What Is SEO and SEM? | The SEO vs. SEM Debate

In this video, Ashley from the WebFX Internet Marketing team will break down SEO and SEM. Which should you choose for your business?


Think of SEO as 5000-piece puzzle, and SEM as a 1000-piece puzzle. Both strategies require time and effort to implement, but SEO isn’t going to get results as immediately as SEM. Let me explain a bit more. 

What is SEO and SEM?


SEO, which stands for search engine optimization, is an online marketing strategy aimed at getting your website to appear higher in search engine results organically. 

When I say organically, I mean you don’t pay to appear in search engines like you would with an ad. Instead, you optimize your website for keywords, earn backlinks, work on the technical side of your website, and do other non-paid tasks that help you rank higher. 

If you partner with an agency for your SEO strategy, you will pay that agency for their work. And even if you do SEO on your own, you’ll likely have to think about the cost of any tools you use, the time it takes you or your team to do the work, and any other factors that impact your business. But you still aren’t directly paying a search engine for your listing. 


You may hear two different explanations of SEM, or search engine marketing. The first is that SEM is a sort of umbrella term for paid and organic strategies that send traffic to your website from search engines. With this explanation, SEO would fall under the SEM umbrella. The second explanation, which is used more commonly now, defines SEM as a paid tactic that gets your website in the search engine results pages (SERPs). 

Today, search marketing is pretty much synonymous with pay-per-click (PPC) advertising in search engines, so that’s how I’ll define it in this video. SEM is a digital marketing strategy in which you pay for ads in the SERPs. 

I’ll cover some similarities and differences between SEO and SEM in this video, so don’t go anywhere. Before I move on to the next section, don’t forget to hit the YouTube subscribe button and ring the bell so you stay in the loop on the latest digital marketing advice. 


As I said, the biggest difference between SEO and SEM is that SEM relies on paid ads and SEO focuses on organic tactics to get your website in search engines. 

Believe it or not, keywords are an important part of both SEO and SEM. 


With SEO, you create content using a target keyword and related keywords. These keywords, among other factors, help search engines understand what your pages are about so they appear for the right queries. 

For an SEM campaign, you can bid on certain keywords related to your business and appear above the organic search results for those keywords. In addition to keyword targeting, your SEM campaign can reach people based on demographics, previous interactions with your business, and so much more. 

If I search on Google using the keyword, “help weatherproofing home,” for example, I see a results page that includes both keyword-targeted ads and organic content on weatherization. 

Now, while you can use SEO or SEM to appear in the search results, it takes a bit more time for your SEO keyword optimization to kick in. More on that next. 


SEO takes time. There’s no magic button that makes your strategy work immediately. It can take six months or longer for you to start seeing significant SEO results, especially if your website is new or you’ve never done SEO before. 

SEM, on the other hand, can start getting results soon after you launch your ad. It’s a great strategy for driving results in a short period of time. But what happens when you’ve spent your whole PPC budget or your campaign ends? The results stop. Your ads are no longer in the search results.  

Enter SEO. While it might take time for SEO to work, once it does start working you can continue to see results without putting more and more money into a campaign. 

Keep in mind that SEO does require ongoing maintenance. Just because your website was the top result once doesn’t mean it will always be in that top spot. You have to regularly optimize your pages to stay ahead of search engine updates and whatever your competitors are doing. 

But your website doesn’t just disappear from the search results like an ad would after you’ve optimized it. It may continue to hold a top spot, earning valuable page traffic and providing content that helps build trust with your audience online. 

So, what’s the right choice for you in the SEO vs. SEM debate? 

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SEO and SEM: Which should you choose?

Let me ask you this. Why not use SEO and SEM together?

If you’re just getting started with SEO, SEM can get people on your website and fill in the gaps before your optimization efforts start paying off. 

Even if SEO has been a part of your digital marketing for a while, SEM can be a great way to reach a more specific, targeted group of people with your marketing, especially if you’re running special deals or promotions over a limited period of time.

When your PPC campaign ends, you’ll still have SEO in your pocket to continue reaching people online. As more people find you organically, you’ll form more trusted relationships with your customers, so people know they can come to your business when they’re ready to make a purchase. 

We hope you trust us to provide digital marketing advice. If you want to keep learning, subscribe to our email newsletter, Revenue Weekly. You’ll get digital marketing insights sent to your email twice per month, so it’s an easy way to grow your skills. You can find the link to subscribe in the video description.

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