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SEM vs SEO: Which Is Right For My Brand? [2023 Guide]

2023 Guide: Choosing between SEM and SEO for your brand.2023 Guide: Choosing between SEM and SEO for your brand.

Search marketing is a great marketing strategy for businesses that aim to attract user attention, drive traffic, and grow their business with their company website. But search optimization can be a challenging strategy to manage if you do not know how to distinguish between SEM and SEO. 

These two terms (both acronyms) may appear identical, but actually, they are two very different digital marketing approaches. They are often used interchangeably without a clear understanding of how they are related and how they differ. 

What Is Search Marketing?

First, you need to understand the terminology for this digital marketing branch. So let’s start with definitions of search marketing.

Search marketing refers to any strategy that helps a brand gain attention by appearing on search engine results pages (SERPs). It includes efforts to get higher rankings and increase search visibility so you can drive more traffic to a website or specific web pages.

There are two major categories in search marketing:

SEO is an 'organic' search marketing strategy.

SEM is a 'paid' search marketing strategy.

While they are different but closely related, utilizing both strategies will benefit your digital marketing plan in the long run. Most importantly, SEO is essential to do SEM properly. 


SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization, the practice of increasing targeted ORGANIC traffic to your website through Google search results. It is entirely about improving the website rank in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). 

SEO companies do this by creating high-quality content, optimizing the website using specific keywords, and building backlinks. SEO includes numerous tactics that can help a brand increase its search rankings. Generally, we divide SEO techniques into three categories.

We have discussed SEO in more detail in a previous article. Check out What is SEO? Why Search Engine Optimization Matters In 2023.


SEM stands for search engine marketing. A part of search marketing that uses PAID tactics to gain visibility in SERPs. A paid SEM strategy includes both setting up and optimizing ads as well as setting a budget that pays for the placement of ads. This strategy is often referred to as paid search or pay-per-click (PPC) marketing.

However, your ad copy and targeting optimization must align with keywords that match your targetted search queries, allowing your ads to show up in relevant search engine results pages (SERPs). To that end, marketers using SEM must tap into both SEO — for keyword strategy and having high-quality content — and PPC ads to target potential buyers and drive traffic. You could say SEO is a component of SEM.

SEM vs SEO On Google

The Similarities Between SEM And SEO

Both aim to make a brand appear in search results. 

One of the basics is that they aim to help a brand appear in top positions on SERPs. Their goal is to help a brand show up in search results when users search for specific keywords related to the industry, business, or offerings.

Both aim to drive more traffic to a website. 

The goal of both is to gain visibility on SERPs, but more importantly, to drive traffic to a website. Each strategy employs tactics to increase click-through rates (CTR) and get more users to click on the search results.

Both require knowing your audience. 

You must have a good understanding of your audience and their behaviour to succeed in both SEO and SEM. By using buyer personas and psychographic segmentation, you can get to know your audience, discover what their needs are, and what they are searching for. Then you can create valuable content that shows up when they go looking for solutions related to your brand.

Both use keyword research to uncover popular search terms. 

The first step for both SEM and SEO is performing keyword research to identify the best keywords to target. The research includes looking at keyword popularity to determine the top keywords or buying keywords that your ideal audience searches for. It also includes looking at keyword competition to see what other brands are targeting the same keywords and determining what you will need to do to compete with those other companies.

Both target specific keywords. 

Both strategies focus on targeting specific keywords that are identified during keyword research. At the core of each tactic are keywords.

Both require testing and continual optimization. 

When comparing SEM vs. SEO, you should know that neither is a strategy that you can set and forget. Both require continual testing, monitoring, and optimization to increase performance.

Search Marketing Team

The Differences Between SEM and SEO

SEM search placements include an “Ad” designation. 

SEO does not. Search results that appear as a result of SEM or SEO look different on SERPs. Paid ads that receive placement through SEM tactics are often identified as an ad (e.g., by an icon appearing next to the placement), whereas the search results that appear as a result of organic SEO are not marked in such a manner.

SEM search results have ad extensions. 

SEO search results have featured snippets. When comparing SEM vs. SEO, you’ll also find differences in the appearance of the search results. SEM search results may include ad extensions, which can add on additional links, phone numbers, and callouts. On the other hand, SEO results may appear with featured snippets in search.

You pay each time a user clicks on an SEM result. 

You pay nothing when a user clicks on an SEO result. SEM results are paid placements, and your brand is charged each time a user clicks on the result. Therefore, you must have a budget for continually showing SEM ads and using this form of PPC lead generation. On the flip side, you are never charged when a user clicks on an organic search result.

SEM results show to a select target audience. 

SEO results do not. While successful SEO and SEM strategies are driven by a plan to connect with a select audience, you can only specify that target audience through SEM. Through SEM, you can (depending on the publisher) select what audiences you want to see in the search results by assigning filters based on age, location, income, habits, and more. Through SEO, you cannot specifically choose who will see your search results.

The impact of SEM is immediate. SEO takes time. 

Through paid SEM ads, you can start to put your results in front of audiences with just a few clicks. As soon as you launch a campaign, your ads start showing in SERPs. At any time, you can turn ads on to increase visibility or turn them off to stop showing. Conversely, SEO is something that you acquire over time and typically over a long time. It can take months of implementing an SEO strategy before a brand begins to rank on search engines.

SEM is better for testing than SEO. 

Because you can immediately turn SEM paid ads off and on, it’s a great strategy for testing. You can quickly revise your ad copy, target new audiences, and change landing page content to test your new tactics. This flexibility allows you to see differences in your strategies immediately. You cannot accomplish this through SEO, as it would take too much time to make changes and monitor differences in results.

SEO adds value over time. 

SEM does not. SEM is only active as long as you pay for your results to show. As soon as you turn off your ads, your SEM strategy is over. SEO is the opposite. SEO strategy grows and compounds over time and leaves lasting results.

SEO has a higher click-through rate (CTR) than SEM if you can get to the top.

The first few organic search results typically have the highest CTRs. So if you can get to the top, you can likely outperform SEM ads. But if you appear on the second page of results or lower, you can probably get more clicks through SEM.

Which is Right For My Brand?

Taking all of these similarities and differences into account, how do you decide whether SEO or SEM is better for your business? Obviously, a successful SEM plan requires an elaborate SEO strategy, so neither one is better than the other, rather, both of them complement each other. The best choice is to invest in both, but that is usually not an option for small businesses. So which should you choose? Before you can answer that question, consider the following:

1. What Are Your Goals?

Before deciding between SEO vs SEM to focus on, it is important to identify your goals. What does success look like to your business? Surprisingly, many people still fail to have a ready answer to this question.

Many businesses start investing in SEO or SEM because everyone says it's an important channel to come across to promote their products and services. However, if your campaign goals don’t deliver what your business needs, you might as well be throwing your money away. It's mostly true that SEO or SEM can draw visitors to your site. But it's no use getting lots of traffic if that traffic isn’t completing your business goal.

Most of the time, if your current goal is to build brand awareness and bring website traffic—but not necessarily sales—search engine optimization (SEO) is the right one to pick. If you’re in urgent need of sales now, however, search engine marketing (SEM) is your best friend.

2. What’s a New Customer Worth?

Both SEO and SEM are an investment. While organic clicks are technically “free”, you still invest a lot of time, effort and money into getting clicks from search engine optimization. So, before you invest in either SEM or SEO, you need to make sure that your investment will pay off. Carefully calculate the lifetime value of a new customer and compare it will the cost it takes to maintain them.

As a general rule of thumb, if every $1 you spend on SEM will produce at $3 of new lifetime revenue, you should consider investing in search engine marketing. Your campaigns will probably be break-even from the beginning, and age better with time.

On the other hand, if it looks like you won’t be able to make 3 times the amount spent on SEM, search engine optimization is probably a better option for your business. It would not return as fast, but it's more budget-efficient in the long run.

3. How Much Can I Afford?

The above rule of thumb assumes that you can invest enough money to actually make your marketing plans work. Unfortunately, many businesses start off with a small budget and big expectations, which is rarely a winning combination.

Generally speaking, a good small business SEO budget should typically be around $1,000-2,000/month. While a good SEM budget starts at around $7,500/month.

Depending on your industry, you can see some success with a smaller budget, but you typically get what you pay for. If you can’t afford to do SEM right, you can end up wasting money on a marketing channel that should produce profitable results, but doesn’t—simply because you can’t afford to invest enough money.

yaya adamyaya

4. How Soon Do I Need Results?

This is the most important question in the SEM vs SEO debate. Successful SEO takes time, maybe weeks, even months. But you can get a successful SEM campaign up and running immediately.

If you can wait 3-6 months for the campaign to really pick its pace, good SEO will generate much cheaper leads than SEM. However, if you are in a dire need of results, SEM is the better option. At the end of the day, that’s how search engine marketing works, you pay to win.

Even if you have the time to wait for SEO to grow, you may still want to use SEM to test the viability of your SEO plan. If search engine marketing ads in the space you’re trying to enter don’t yield compelling results, SEO probably won’t either.

Website Analytics

Our Approach: Invest in Both

Focus On SEO First

SEO sets the foundation for SEM through quality content that your clients find helpful. Without SEO content optimized for search, SEM efforts may be in vain due to poor website quality. This makes gaining visibility on SERPs extremely difficult as a result.

Organic SEO helps build search authority, but it’s essential to consistently create quality content and share it on various channels. You need to have something for which people will find worthy of searching.

When To Shift Focus To SEM?

Are you just launching your company’s website and building your first online effort to promote your product or service? Then you’ll likely need immediate visibility in search until you gain your organic authority. You’ll be able to achieve this with a strategic PPC campaign. But of course, you can’t always rely on PPC in the long term. You need to create quality content that visitors will want to engage with once they get to your website.

Evaluate what’s best for your specific needs, but make sure you fully understand the differences between SEM and SEO and how you’ll maintain your efforts going forward.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the 5 most commonly used search engine?

The most commonly used 5 search engines in the world are Google, Bing, Yahoo, Baidu, and Yandex respectively, according to NetmarketshareStatista and StatCounter.

What does PPC means?

A pay-per-click (PPC) model is online advertising in which an advertiser pays a platform every time an advertisement link is clicked on. It's known as the cost-per-click (CPC) model. The pay-per-click model is offered primarily by search engines and social media platforms.

Is Google Ads PPC?

Google Ads is Google's pay-per-click (PPC) advertising solution. Businesses and website owners can bid on the chance to show their ads next to searches on Google.com, right when people are looking for what they have to offer

Can I do SEO on my own?

Yes, you can do SEO marketing on your own. Like any other form of online marketing, anyone can learn how to do SEO for their business with the right amount of research and lots of practice.

Do I have to pay for SEO?

Search listings on Google are free, and no one can pay for a better ranking because of the commitment to keeping search content useful and trustworthy.

Is SEO Marketing difficult to do?

SEO in itself could be easier than you thought. Still, you should not underestimate the amount of time and effort it will take to get your website ranked. Don't expect to climb the ranks on a national scale if you only spend a few minutes a day. Digital marketing requires constant performance analytics, and so does SEO.

Need Help Planning Search Marketing Strategy for your brand?

Does your brand need help with SEM and SEO Marketing? Sphere Agency is here to help you optimize your website for the highest ranking on Google. Check out our SEO Services for more information and contact us today.

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By Yaya Adam on April 26, 2023


Sphere is a digital agency that helps brands create meaningful relationships with today’s highly-connected consumers. Based in Bangkok, Thailand, we offer end to end digital solutions built on strategy and driven by data.

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