Digital Marketing is an absolute requirement for a business to be successful. Small businesses starting out need it to be found, massive enterprises need it to stay ahead of their competition. After making the wise decision to begin using digital marketing, the next question is SEO or SEM. SEO stands for search engine optimization and SEM stands for search engine marketing. SEO vs SEM is a common argument you’ll hear among digital marketers and some bloggers. The best solution is to do both, but if you only have the resources for one then understanding the difference between the two will be important. The goal for both of these methods of marketing is to be at the top of the search engine results page (SERP).  SEO aims to do this organically (un-paid) and SEM aims to do this via paid ads (paid search results)

Search Engine Optimization

This is the practice of making your website and your website’s content the easiest and most relevant search result on the organic SERP. Most articles and research will only talk about the keyword research aspect of SEO, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. SEO has many layers to it and becoming an expert is challenging due to search engines constantly changing their rules. SEO can be broken down into usability, relevance and authority. 


Usability is a website’s architecture allowing for search engine crawlers like google, bing or yahoo to effectively crawl a website. Crawlers crawl a website and document the websites content, health and usability. If a website has a lot of technical issues such as many redirects, poor header structure or not being mobile friendly, search engines will lower the website ranking. A website can have amazing content but be ranked poorly on the SERP because of technical issues. The list of possible technical issues that affect SEO is miles long and must be balanced with the desired website build and accessibility compliance.


The details covered by SEO relevance the most popular subject of SEO but only works when supported by the others. This is where the keyword research starts, there is more to it than just adding words you think people are searching. Properly done keyword research factors in the audience and market size, mapping out your websites content so that subjects are tied together correctly, understanding user intent with keywords and much more. Search engines will determine if your website is what users are looking for based on their queries and the keywords on your website. The greatest challenge about SEO is that search engines are constantly making updates, today’s golden goose of optimization can be completely shunned next week.


Being a pillar of expertise and reliable information for a long period of time. Search engines generally favor websites that have existed longer, but those websites should still be optimized. A good gauge of authority is the number of links pointing to and from your website. Search engines exist to serve users, not businesses; businesses just benefit if they learn how to navigate search engine rankings. Websites that have been around for a long time will be preferred by search engines.

Search Engine Marketing

SEM is also aiming to get in front of the users, but this is done via paid marketing. Ads are created to target specific keywords so that links to your website are shown above the organic search results. Paid search results are identifiable to users via bold letters and a small sign next to the result titled “sponsored” or “ad”. Paid search results will always appear above organic results but getting to the top of paid search results is just as competitive as getting to the top of organic results. SEM also comes in other forms besides the top of the search results page.

SEO vs SEM example: the image shows a paid and organic search result for current midtown apartments

A user searches Current Midtown Apartments and is shown two top results for this query. The absolute top result is a Google paid search ads. Below the ad are site links to entice users to land on specific pages that may better serve their needs. Directly below the paid result is the top organic search result. This example used the of the company name; in question but the goal of paid search ads is to bid on keywords that are relevant to your business to bring additional users that you may otherwise miss.

Display ads

example of google display ads

Google Display ads are video or image advertisements that appear on websites that are a part of Google’s display network. These ads are shown to specific audiences depending on your target goal. They can be shown to people who have shown interest in a specific topic, landed on specific websites or can be retargeted based on actions they almost took on your website. When a user clicks on the ad they are taken to whatever landing page you have designated for that ad.

Shopping Ads

example of goole shopping ads both on top and bottom

This type of ad is also triggered by keywords, but they are associated with specific products. Shopping ads will be displayed in one of these two formats depending on their relevance to the search term used.


After covering all of the differences, which comes out on top in the SEO vs SEM debate? The answer is, both. Both SEM and SEO play a role in maximizing marketing effectiveness. In the long run SEO becomes more cost effective and tends to capture users later in their purchase cycle. SEM is great for capturing people earlier in their purchase funnel and getting your brand attention. Studies have shown that websites which rely on both perform much better than websites that rely only on one. Interestingly enough, the two forms of marketing tend to improve each other’s performance. Though Google has confirmed on many occasions that using google ads has no impact on a websites organic performance, Many markers ourselves included have seen website’s organic metrics improve after a client started using google ads.

How to best use SEO and SEM

First step is to toss out the idea of SEO vs SEM, both are needed for success. Both have creative, analytical and technical skill requirements. You are best off having a dedicated marketer on staff or hiring an agency like us who already has years of experience. We have dedicated SEO and SEM specialists on staff that will make sure your website is found. We also offer a wide range of marketing services that you can benefit from simultaneously. SEO and SEM are a great start, but adding email marketing and social media marketing goes a long way in getting your business in front of your targeted clients. Effective marketing works best when all available tools are used;