Understanding the Difference Between SEO and SEM

If you are a business owner, there’s a good chance you have heard of the terms SEO and SEM when it comes to increasing your search engine ranking. You may have questioned what they are, or if your business could benefit from them. Both are fantastic tools to get your website seen online, but how are they different from each other? Here, we clear up the confusion between SEO and SEM so you can make an informed decision on which avenue is right for you.

What is SEO?

SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) is a form of marketing that involves optimising your website using various organic tools and tactics to achieve greater visibility in Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). This approach is completely free (if you do it yourself) and if you ask us… completely necessary when developing or maintaining your website!

There are many ways you can optimise your website to achieve a higher ranking, including On-Page SEO, Off-Page SEO and Technical SEO. We recommend combining all three techniques to truly reap the benefits of Search Engine Optimisation.

Understanding How Search Engines Work

When a user searches a term or query on Google, the search engine “crawls” through its index of content to find the most relevant web pages to present to the searcher. Often, there will be thousands or hundreds of thousands of pages presenting the search term, so Google needs to rank these results in terms of how well these web pages answer your question or solve your problem. How does it decipher the relevancy, you ask? Keywords, links and quality content are just the beginning

On-Page SEO

The term “On-Page SEO” refers to the process of optimising each page of your website with the aim of organically increasing your search engine ranking. This means, making sure your content is original and addresses the relevant keywords, based on keyword research (also known as keyword optimisation). Creating high-quality content should be your number one priority when building your website.

Off-Page SEO

“Off-Page SEO” refers to the process of link building, a technique that is used to build authority through connections to high-quality websites. Link building involves actively gaining backlinks from well-known or high-ranking websites; that is, links from other websites to yours. This can be done through guest blogging, reaching out to journalists or news platforms relating to your industry, social media promotion or creating free and shareable tools (to name a few!). As more backlinks are gained, search engines see your website as a credible and reliable source of information.

Technical SEO

The last of the three-pronged approach to SEO relates to the technical set-up of your website. When dealing with Technical SEO, you can essentially forget about your content (for now!) because it’s all about improving the experience of users and search crawlers. Setting your website up this way will help round out your SEO efforts and improve your ranking on SERPs.

Here are some strategies you can utilise to make your website more user and crawler-friendly:

  • Speed up your website
  • Make it mobile-friendly
  • Remove duplicate content
  • Create an XML sitemap
  • Boost your security using SSL (a Secure Sockets Layer)
  • Set up Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools
  • Remove any “bugs” or “errors” affecting the usability of your website

What is SEM?

SEM (Search Engine Marketing) incorporates various forms of paid advertising to achieve greater visibility in SERPs. SEM is targeted to your ideal audience and usually comes in the form of a Google Ad, which is visible at the top of your search results. Setting up your SEM requires a clear strategy, defined target audience, allocated budget, keyword research and TIME! Although it may take a lot of planning, SEM can certainly pay off for your business when properly executed.

Pay-Per-Click (PPC) Marketing

A term you will often hear when discussing SEM is PPC (Pay-Per-Click marketing). PPC refers to the process of being charged each time someone clicks through to your website via your ad and is most commonly used via the Google Ads platform (formerly known as Google AdWords). Essentially, PPC marketing allows you to pay for additional visitors to your website, in turn, improving your website’s performance and ranking.

Setting Up Your PPC Advertisement

As mentioned earlier, your PPC advertising requires clear planning and strategy to result in a successful campaign. The process involves:

  1. Undertaking keyword research to find out which terms will resonate with your target audience
  2. Bid on your preferred keyword on the Google Ads platform (your ad will show up when someone searches this keyword)
  3. Write ad copy that involves your keywords and focuses on generating a high CTR (Click-Through Rate)
  4. Monitor your Google Ads Quality Score (you will receive a discount on each click if your quality score is high)

There can be a lot of steps involved in the decision-making and setup process for Google Ads, so we recently wrote a blog post “Should I Hire Someone to Manage Google Ads?” that breaks down the entire process for you. Click here to read.

So What is the Difference Between SEO and SEM?

If you hadn’t already gathered, the main difference between SEO and SEM is that SEO involves organic (free) marketing techniques and SEM involves paid marketing techniques. This is a huge consideration for business owners and marketers, as SEM requires a commitment to a dedicated budget. Affordability must be considered for your SEM advertisements to achieve and maintain long-term results.

Another big difference to consider? SEM is going to get you results much faster than SEO will. With hard work and commitment, SEO can take a couple of months to start producing results. However, without commitment or proper execution, SEO can take a few years to hit the ground running. On the other hand, SEM can start to give you results in as little as a day or two. In saying this, it’s important not to disregard SEO all-together due to this consideration. SEO will add value to your website over time, whereas SEM will only add value while you are paying for it!

How SEO and SEM Can Complement Each Other

SEO and SEM are primary techniques for driving website traffic. Considering most people run an online search before making a purchase, it pays off to hold a presence in both the paid and organic search space.

SEO Can Improve Your SEM Advertising

Having a website that is completely optimised for SERPs goes hand in hand with running successful SEM advertisements. A website that uses relevant keywords, is user-friendly and holds authority will help increase your conversion rates and in turn, close the deal.

Combining the Two Can Help You See Results Faster

As mentioned earlier, SEO can take a long time to start showing results when it comes to your ranking in SERPs. Combining your SEO efforts with SEM advertising can help you speed up the timeline and see you enjoying the fruits of your labour sooner!

Maximum Visibility

Think of your marketing strategy as your insurance policy to say you have done everything you possibly could to get your business in front of your target audience. Well, when it comes to Search Engine Marketing, combining SEO and SEM is your insurance policy! By doing so, you are ensuring your website is getting as many views as possible by being present across all areas of the search platform.

Boost Your Keyword Presence

A major benefit of combining SEO and SEM is that you can target your chosen keywords via both avenues. If you are looking at boosting your search engine ranking by saturating your brand across particular keywords, then this is the way to do it!

Tracking Your Results

Now, if you’re going to make the time and financial investment to set up SEO and SEM, you’re also going to need to be able to track your results! How? You ask? This is where we introduce you to Google’s helpful toolbox for business owners and marketers.

Google has a range of platforms designed to help you measure your ROI, track your website traffic and develop in-depth performance reports. Some of which include Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager.

Google Analytics

Google Analytics is an incredibly helpful tool that allows you to measure your ROI, understand how customers interact with your content and provide insights into what is and isn’t working for your website. Using this platform will give you valuable information on your organic vs paid website traffic, as well as statistics on how your customers are using each of your webpages, such as the customer source and time spent on the page. Setting up your Google Analytics account is relatively simple and is a MUST-have to use in conjunction with your SEO and SEM efforts.

Google recently announced that they will be discontinuing Universal Analytics and moving to their next-generation measurement solution, Google Analytics 4. What does this mean for you? On 1st July 2023, Universal Analytics will cease to process new hits so it is strongly recommended that you switch over to Google Analytics 4 as soon as possible. This will allow you to build historical data and familiarise yourself with the platform before the changeover occurs. If you’re unsure how to check if you will be impacted, or how to make the switch, reach out to our team. We would love to help!

Google Tag Manager

Now you know all about Google Analytics, it’s time to introduce you to Google Tag Manager! Google’s Tag Management system is designed to help you improve your advertising results by quickly adding and updating your tag information without needing to adjust the website code and giving you complete control over how and when your tags fire. Common triggers include page views, link clicks or form submissions. By using tag manager, you are able to follow your customer’s journey and gain insights into the actions they took after clicking on your ad, such as following a step or valuable action.

How is Google Tag Manager different to Google Analytics? Well, Google Analytics is used to report on your website activity and allows you to analyse your results, whereas Google Tag Manager is there to help you track particular website events (which is amazing for ensuring your website is optimised to aid conversions!).

Deciding What is Best for You: SEO or SEM?

There are a lot of factors to consider when deciding what is best for you; SEO, SEM… or both?

We have put together some questions to ask yourself:

  • Is your website set up correctly and ready to receive traffic?
  • Observe your competitors, what are they doing? And what are they spending?
  • Do you have a new website that needs a little help getting off the ground?
  • Can you currently afford the outlay required for SEM advertising?
  • Does your business require an avenue you can test and set KPI’s for?
  •  Have they actually ‘asked’ what your goals are and what you’re trying to achieve? Or are they telling you?


To put it simply, SEO = organic search engine marketing and SEM = paid search engine marketing.

For us, SEO is a non-negotiable when it comes to your website development. There is no point investing your time and effort into a website which isn’t going to help you gain a higher search ranking or conversion rate. You can get your brand in front of your audience using SEM advertisements, but in the end you need to complement this with a user-friendly website that will convert.

Once your website is set up and completely optimised, SEM is the perfect tool to work hand-in-hand to boost your visibility. If you have the right foundations and the budget for PPC advertising, then you can achieve some really amazing results for your business (you might even be surprised at how affordable some options can be!).

If you’re still unsure where to start, or what approach is right for you, don’t hesitate to get in touch with our team! We would be more than happy to walk you through the process and help you diagnose what your marketing strategy is missing when it comes to search engine marketing.

Author Bio

Michelle Trimble is a degree qualified marketing specialist who is passionate about breaking down the barriers business owners face when it comes to digital marketing!

After nearly 10 years working in the industry, Michelle decided to start Poppy Seed Media with the mission to provide more accessible marketing services.
Every business has the right to incredible marketing!

Michelle has provided marketing training to hundreds of individuals, working with businesses around the world to improve their overall strategies. Outside of the working world, Michelle is a mum to three young boys and loves any opportunity to get outside and enjoy the fresh air.

If you would like to book a free discover session with Michelle, please reach out.


Sign Up

Receive all the latest from Poppy Seed Media and our new marketing education series videos straight to your inbox.


Scroll to Top
Call Now Button