You have probably been hearing about SEO for as long as you came into the digital marketing space. You might have heard about SEM as well, or maybe you have not. Well this article will explain in detail to you the differences and similarities between SEO and SEM and their importance to you in digital marketing. 

Search Marketing refers to an area of digital marketing that focuses on the promotion of business websites by increasing their Search Engine Result Page (SERP) visibility. Search Marketing employs both paid and unpaid methods to achieve its aim. 

What is SEO and SEM?

Search Engine Optimization(SEO) focuses on increasing the flow of organic traffic to one’s website by optimizing it to rank higher in search results so that it will be more visible to potential customers. Normally, SEM is used to refer to paid search campaigns but Search Engine Marketing is used by some marketers to mean the utilization of paid and unpaid techniques to increase both organic and inorganic traffic to one’s website. 

In other words, Google search results come in two categories. The first consists of organic results that come up on the SERPs in order of relevance to the user’s query. The second is the inorganic search results usually labeled ‘sponsored ad’. The inorganic results usually come up at the top of SERPs even before the organic results. While SEO is based solely on optimizing websites to come up with organic search results, SEM combines SEO as well as Pay-Per-Click (PPC) to bring in traffic.

Pay-Per-Click refers to paying for sponsored ads. Basically, a person pays for their website to come out at the top of SERPs. The website owner pays for every click gotten from the sponsored ad. This process is usually done through bidding where website owners bid on certain keywords and their website is displayed in order of highest bidder to the least. All sponsored ads are displayed in a designated area of a SERP; usually above organic results.

For the purpose of this blog and for clarity sake, SEM will be taken strictly in the sense of paid ads.


SEO is a continuous process of optimizing websites and adapting them to search engine algorithm changes to continually rank high in the search results for certain keywords. There are numerous SEO best practices and with over 200 ranking signals used by search engines, they can be quite hard to keep up with. However, SEO best practices are also called white hat SEO. It can be broadly classified into three:

  • On-Page SEO: This involves optimizing individual web pages of a website to target specific keywords to appeal to the search engine. Some strategies include: Keyword research, keyword optimization, high-quality content, well-structured content etc. On-page SEO helps search engines understand how useful the content of a webpage is to search queries and rank the webpage accordingly.
  • Off-Page SEO: Quick honestly, this is the bread and butter of most SEO services in India. It refers to the background works that help increase the trust and authority of a website. It mostly includes link building. Things like the number of backlinks from other trusted websites and inbound links. Other signals such as social media shares can also be used by search engines to rate website authority. When a search engine sees that many websites link back to a particular brand’s website, the search engine believes the brand’s website to be reputable and trustworthy hence it ranks the website higher.
  • Technical SEO: Technical SEO optimizes the foundation and backend structure of a website in order to improve both user experience as well as search engine experience. Technical SEO strategies include things like fast site speed, good site map or robots.txt file to improve site crawlability by search engine crawlers, site security, device adaptability and so on. Good technical SEO increases the ranking of pages.

A good SEO technique needs to focus on a combination of all these SEO practices and not just one or two in order to yield the best result possible. You might need the help of the top SEO companies in India to achieve this.

Google is by far the most used search engine in the world with over 5 billion searches carried out on it daily. You should definitely want to optimize your website for Google. Google lists relevance of webpage content, quality of content, usability of web pages as some of the key factors that determine how websites are ranked in search results. 

Pros of SEO in Digital Marketing

  • It is free. SEO marketing is free of cost in the sense that there is no need to pay money for traffic generation directly unlike SEM which involves paying for sponsored ads.
  • You can get localized traffic through local SEO tools like Google My Business. Localized traffic can lead to higher conversion rates and profit making.
  • Once SEO is well done, it establishes a free and unending flow of targeted traffic. 
  • SEO is more likely to lead to higher rates of conversion since google displays your website to people who likely genuinely need the information, product or service offered on your website.
  • With constant practice of best SEO practices, one can become established as an authority in whatever field the website is focused on. A strong online presence and great content automatically increase the likelihood for higher conversion of leads to paying customers.

Cons of SEO in Digital Marketing

  • It takes a lot of time. On average the sites that rank on the first page of google search results are at least three years old. In other words, if you are looking to start getting results as soon as you implement SEO into your digital marketing strategy you will be disappointed.
  • SEO is not totally free. While it may seem as though it does not cost anything, SEO takes a lot of time and effort and sometimes even money. In competitive niches where authorities have already been established, in order to be able to penetrate this niche, one might have to hire external content marketing agencies and content writing agencies. One might also have to pay for online tools such as keyword generators and analysis tools. In the long run, SEO might not be cost effective.
  • No full control. At the end of the day only the search engines fully understand the ins and outs of their algorithms. What one might consider the most important factor in SEO might not deliver the results they are expecting. Also, one has no control over the amount and type of traffic they will get unlike in paid advertising where one gets results equivalent to their expenditure.
  • It is never ending. Google for example also updates and makes changes to its algorithm frequently and as such one needs to always be on their toes, adjusting and optimizing in order not to get left behind.


seo vs sem in digital marketing

In our context of usage SEM refers to paid advertising. PPC, the most common form of SEM, is done through bidding of various advertisers. As a result, it is highly competitive. The more an advertiser is willing to pay per click, the higher the ranking would be. Advertisers have to be careful to ensure that their investment in SEM is still less than their expenditure in order to have a positive Return on Interest (ROI). Another model of SEM is Paid inclusion

Paid inclusion is when site owners pay for their website to be included in the result pages. These are also known as sponsored listings. The client will be given a fee structure that covers a yearly subscription for the pages or sites to be included regularly. This fee could also include a pay-per-click fee depending on the package. The line between this form of SEM and PPC is not that clear but the principal distinction is that in paid inclusion, there is no control over how a website is ranked in the listing. The payment only assures a website owner that they will be ranked. As a result, other factors still affect how high-ranking the page is. However, in PPC the highest bidder gets the highest ranking.

Pros of SEM in Digital Marketing

  • SEM does not take time to work. Once an advertiser has their money, they can get very fast results from SEM. Results can come as fast as in a few hours from when the paid ad is launched.
  • With SEM, it is easy to stick to a budget. If one has a budget dedicated to Search Marketing, it will be easier to follow in SEM than SEO because one can simply bid based on their budget. Also search engine advertising platforms can adjust your package to align with your budget at any time.
  • SEM helps to build brand identity quickly.  Unlike the arduous process of SEO, SEM helps a brand to be seen easily thereby helping it build a reputation and recognition easily. The more one pays to rank higher in SEM, the higher visibility one’s brand has and this will help build a brand base of loyal customers fast. Even if the website link is not clicked, being at the top of a google page is great for your brand.
  • It is very easy to measure statistics using SEM. Tools like Google Ads give detailed feedback on how well your campaign is doing so that you can always know what is going on with your ads at all times. With this, you can adjust your strategies to get better results.

Cons of SEM in Digital Marketing

  • In a study, it was discovered that nearly 80% of people ignore paid search results and go right to organic search results. While even 20% of the world’s population of internet users is still a huge number, about four times that number is likely to ignore a webpage if it comes up as a sponsored listing.
  • The global ad blocking rate in early 2018 according to is about 27%. This figure might seem small but it is still a significant limitation to the audience your website is exposed to.
  • SEM might not be cost- effective. If one happens to be new in a very competitive line, it is likely that one would be spending way more than the returns they are getting from SEM. In some cases, SEM might not bring in the projected income and this can result in your resources getting exhausted. Owing to this, SEM might not be ideal for small and medium size businesses.
  • SEM only works while you pay. In other words, while SEO will continue bringing you regular organic traffic especially when one has already established themselves, SEM will stop working the second you stop paying for it and then the website will be back to obscurity. 

SEO v. SEM in Digital Marketing: Which is ideal for you?

In terms of cost, over the short time PPC is usually cheaper than SEO but in the long run SEO is far cheaper and more sustainable. So if you are looking to save money on the long term, SEO is the way to go but if you are sure that you can follow a budget and maintain a steady flow of expenditure on SEM, go for it.

When it comes to speed, for fast results SEM is the best choice as returns can be seen almost immediately. This may not be the case however if your market area is already saturated with bigger competitors and you do not have a large budget.

Generally, it is more advisable for small and medium size businesses to focus on SEO however, if their area of business is not a competitive one, a moderate investment in SEM will probably bring them better results so it is important to consider one’s area of specialization.

If your marketing budget is very tiny, it makes more sense to focus on SEO rather than burning through your monthly budget on PPC ads that may only run for one week.

Although PPC seems pretty straight forward on the surface, managing a Google Ads account is actually not an easy task. A lot of effort goes in keyword-targeting, ROI, conversion rates and so on. One also has to process all this data to make decisions that can help one maximize their ads. If one is capable of doing this efficiently, then they can employ SEM in their digital marketing strategy. 

In conclusion, one can decide to combine both of these digital marketing approaches or focus on one. However, for more effectiveness, it is not advisable for a start-up with no staff to try combining the two strategies. The reason is that each method requires a lot of effort, resources, and energy. Due to this, being the founder and operator of a business, SEO manager, and SEM manager all in one is likely to lead to a big flop. It is only advisable to combine both strategies if one has enough staff to handle the two. Otherwise, pick one and focus on it or simply rely on the expertise of content outsourcing agencies in India.

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