The main distinction is that search engine optimization (SEO) focuses on optimising a website to attract visitors from organic search results. On the other hand, the goal of Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is to drive traffic and visibility from organic and paid searches.

In other words;

Google divides search results into two main categories: paid search results and organic search results.

The goal of SEO is to have your website appear in organic search results.

With Pay Per Click (PPC), your website can get paid search results.

In organic SEO, you focus 100% on ranking. SEM is a combination of SEO and PPC to get traffic from search engines.

Yes, SEM is a broad term that includes SEO and PPC. So SEO "falls" into the SEM category.

With that explained, let's dive into the main differences between SEM and SEO.

What’s the Difference Between SEO and SEM?

SEO vs SEM: Key Features

Have an SEO review.

SEO is the process of optimizing a website to rank higher in organic, unpaid search engine results pages (SERPs).

Google uses 200+ ranking signals in their algorithm. Therefore, SEO can be divided into four main groups: on-page SEO, off-page SEO, technical SEO and user engagement signals.

On-Page SEO: Optimize your website around the keywords your target customers are searching for on Google, Bing and other search engines. For example, an on-page SEO best practice is to include your primary keyword in the title, meta description, and website URL.

Off-Page SEO: Off-page SEO is about gaining trust and authority signals from other websites. This basically involves building high quality links to your website. But Google can use off-page links like E-A-T and social media ads to boost your site's reputation.

Technical SEO: This is where Google and other search engines index all the pages on your site. Making sure the quick loading of your pages is also part of technical SEO. Your website's architecture is correct.

User Engagement Signals: How users interact with your site helps Google determine if your page is a good match for someone's search. For example, if you have a long face, it could be a sign that your face doesn't answer someone's question. If Google considers this page to be bad for your keyword, they may lower your ranking slightly. Or remove it from the homepage altogether.

SEM observations

Remember, SEM is an umbrella term that includes SEO. So, everything I mentioned above for SEO applies to SEM. However, in addition to SEO, SEM includes PPC and PPC features, best practices, and more.

Biding: Whether you use Google Ads or Bing Ads, paid search advertising is all about competition. PPC allows you to bid on a specific keyword. And your ad will appear when someone searches for that keyword.

The level of advertising is usually proportional to what the individual offers. This means that if you are the best competitor, you will stand out from other advertisers.

And when someone clicks on your ad, you get paid. The amount you pay when an ad is clicked is called cost per click (CPC).

Quality Score: Google Ads Quality Score. Basically, it's Google's way of determining whether an ad is relevant to someone's search.

Google Quality Score calculates your ranking based on the quality of page clicks and the quality of your Google Ads account. If your ad has a high quality score, you will receive a discount for each click.

Ad Copy: Writing ad copy is a big part of doing PPC well. Why great ad copy = high CTR. And CTR is a quality score. That is, you will pay less for the same click.

On the contrary. If you don't get people to click on your copy, your quality score will suffer. Your RPK will start paying a lot of money.

Ad groups and account management: This uses Google ad account data to optimize your ad spend.

SEO vs. SEM: How long does it take to see a difference?

The speed is the main difference between SEO and SEM.

Fact: SEO takes time. A long time, especially if your site is new and doesn't have many links yet.

According to one study, SEO can take upto an average of two years to rank on Google's first page. Most of the top ranking pages were published 3+ years ago.

That doesn't mean you have to wait 2 years on Google. If you target long-tail keywords and follow SEO best practices, you should see some results within a few months.

For example, when I started Booklinko in early 2013, my site had no domain authority.

But with hard work and focus on SEO, I was able to get organic traffic within months.

That being said, it took years for my threshold and organic traffic to really take off.

On the other hand, if you focus your SEM efforts on PPC, you can start seeing results right away.

You can run ads in the morning and get traffic and conversions in the afternoon.

This does not mean that you will get ROI on the first day, in most cases it takes months of research and due diligence to get a positive ROI from PPC.

However, PPC definitely works faster than SEO.

SEO vs. SEO SEM: How Much Do They Cost?

Because SEO generates "free website traffic," a lot of people are drawn to it.

Yes, you don't pay when someone clicks on your website in the organic search results.

But make no mistake: SEO is not free. He didn't even come close.

For example, let's take a quick look at one of my pages that ranks #1 in Google for "On Page SEO".

11 Good place. I get daily traffic from this keyword. I don't have to do anything or pay anything to get this traffic.

But getting that #1 ranking took a lot of money, time and effort.

I've been able to build Backlinko Domain Authority by consistently publishing high-quality, world-class content. Promote this content via email.

I then had to use a paid SEO tool to find that keyword. This device costs me $355 a month.

Then, there was the content itself. This post took me 20+ hours to write.

Then, we hired a graphic designer to take all the screenshots. We worked with an illustrator to create these beautiful custom illustrations.

Also had a few coders and installers.

There was no guarantee that this page would match anything.

Compare this to 100% PPC with SEM.

In this case, you have already invested. But at least you know you're getting something out of the effort.

(You can even set your account to automatically show up in certain posts).

So, in the short term, PPC is usually cheaper than SEO.

Big problem with PPC;

When you stop paying, there is no more traffic.

But with SEO, you are better prepared to rank. Your business is at the forefront. Of course, you don't need to spend a lot of money to maintain your current status.

Yes, there are pros and cons to SEO and PPC pricing. That's why most businesses use a marketing strategy that includes a mix of SEO and PPC.

SEO or PPC: What to focus on

Should you be focusing 100% of your digital marketing efforts on SEO? Or you should start a large-scale marketing campaign that combines SEO and PPC.

When to focus on SEO?

Your budget is limited: If you are a startup or small business with a small marketing budget, you may want to focus on SEO. You may not see the ROI of your SEO budget for months or years. But it still makes more sense than burning through your marketing budget on PPC ads that might last a week.

You can include informational keywords: Informational keywords are words like "what X" or "how X". Although these types of search queries do not generate super traffic, they do get a lot of search volume. So, if you can write great content for the topics that your customers are searching for on Google, then SEO might be your best bet.

For example, my entire business is built around ranking for keywords my audience is searching for.

As you might expect, SEO and content marketing take time to get going. So, if you can play the long game and expect 6-12 months of legitimate traffic from Google search, go with SEO.

You are good at link building and creating high quality content is a key part of ranking in Google. But this is not enough. If you are serious about your rankings, you need to use several different link building strategies to get other sites to find you.

When to focus on PPC?

Your ad budget is fixed: The best thing about PPC ads is that you can set a fixed budget. That way, you can avoid spending more than you expected.

That said, it's easy to quickly burn through your budget (and often end up paying for advertising) if you don't know what you're doing.

This means you need a regular monthly budget to play with and what keywords, ad copy, landing pages and offers are best.

You can manage your ad account: plus PPC very easily. Basic concepts. Get traffic.

But managing your Google Ads account is no joke. Keyword, ad, quality score, ROI, conversion rate... and you need to process this data and decide how to use your ads.

You can start experimenting with landing pages: The first thing to know about PPC is that you need targeted landing pages for each ad. Or at least the entire advertising team. So, to get the most out of PPC, you need a way to run multiple web pages. To find the optimum solution, conduct A/B tests.

When to Do Both (SEM)

When should SEO and PPC be used in tandem?

I'll respond to your query with a real-world illustration:

When I launched my first site, I did all my own SEM. I wrote content and optimized it for search engines (SEO). Manage my Google Ads account (PPC). So, in addition to being the "founder", I was also the "SEM manager".

And SEO and PPC suffered because I tried to do SEM on my site. No one person could control it.

But if you feel like you have the staff to handle PPC and SEO, go for it. Or I choose one or the other.