SEO vs. SEM: The Differences Explained In A Nut Shell

With so many marketing terms thrown around each day, they can sometimes blend into one.

It might not sound like it at first glance, but search engine optimisation (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) are fairly different, and if you aren’t using them correctly, you could be missing out on heaps of qualified leads.

Let’s dive into our latest blog about SEO vs SEM so you can see which one is right for you.

What is Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)

SEO text wooden cube blocks on table background

SEO is short for search engine optimisation, which is the process of making your website more visible in organic search results. In other words, it’s about improving your website so that it shows up higher on search engine results pages (SERPs).

Several different factors come into play when it comes to SEO – from the content on your website to the way other websites link to you. But at its core, it’s all about helping search engines understand what your website is about and ensuring that you’re delivering the right content to the right people.

The goal of SEO is to make sure your site is as relevant and popular as possible so that it will rank higher in search results.

Importance of SEO in Organic Search

Woman searching on a website

It’s worth noting that SEO is not just about getting more traffic. Yes, traffic is important, but if that traffic isn’t coming from people who are interested in what you have to offer, then it’s not going to do you any good, is it?

That’s why SEO is such a critical part of any online marketing strategy. By improving your SEO, you can attract more qualified leads and convert more of them into paying customers.

By using techniques like keyword research and link building, you can make your site more visible to search engines and improve your chances of ranking higher in organic search results.

How does SEO Work?

Casual pensative entrepreneur working on laptop in office lounge

By now you know that the goal of SEO is to improve the visibility of a website on search engine results pages (SERPs) by increasing its ranking.

But how is this oh-so-mysterious ranking decided? That’s where search engine crawlers come in, and no – we aren’t talking about real bugs!

Search engine crawlers are bots that use an algorithm to scan or ‘crawl’ through the internet after a Google search query and find the best content that matches it – and you want them to pick yours!

The algorithm looks at things like the quality score of the content, relevance and popularity of the site. Once it has found the best content, it ranks it in order of importance and displays the results on the SERP.

On-Page SEO

website on laptop

On-page SEO refers to the content and structure of your website, and how well it is optimised for search rankings. Making your website more search engine friendly is the cornerstone of on-page SEO, also known as on-site SEO. These are the intentional changes you make to your web pages to help them rank higher in search results, especially including relevant keywords.

On-page SEO is all about optimising your website for Google and other search engines. This includes things like making sure your content is well-structured, using the right keywords, and having clean HTML code.

The main focus of on-page SEO is on your content and keyword placement. By making sure your website is optimised for search engines, it will increase the chances of your website getting found by potential customers. And that’s the whole point of SEO, after all.

So if you want to make sure your website is ready for primetime, make sure you put some time into on-page SEO.

Tips to Improve On-Page SEO

There are a few key things to keep in mind when working on your on-page SEO.

Ensure content is relevant and rich with keywords based on research. This will help search engines understand what your pages are about, and make them more likely to show up in search results.

Make sure your website is easy to navigate, with clear and concise titles and descriptions. This will help visitors find what they’re looking for quickly and easily, and reduce your bounce rate.

You should also take advantage of attracting organic search traffic from other sources like social media and links to your pages. This will help to increase your reach and get more people talking about you online.

Off-Page SEO

Paper with SEO ideas or plan

On-page SEO isn’t enough to maximise your website’s ranking. You need to practice off-page SEO too. SEO strategies that don’t require changing or adding content to your web page are referred to as off-page SEO.


Backlinks to other related sites play a critical role in improving off-site SEO. It’s mutually beneficial to both parties because it can result in having other websites link to your site, increasing your domain authority

Essentially, backlinks help by telling search engines that your content is credible while potentially attracting a larger audience for your business.

Other Tactics

It’s important to note that in addition to backlinks, there are a lot more off-page SEO strategies you can apply, such as citation building, social media, content marketing, and brand building.

Off-page SEO is all about promoting your website through other channels to improve your page’s ranking on search engine result pages. This includes other web pages and social media, blogs, forums and directories and search engines.

What is Search Engine Marketing (SEM)?

Like SEO, search engine marketing involves attracting traffic to your site from search engines. However, SEM can also involve paid methods, namely pay-per-click (PPC) ads.

When someone clicks on PPC ads, the business pays the search engine a fee. Unlike some other forms of advertising such as TV or print ads, you only pay when someone clicks on your ad, so you’re not wasting precious bucks on an ad that no one sees.

SEM can be an effective way to reach out to potential customers who are already interested in what you have to offer. So, if you’re looking to get your business noticed online, SEM might be the way to go.

Importance of Paid Ad Campaigns in SEM

Google ads

Image source: IB Photography /

One of the most effective ways to increase website ranking and search traffic is through paid search platforms.

Get a load of this; paid ads placed on Google’s SERP generate 65% more clicks than organic results!

PPC ads can be highly profitable for businesses, as paid ads are usually associated with pages that push readers along the sales funnel and compel them to convert.

Google Ads

Out of all paid search platforms, Google ads are by far the most popular because of the large amount of website traffic it receives.

Any paid digital marketing strategy that uses paid advertising will probably use Google ads as a primary platform – and we can see why.

While there are other paid search platforms out there, none of them come close to the opportunities and reach that comes with Google Ads. In the jungle of paid advertising, Google is the lion!

Google’s AdWords platform is the largest paid search platform in the world, with its ads appearing on millions of websites and responding to billions of search queries every day. With AdWords, you can target your ads to a specific audience, pick your budget and track your results as needed.

So, if you’re serious about driving website traffic and generating leads through SEM, Google AdWords is your best bet.


sem vs seo

By now you probably know that SEO and SEM go together like salt and pepper, and are both vital for a successful search engine marketing strategy.

But, what exactly is the difference?

Actually, there are a few…


SEO is a form of SEM that can get you clicks and generate traffic for free to increase rankings on the search engine results page.

But remember: SEO is one aspect of SEM, but it’s not the only one. PPC campaigns are also classified as SEM which means the price can differ based on which method you use, with PPC being more expensive.


If you choose to use PPC ads as part of your SEM strategy, it will not only attract paid traffic to your site, but it will also take less time to improve your ranking on Google’s search results.

SEO involves in-depth keyword research to determine specific keywords to incorporate into your content and then, of course, writing it in a way that doesn’t sound too forced. Search engines understand when you’re simply stuffing a bunch of keywords for the sake of rankings instead of for the benefit of your customers.

SEO is an ongoing process. You can’t just do it once and be done with it. You need to keep making small improvements and tweaks over time to maintain your ranking in organic search results, making it much more time-consuming than paid SEM.

Time is money which is why PPC is a popular option when it comes to SEM.

Audience Targeting

Both SEO and SEM involve tailoring your content to appeal to a target audience to increase the effectiveness of marketing efforts.

However, where SEM differs is that PPC ads can be automatically targeted to a chosen audience. For example, in the paid ads management tool, you can pick who your ad is targeted to based on chosen demographics, interests, and even locations.

This means that you can tailor your message to reach people who are most likely to be interested in what you have to say. While there is no guarantee that your ad will be clicked on, SEM can be a highly effective way to reach potential customers and grow your business, while taking less work to target an audience than SEO.

Which is Better?

Portrait of smiling businessman with open palms weighing options

There are pros and cons to both. SEO can be a more cost-effective way to generate organic traffic and leads as you aren’t spending for each click an ad receives.

However, the time saved for results to show in PPC campaigns is worth taking into account.

There are a couple of other things to consider before deciding search marketing method to use:

Search Intent

If it’s just to learn more about a topic rather than buy, SEO is the better option so you are still generating brand awareness without wasting your money on customers who were never going to convert anyway.

Keyword Difficulty

If a particular keyword you are trying to rank for is extremely popular or broad and has a high search volume, you’re better off opting for SEM with pay-per-click ads to increase your chances of generating targeted traffic.

The Verdict

Rather than pinning SEM vs SEO against each other as if we were in a WWE match, it’s important to understand the value of both so you can make an informed decision on whether you combine SEO and SEM or just focus on one of them.

Bring on the Experts in SEO and SEM

Still a bit fuzzy on how to use SEO and SEM to grow your business? Call on the experts at First Page who can create a bespoke SEO or SEM campaign that aligns with your business goals and target audience.

With our expertise in SEO and SEM, you can enjoy a fool-proof plan to drive traffic to your web page and get ranked head and shoulders above your competitors.

Contact First Page today to take your search marketing game to the next level.