting, training, and helping enterprises large and small develop and execute on social media marketing strategy, influencer marketing, and social selling initiatives. President of the social media agency PDCA Social, Neal also teaches digital media to executives at Rutgers University, the Irish Management Institute (Ireland), and the University of Jyvaskyla (Finland). Fluent in Japanese and Mandarin Chinese, Neal is a popular keynote speaker and has been invited to speak about digital media on four continents in a dozen countries. He is also the author of 3 books on social media, including Maximize Your Social (Wiley), and in late 2019 will publish his 4th book, The Business of Influence (HarperCollins), on educating the market on the why and how every business should leverage the potential of influencer marketing. Neal resides in Irvine, California but also frequently travels to Japan.

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