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SEM vs. SEO: What You Need to Know


Search Engine Marketing (SEM) and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) are two things you have probably come across while trying to navigate the digital marketing world. You may have thought these were just fancy buzzwords, but that is definitely not the case. Although both of these strategies drive traffic to your site, they do it in very different ways.

It is important to know the differences between SEO and SEM so that you can create a strategy that drives the right kind of traffic to your site. Full disclosure: This post is full of acronyms, but don’t worry we will help you make sense of it all.

SEM vs SEO: The Main Difference

Before we really get into defining these two terms, there is one important difference between these two aspects of digital marketing.


Generates FREE web traffic with on and off page optimization


Generates website traffic using PAID SERP (Search Engine Results Page) ads

Right now, you are probably thinking one of two things. 1. Why would I even mess with SEO if I can pay for a spot on Google? or 2. Why would I pay for something that I can get for free? Interestingly enough, SEO and SEM both have a place in your digital marketing strategy and to generate the most traffic, you should be using both.

How SEO and SEM Work Together

The reason why you can’t have one search marketing strategy without the other is that they are intended for users who are at different points of the sales funnel. SEM is for people who are ready to buy, they are searching for something specific, and your PPC ads should target them.

On the other hand, SEO brings users to your site who are at the earlier stages of the sales funnel. Using specific keywords for on-page optimized content draws users in from Google who are conducting product research and seeing which brands they can trust.

Search Engine Marketing (SEM)


SEM is a PAID form of search marketing. You create and optimize ads; then you pay for the placement of those ads. Google Ads is the most popular proprietor when it comes to paid search strategy.

How you carry out an effective SEM strategy is by conducting keyword research and then create campaigns that target the best keywords for their industry, products, or services. When users search for your chosen keywords, they see the custom ads that you made at the top or bottom of the first SERP page. You are then charged a predefined amount everytime a user clicks on your ad. This is called a Pay Per Click (PPC) campaign.

Why SEM Works

PPC ads are an effective (and sometimes expensive) way to get your company’s product or service in front of customers when they are ready to buy. According to Clever Clicks, 65% of customers click on ads when purchasing.

Some PPC ads are small and text only. Others, such as product listing ads (PLAs) are visual, product-based advertisements that allow searchers to see important information, such as price, reviews, and a product description.

65% of customers click on ads when they are ready to purchase

To achieve the best results with paid ads, we suggest you be very specific about what you want to promote and lead the customer directly to a product or service page on your site. For example, if you own a craft supply store, instead of just promoting ‘craft supplies’ put together ads that promote a specific brand of paint or brush type. The keyword research may be a bit more tedious, but you will have higher conversion rates because you are promoting exactly what users are searching for.

How to Get Into the PPC Ad Game

Now how do get a PPC ad? We are glad you asked. As we said before, you need to perform keyword research. Find out what keywords you want to target and bid on them through Google adwords. Google has a great resource that discusses how ad bidding works. That’s right, it is pretty much an auction; but with less yelling and more typing. Keep in mind that after your ad is live, every click you get, you pay for. Most ads cost around $1-2.00 per click, but the most expensive ads can go for up to $50.00 per click.

Who is Using PPC?

This is a short list from of industries that are spending the most on PPC ads:

  1. Finance and Insurance
  2. Retail
  3. Travel and Tourism
  4. Jobs and Education
  5. Home and Garden

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)


As we said earlier, SEO is a strategy that drives organic traffic to your site for FREE. SEO uses a series of on and off-site elements that improve your Google ranking. Now, although it is technically free, optimizing your on- and off-site SEO is pretty labor intensive, constantly changing, and just plain confusing sometimes. You can hire a professional to create and excecute an SEO strategy for you. We recently wrote a post about SEO costs, that we suggest you take a look at if you do decide to outsource your SEO efforts.

On-Site SEO

On-site or on-page SEO alters different parts of your website that affect your search engine rankings.

  • Title tags: HTML meta tags that act as the title of a webpage.
  • Internal linking: Linking pages within your content to help drive users through your website.
  • Headings
  • URL structure
  • Optimized images
  • Meta descriptions
  • Page Content

Off-Site SEO

Off-site SEO includes things that are (kind of) out of your control. This is when a company or person finds your content valuable and shares it with others or uses it a reference. Off-site SEO includes:

  • Link building
  • Social media sharing
  • Guest blogging
  • Online reviews

Why SEO Works

The first thing to note is that SEO only “works” if done correctly. The hardest part about SEO is that it isn’t an exact science. SEO is always changing because it’s based on algorithms set up by the search engines to give people the best results. Google alone changes their algorithm 500-600 times per year.

SEO works if you follow the rules of Google. If you follow the SEO best practices, create quality content, provide a great user experience and don’t try to trick the system, SEO will work for you and improve your Google ranking organically.

Why Improving Your Google Ranking Organically is Important

You want to establish your website as an industry authority and build trust with Google so that they improve your ranking and more users come to your site. It is all about getting your brand, product, or service in front of as many eyes as possible by adding relevant content to your site and improving user experience.

We are going to go back to our craft store example to really show you why SEO is important to your bottom line. Let’s say you have created a blog post on your site about holiday crafts you can do with your kids. Someone out there in the internet world is probably searching for this type of content and clicks your post because it shows up pretty high on the SERP. They click your post and like what you have written, you have linked specific products you sell for each craft project and they end up filling their cart and boom you just got a sale. That is why SEO matters so much.

TL;DR version of this post for those of you who are short on time.

  • SEM is a paid search marketing strategy where you bid on keywords to show up on the first SERP.
  • SEO is free search marketing that uses on-and off-site content, link building etc. to get you to the top of the SERP organically.
  • You need both to really increase your web traffic and conversions.

If you would like to find out more about SEO and SEM can benefit your business, contact the experts at Unravel today!

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