What’s the difference between SEO & SEM?

Okay, so let’s start of simple by what SEO and SEM stand for and then let’s dive a bit into the details.

SEO = Search Engine Optimization

Search Engine Optimization is already a big topic on its own. The goal of SEO is to get your website to the first page of Google organically. What does that mean?

If you google “beSIRIOus” in Italy you will see this site pop up in the results:

Organi Results of Google beSIRIOus

Now of course the goal with SEO is that my site will also be shown when you search for “SEO services”, “SEO agency” and so on. Search Engine Optimization is about that: growing your organic traffic by doing things like optimizing the page speed, doing keyword research and targeting certain keywords, optimizing the content and so on.

Read more about SEO here: Meaning of SEO

SEM = Search Engine Marketing

Search Engine Marketing is basically paying for ads to be shown in the Google network. The goal here is to get targeted traffic to your website by paying as least as possible for every visitor. To track if a visitor converts into a paying customer, so you can calculate if the ads are paying off.

If you search for “SEO service” these results pop up:

Paid Results for SEO service

You can see they are all marked as “Ad”, which means these companies are paying to be shown there. You can basically pay Google to show your website as the first result.

As I mentioned what’s important here is knowing if you make or lose money. Let’s make an example:

You offer a product with a profit margin of 30€.

You run an SEM Ad campaign and you pay in average 2€ per click.

Your conversion rate is 5%, which means out of 100 people visiting your site through the Ad, 5 people buy your product.

Now let’s do the math…

Costs: 100 x 2€ = 200€

Revenue: 5 x 30€ = 150€

So, after doing the math, we are losing money with this ad. What can we do? Lower the cost per click or improving the conversion rate 😉

And all this and much more is part of Search Engine Marketing or how most people call it “paid search”.


Now that we roughly know what the difference is between SEO and SEM, what is better? Which way should your business go?

Search Engine Optimization and Marketing - SEO vs SEM

Advantages of SEO

  • Organic growth over time (the more content you create and the more keywords you aim for, the more traffic you will get)
  • Very targeted traffic (you decide which keywords to optimize for)
  • Brings value to the visitor (if you are serious about doing SEO, you will have to create some content. This content can be very valuable for potential customers)

Disadvantages of SEO

  • Takes time (it will take time to grow your traffic with SEO, it can’t be done overnight)

Advantages of SEM

  • Quick results (you can put up an ad and get traffic after a few hours or max a day)
  • Scalable (if you know your numbers, you can just put more money in and you will get more results)

Disadvantages of SEM

  • No money no results (of course you will need a budget to invest into paid search. If you stop paying, the traffic will also stop)
  • Takes time to set up a good campaign (some of your budget will be lost until you figure out the right keywords etc.)
  • Scalable only to a certain point (paid search is scalable, yes. but only to a certain point. there is only that much traffic, and others pay for ads too, so if they outbid you, the costs of the ads will increase per click)

So, which of those 2 should you pick as a marketing strategy for your company? How every SEO likes to say: it depends 😀 In the end, my answer would be: do both! SEO is a mid and long-term strategy and if you want to also get results at the beginning of the digital marketing journey, invest in SEM. Once you are satisfied with the results you get with SEO you could even stop doing SEM. But again, this is your choice as a company and it depends on what fits better into your companies strategy.

If you would like to discuss what the best strategy is for your business, just request a meeting.

the difference between seo and sem and their advantages and disadvantages