What Exactly are SEO and SEM?

What Exactly are SEO and SEM?

Not surprisingly, the two terms are closely related. They both refer to practices intended to achieve the same goal: drive more visitors to your online content. However, they go about it in slightly different ways. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is all about organically increasing your site’s ranking over time. Search Engine Marketing (SEM), on the other hand, tries to achieve this by taking advantage of paid digital marketing models such as Pay-Per-Click ads.

It is good to point out that sometimes the term SEM is used as an umbrella term to encompass both approaches. SEM sometimes refers to the implementation of organic SEO techniques, combined with paid digital marketing.

However, it is important to make a clear cut distinction since each practice comes with its own set of advantages and challenges. In fact, depending on your goals and budget, one might fit your needs better than the other.

Let’s go over some of these differences to help you better gauge which approach might suit your particular situation best.

Advantages of an SEO focused approach (Organic growth)

SEO Costs 

Most SEO strategies can be implemented without the need for direct investment. You can, in fact, take care of them yourself if you have the time for it. This suits the needs for businesses on a tight budget.


If done correctly, many of the improvements you make will remain in place and provide benefits for a long time. Even if you hire an agency to take care of your SEO, you’ll keep benefitting long after you have ended their services.


Having well-placed pages in organic results drives more credibility and user awareness to your content than advertised links. Usually, it takes a fair amount of time to get to this point. However, nothing provides as much bang for your buck than authority and trust in your brand. Increased CTR and conversions go up immediately as soon as you become an authority in your industry.

Challenges of an SEO focused approach (Organic growth)


SEO strategies usually take longer to take hold and show tangible results. This might be an issue when you are on a tight schedule. That´s why it is important to couple your SEO efforts with other marketing strategies at least at the beginning.

Time investment

Effective SEO never happens overnight. There are too many factors and tasks that require constant gauging, fine-tuning, and upkeep. Managing an SEO campaign usually requires huge amounts of time as you produce content, build a robust backlink strategy, and optimize your website for top performance.

Advantages of an SEM focused approach (Paid Advertisement)

Instant Positioning

One of the critical benefits of PPC ads is positioning. In Google, ads results appear even before the top organic results. This gives your content a significant advantage when it comes to catching potential viewer’s attention.

High targetability

Platforms like Instagram or Facebook offer an ample array of variables to make sure your ads are reaching your buyer persona. Categories like age, sex, and interest can help make sure your message reaches the right audience. This makes your campaign a lot more specialized and cost efficient.


While you have little control over how your content is displayed on organic search results or which pieces of content will get featured, PPC ads are highly customizable. You are in full control of what search engines and platforms show. This helps you make use of powerful copywriting and marketing strategies to capture a viewer’s attention in a reliable, consistent manner.

Challenges of an SEM focused approach (Paid Advertisement)

SEM Costs

While an adequately configurated PPC campaign doesn’t have to be expensive (and can offer good ROI numbers) the fact that you need to pay every time someone interacts with the ad might present a challenge. Particularly at the beginning when you are fine-tuning the ad into efficiency.


Often, after you have come up with a perfect ad that gives you the results you want, competitors will try and copy it. Sometimes they simply outbid you to make your ad less effective. This is something that is nearly impossible to do with organic growth strategies.

As you can see, both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. Their effectivity mostly relies on the goals you are pursuing, and the resources you have to achieve them.