What you need to know about SEO vs SEM

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Whether you have limited marketing knowledge or you’re a marketing manager of a major corporation, experts to various individuals will have differing opinions about whether SEO is better than SEM and vice versa.

However, as most marketers would agree upon, having a good marketing mix is normally the best approach. Of course, what mix depends on the nature of the business, target market and budget. When it comes to the world of digital marketing, optimisation or paid marketing activities are two key streams.

When it comes to SEO, it can be seen that some people are still confused or misunderstand this area of marketing. This is because it involves planning, strategy and a maintained effort. Whereas SEM mainly revolves around paid online advertising. The latter is easier for people to get their head around. In simple terms, most people see it as traditional advertising, except placed online. Although it’s more involved than that, it is a more basic concept for people to understand. You pay for an ad, you get results, whether it be a small or a large return.

So, if you run a business, which tactics are right for your? Which should you invest your marketing budget in? Here are key differences between SEO and SEM, and their benefits.


SEM can be seen to be more predictable than SEO. By this, SEM allows you to choose your demographic, pick the areas where you want to be seen and control your spend. Whereas, optimisation activities see you implement strategies that aim to get you seen via particular keyword searches, which takes time to achieve and also takes into account Google’s algorithms.

However, unlike print advertising, just because you spend money on ads, doesn’t mean it will actually be seen. It depends on how many impressions you receive first. Also, the type of devices people search on also comes into play and what type of ad you’ve chosen.

However, depending on your business and what you want to rank for, optimisation activities can be quite predictable. The more competitive your keywords, the more time it will take. Other factors such as how old your website is and how much content you already have will also impact predictability of results.


Whilst SEM is quick to see results, it is fleeting. You decide on your ad and the metrics within this, and you see return on investment. Once the ad is finished, then your results finish with it. With optimisation tactics it takes time, however, you are building a foundation and a long term strategy, which will see you to continue to generate results in the future. Even if you stop activities for a short period of time, you will still see results stemming from an SEO strategy.


Online users are familiar with what is paid and what is organic. It is human nature for people to be more sceptical of something that has been paid for. Therefore, even though the message may be seen by paid advertising, it doesn’t mean it will necessarily be taken in, clicked or engaged with.

In fact, many users may see paid advertising as an annoyance. There are also different systems that act as ad blockers. Think about the last time you clicked on an ad. Now think about the last time you clicked on a search engine result. More likely than not, you’ve engaged a lot more with links that naturally appear when conducting an online search.

Trust is something that needs to be built up over a period of time, and something that can be easily broken if the wrong tactic is used.


With SEM, it can engage with people at a time when they may not be ready. Although there are different settings and ways you can tailor your ad for visitors at different stages of the customer journey, it still appears when they’re not directly asking for it.

For example, you may have an online clothing store. From your customer database, you may have customers segmented into new enquiry, quoted and sold. You can tailor ads, their message and call to action to suit each individual silo. But these ads pop up when a customer is normally doing another activity. Whether it be reading online articles or browsing a completely different product.

In this day and age, emails, social media posts and other information constantly bombard us. As individuals we are now sceptical of anything that takes us by surprise or when we haven’t asked for it. In fact, individuals can go as far as disliking the fact that a company is using their specific data to market to them.

When someone off their accord goes online to search out particular information, product or service, they are in the right frame of mind to engage with you. In this regard, they are in control and they are seeking you out. You have a much better chance of engaging with a customer by appearing on their search engine results. Organic search results are seen as a more credible and trusted avenue of being directed to quality pages and information.


On one hand, ads allow you to showcase your brand in the simplest of ways. You can allow your logo, branding or products to be seen and therefore generate familiarity and further brand awareness.

However, SEO allows more opportunity for a broader outreach campaign, for example, using an external link building strategy to have other notable websites linking back to you. This credibility is something than an ad can’t generate. It’s almost like a third party endorsement.

For example, popular bloggers and online publications are now seen as an ideal way to get your links placed on a site of authority, generating click throughs and driving large volumes of traffic to your website. This is great for brand awareness and establishing your brand as credible and trustworthy.

Also, link building via platforms such as social media add to your brand awareness. Regular social media posting shows that your business is current, active and cares about communicating with their audience on a deeper level. It can be seen as more of a 2 way street. Users are choosing to be on these social platforms and if they happen to see your content, more than likely a friend, follower or someone in their network has shared it. Again, like an online publication, it’s like a referral by someone they trust.

A well-planned and strategic SEO strategy can see you gain more benefits than just seeing your online ranking improve. It can bring with it brand credibility, brand enhancement and the ability to reach a larger audience.

When it comes to predictability, although you can have more control over your ad, such as where it will be seen and by whom, once you stop your activities, your ROI will also cease. When you invest in an online optimisation strategy, the results will continue to increase over time as your traffic increases or your keywords start to get traction. Although an SEO strategy shouldn’t just be a one-off activity, you do have the ability to stop activities and still reap the benefits for months to come.

Today’s modern user is less inclined to engage with any type of paid medium with the end result being to sell something to them. Nobody likes to be hounded or sold to. The days of door-to-door salesman are very much in the past, and this also needs to be taken into account online. Once upon a time, cold calls, door knocks and unsolicited mail was the norm. However, buyer behaviour has changed, and this needs to also be reflected in online marketing strategies.

It doesn’t mean that you can’t have a proactive strategy, but it does mean you need to be particularly careful about the messages you are pushing and how you are pushing them.

In terms of branding, SEO allows you to enhance your reputation on a different level. You can be referred to your market by networks, the media and influencers, whilst at the same time improving your SEO. When carried out correctly, It can drive a lot more traffic to your website than an ad can and will most likely lead to more engagement on your website. The more trusted you are, the more likely you will have visitors download an asset on your website, fill out a form or make direct phone contact.

There is a lot of room for both SEO and SEM strategies to be conducted hand in hand. They both have a position in the marketing mix and an online digital strategy. They have their pros and cons, but if you are looking for one area to invest in more than the other, having a more long term, natural and content sharing strategy is normally the better bet.

At then end of the day, every business will be different from the next. Testing, tweaking and analysing results will always be the best way to decide whether a marketing tactic is right for your business. It’s up to how you want to communicate with your target market and what works in converting them into customers.