SEO vs SEM: What's the difference and which should I use?

Jan 10, 2022
5 min read
Allen He

Search engine optimization (SEO) is often confused with Search engine marketing (SEM). The two are not interchangeable despite their overlapping nature. SEO can be done without spending any money on paid advertising and yields good results, but it takes time and effort. SEM can help you get your site more traffic at a fee. Both strategies are important for businesses that rely on online traffic for sales.

We will briefly look at the two and their differences, with some advice on which to choose for your business's next marketing campaign.

SEO vs SEM:  What are they?

Before we go into details on SEO vs SEM, let's briefly discuss search engines first.

Search Engines

Search engines are websites that provide search results based on keywords or phrases entered by the user. Users search for a term, and with just a few clicks, they will get the relevant content they're looking for.

The most commonly used search engine is of course Google, followed by Bing.

Now let's jump back into our main topic today, SEO and SEM, how do they differ?

Search Engine Optimization

SEO is the practice of increasing a website's exposure and prominence in unpaid, natural ("organic") search engine results. SEO is all about making your site attractive to search engines so that they will list it higher in organic search rankings when a person searches for a relevant term.

SEO can be done in many ways, but generally, it consists of technical SEO, off-page SEO and, on-page SEO.  It is a long-term strategy and typically requires ongoing modification and monitoring of your site.

Before you start doing SEO, make sure you have an SEO strategy, think about how your SEO strategy and your marketing strategy will affect your site long-term.

For example, know your target audience, conduct keyword research.

Keep refining your SEO strategy until you're satisfied with it.

Search Engine Marketing

SEM is an umbrella term that encompasses many different types of online advertising. SEM includes display advertising, paid inclusion (the ad results you see when doing an internet search on Google or Yahoo), keyword ads that appear alongside search engine listings, and sponsored links that are usually displayed at the top and bottom of your search results page. It works on a pay-per-click (PPC) basis.

SEM can help you get your site ranked higher both in organic searches and paid searches. It is a short-term strategy that can help you quickly increase traffic to your site or bring attention to an important page. However, it is not as effective as SEO because you are paying for this exposure instead of earning it naturally through excellent content and other factors that search engines value.

SEO vs SEM: The Differences

Search results

SEO search placements are placed in the natural, unpaid rankings on the search results page.  While SEM search results include an “Ad” designation, there is a little "Ad" icon placed next to each SEM search result.

Search engines ofter display paid search results before organic search results.

With some search queries, the paid search results page could fill up the whole first search results page before the organic results are shown!

Pay-Per-Click Fee

You pay nothing when a user clicks on your SEO search result. SEM, on the other hand, will charge a fee every time a user clicks on your SEM search result. The amount of fee depends on several factors such as which search engine you're on, whether or not the keyword is a high competition.


SEO is a long-term strategy that requires ongoing modifications and monitoring of your site, it takes time to see the results. SEM is more short-term in nature and focuses on bringing traffic to your site quickly.


SEO is about optimizing the elements of content on your website including keywords. While SEM only uses keywords, SEO uses them to rank your website.

SEO or SEM: Which to Choose?

Ask yourself the following questions:

Do you want instant or long-term results?

If you want instant website traffic, then SEM as a paid strategy is your best bet. However, if you're looking for long-term growth in organic traffic and revenue, SEO is the way to go.

That being said, the long-term SEO results might not pan out the want you expected. It could be keyword research not done right, technical SEO not on point, lack of link building, or simply, your competitors had a stronger SEO campaign.

What are your current business goals?

Are you trying to build brand awareness or drive traffic to your site? SEO is great for building awareness through links with other online content. On the other hand, SEM can be used to drive traffic to specific pages of your site while growing your organic traffic.

Do you have a limited marketing budget?

If your marketing budget is limited, SEO may be the way to go, since you don't need to use paid ads or other paid tactics.

But if your business doesn't have an in-house SEO team, to come up with a high-performing SEO strategy for your SEO campaign, you will need to hire SEO professionals, which might be costly, so keep this in mind.

How well do you know your business's industry?

If you know the industry well and who your competitors are, then SEO is a good choice for you. However, if you don't know much about your industry or competing sites and businesses, SEM can be a great way to test things out and see what kind of results you can get.

Both SEO and SEM are important and are used in digital marketing strategy for your business, so it's advisable to combine SEO and SEM if possible.

It is a good idea to hire an expert who can handle all of the SEO and SEM work. We at Media Studio HK offer extensive SEO and SEM services for all your campaigning needs, feel free to contact us for your next business marketing campaign.

Wrapping Up

One final word before we wrap up.

Yes, SEO, SEM, and other digital marketing strategies are important for your site, but please make sure your site provides value, a good user experience with beautiful looking webpages to your target audience.

Otherwise, your target audience won't come back to your site when they see your web pages with ugly designs or your site speed is so slow that they don't have the patience to wait.

This wraps up our today's topic on SEO vs SEM, if you find SEO and SEM interesting, this article will give you a deeper understanding of SEO and SEM.

If you got any doubts about SEO vs SEM or any general inquiries, feel free to contact us.