SEO vs SEM: Which should you use?

The distinction between search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) lies in their respective focuses. SEO is a strategy aimed at improving a website’s ranking and visibility in organic search results, while SEM encompasses both organic and paid search techniques to drive more traffic and achieve higher rankings.



What is the difference between SEO and SEM?


To better grasp this difference, it’s important to understand that Google’s search results comprise two primary categories: organic search results and paid search results.


SEO primarily aims to enhance a website’s ranking in the organic search results. Organic search results are the websites that appear below the sponsored listings, and ranking in these results does not require payment.


On the other hand, SEM seeks to secure rankings in both organic and paid search results. Paid search results are the first three websites that appear with a “sponsored” tag above the page title when conducting a search.


Paid search is commonly known as pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. Therefore, SEM is a broader term encompassing both SEO and PPC, with SEO falling under the umbrella of SEM.



SEO vs SEM: How long does it take to see results?


In terms of results, there are notable differences in the time it takes to see the impact of SEO and SEM efforts:


  • SEO: Typically takes around three to six months to yield noticeable results
  • SEM: Particularly through paid advertising, can generate instant results as soon as the ads are launched


The turnaround time for results can vary depending on various factors. For SEM, it may take a few weeks to optimize targeting and increase conversion rates. SEO campaigns might require additional time for tasks like building backlinks or addressing issues identified in an SEO audit.



SEO vs SEM: Which one is better?


Choosing between SEO and SEM depends on your specific needs and goals. SEO is often the preferred choice, but there are situations where SEM provides more benefits:


  • SEO is suitable when you can wait three to six months for traffic, leads, and online sales, prefer a marketing strategy not reliant on a monthly ad spend, and have the resources to proactively manage SEO
  • SEM is preferable when immediate traffic, leads, or sales are required, a presence in highly competitive search results is desired without the wait of SEO, and you have the time, resources, and budget to manage ads on a weekly basis


Ultimately, the decision between SEO and SEM depends on your objectives and timeline.


If you’re unsure which strategy to adopt, it’s common to have a well-rounded digital marketing campaign that incorporates elements of both SEM and SEO. While not feasible for all businesses, starting with two common SEM channels like SEO and PPC is an excellent way to begin reaching your target audience through paid and organic search, attracting new customers, and growing your company.