Putting together an effective marketing strategy is challenging in and of itself, but mix in a bunch of acronyms with vague definitions, and you’ve got a real headache on your hands. This article aims to dissect two common marketing tactics, explain how they’re similar, how they’re different, and which (or both) is right for you!

If you’re thinking about marketing for your company, you’ve likely come across the terms “SEM” and “SEO”. With such similar names, you might think they’re the same thing. And while the two terms are very related, there are some critical differences between them and how they might impact your business. Let’s take a closer look at what exactly SEM and SEO are.

What is SEM?

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is a form of paid advertising designed to drive traffic to your website. These paid ads primarily appear in the search engine results pages of websites such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo. If you’ve ever typed in a search on these platforms, you’ve almost certainly seen one of these ads before. On a Google results page, they are marked with a bolded Ad tag before the URL.

There are many facets to an effective SEM strategy, including determining your target keywords to set up a pay-per-click (PPC) ad. These keywords, based on the common search queries of your target audience, will trigger your ad and display it to a potential customer. If they click on one of your Google ads, then you pay Google for that website traffic, hence the name “pay per click”.

Some of the most common types of paid search engine ads include search ads, YouTube ads, display ads, and shopping ads. While these can all take various forms, what they have in common is that they are activated by someone entering a specific phrase into a search engine. And yes, YouTube is a search engine, and it’s actually the second-largest search engine in the world behind Google!

Because these ads cost money, you want them to be working as efficiently as possible, not wasting resources on the wrong searches or constantly getting outcompeted by your rivals. Understanding what your customers are searching for, how they’re phrasing their searches, and what your competitors are doing is crucial for an effective SEM strategy. This means you’ll have to do your research if you want a good return on investment.

What is SEO?

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a strategy that marketers use to generate organic traffic from search engine results pages. Organic, in this context, means that the traffic to the web pages was not directly paid for, such as an ad. These are the majority of the search engine results you see when you Google something – the ones not marked with the Ad tag.

SEO is comprised of various elements working together to make your website rank on the first page of Google and other similar sites. One of these elements is the technical side of your website. Basically, Google rewards websites that are well-built and have a positive user experience. After all, you’d be less likely to use Google if it constantly recommended bad websites to you. This means your site is likely to show up higher if it loads quickly, works well on mobile devices, and protects user data.

On Page information is also important for SEO. Optimized on-page information accurately portrays what your website is, what it does, and why someone would want to read it. This includes using appropriate titles and headers with specific keywords for your target audience.

Google also rewards websites that produce relevant, engaging, and consistent content. This can take the form of blogs, articles, white papers, and more. Content should include keywords related to your product or service that would also entice a potential customer. If you have enough of this kind of content, your site is more likely to rank higher on the results page.

Off Page SEO is anything that might lead a person to your website from somewhere else. This can include backlinks from your link building efforts or social media posts featuring your content. Other sites pointing to yours increases your credibility and can move you up in the rankings, kind of like having a friend vouch for you.

How are SEM and SEO Similar?

Search Engines

The most important way that SEM and SEO are similar is that they both depend on search engines. This means that both strategies seek to leverage sites like Google to drive high-quality traffic to your website. They are designed to capture the attention of people that are already interested in what your business provides, because they’re actively searching for it.

Search Queries

Search engines try to give their users the most relevant and engaging content possible based on their specific search queries. SEM and SEO are both centered around this concept. They both depend on an understanding of your target audience. Because knowing who your customer is and how they search for things online will help you develop a strategy to capture their attention. Based on this knowledge, you can develop a list of keywords and search phrases to include in your ads and content.

Measuring Performance

Furthermore, you can learn from your ads and content by analyzing what is getting the most views and clicks. One metric for measuring this is called click-through rates (CTR). A click-through rate is a simple math problem in which you divide the total times a link was shown by the total times that someone actually clicked on that link. For example, if an ad were shown 100 times and was clicked on 50 times, then it would have a click-through rate of 50%, which is exceptionally good. You would want to adjust your other ads based on what is performing well for that ad. The same is true for organic content.

How are SEM and SEO Different?


The biggest difference between SEM and SEO comes down to money. SEM exclusively refers to paid search traffic while SEO encompasses organic search traffic. It can be easy to confuse the two because you will likely be paying someone to manage both strategies, whether it’s an employee, a marketing agency, or even yourself. The difference is that SEM tactics also require paying an advertising platform like Google or Bing.


Another key difference is that SEM starts working much faster than SEO. As soon as a Google ad campaign is active, your ads can start showing up on the results page. This isn’t the case for SEO. A well-crafted website with engaging content will take time to build traction and credibility. However, SEM only works as long as you’re willing to pay. A high-quality blog post can stay on your website forever and will continue to generate organic traffic long after it’s initially published.

Which One is Right for Me?

Determining which strategy is right for you depends on the goals and capacity of your particular business. And while there are some general principles that will point you in the right direction, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

SEM might be your best bet if:

  • You want to begin seeing results immediately
  • You already have a good base of website traffic
  • Your margins can support paying for individual leads

SEO might be your best bet if:

  • Your primary goal is long-term growth
  • You already have a team of marketers or content writers
  • Your cost per click for your industry is too high to be sustainable

Your most powerful option, of course, is to combine the two. Each strategy can support and learn from the other, making them both better as time goes on. The important user information you gather from your PPC ads can be incorporated into your written content strategy. And high-quality content is more enticing for people, making it more likely to get a click in your ad campaign. In this way, the strategies create a positive feedback loop that can significantly improve website traffic.

How Can I Get Started?

There’s a lot to learn when it comes to SEM and SEO, and the process can seem daunting. Determining which one suits your goals is a great first step to beginning your strategy. Whether it’s the quick results of paid SEM or the long-term efforts of organic SEO, doing something will almost certainly be better than doing nothing.

If you’re excited to get started with a marketing strategy but are still somewhat lost, we can be your guide!

Sting Marketing has years of experience in the search engine field, with clients across various industries. Our team of experts will work with you to determine your goals and the best ways to achieve them. And our data-driven results mean that you can rest easy knowing that we’ve got your back!