SEM vs. SEO: What Are They and How Do They Work Together?

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SEM and SEO Working Together

SEM and SEO Working Together

If you’re trying to increase traffic to your site, you’ve probably come across the terms SEO and SEM over and over again.

What’s the difference when comparing SEM vs. SEO, and is one better than the other? Do they work together, or are they mutually exclusive?

The reality is that most brands can benefit from a combination of SEO and SEM tactics. By optimizing your site to ensure that search engines rank your pages as high as possible and strategically driving traffic through paid advertisements, you can get the most high-quality traffic for your buck.

Let’s dive in and look at what SEO and SEM are, how they are different, their pros and cons, and how they work together.

What Is SEO?

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. It focuses on gaining organic website traffic from search results by optimizing a site.

Using this practice, you (or a digital marketing agency you hire to do so for you) can make it easier for various search engines to crawl your site. This means that users and search spiders alike are better able to find your site.

In short, SEO is a practice that involves improving your website to boost high-quality traffic to your site while also improving the user experience.

What is SEO

SEO tactics involve both on-page and off-page elements. In terms of on-page SEO, typical strategies include optimizing title tags, prioritizing page speed, creating quality content, and internal linking. On the other hand, off-page SEO includes generating backlinks, social media marketing, and encouraging reviews for your business.

One of the essential elements of SEO is creating content that is both valuable and useful to your audience and optimized for search engines. With the recent Helpful Content Update released by Google, it’s more important now than ever to focus on providing readers with high-quality information that is highly relevant.

What Is SEM?

SEM stands for Search Engine Marketing. It focuses on gaining visibility and traffic through paid search results and organic search results.

Technically, SEM is an umbrella term that includes SEO. All of the tactics you would use to increase traffic through organic search are, therefore, a part of SEM. At the same time, SEM also involves PPC, which stands for pay-per-click.

You’ll find online that people tend to use the term SEM to refer specifically to PPC, and we will largely be using the two terms interchangeably in this article.

PPC is how you can get your website into the paid area of a search results page. To have your advertisement show up when a specific keyword is searched for on both Google Ads and Bing Ads, you have to bid on that keyword.

As you might imagine, the highest bidder typically receives the highest rank in the paid results section.

What is SEM

You only pay for the advertisement if someone clicks on it. When they do, you pay the amount that you bid on the keyword. CPC (cost per click) is the term used to refer to the dollar amount you pay when a user selects your ad.

Optimizing your ad spend is an important part of pay-per-click advertising. You can use the Account Management and Ad Groups section to review and analyze the data related to your PPC ads.

Based on the quality of your landing page, your click-through rate, and other factors, Google calculates what is known as a quality score. By achieving a high Quality Score, you can save money and receive a discount every time a person clicks on your ad.

One essential element of creating successful PPC campaigns is your ad copy. After all, you have to create a compelling reason for people to click on your ad versus the other ads and search results. When you have awesome ad copy, it means that you’ll receive a better click-through rate and, in turn, a better Quality Score. Again, a good Quality Score is vital because it can mean you can spend less and less per click as your score rises.

On the other hand, you’ll struggle to maintain a good Quality Score if your ad copy isn’t driving people to click on your ad. This means that the cost per click will be increasingly expensive, and you’ll find it less and less viable to engage in PPC marketing.

SEM Vs. SEO: The Differences

There are essentially two different primary categories of search results when you type a query into the Google bar: paid and organic.

Brands use SEO to help their site pages rank as high as possible in the organic search results.

Meanwhile, they use SEM to boost their search results in both the organic and paid sections of the results.


The short story is that SEO tends to be cheaper than SEM, but it isn’t free, as many claim. SEM works more quickly to generate traffic but has less staying power than SEO, and SEO tends to generate higher-quality traffic than PPC ads.

Many people think of SEM and PPC as a “cure-all” for increasing traffic, leads, and sales, but that’s not the case. While PPC can help brands generate some traffic quickly, this strategy is most effective when there is already a solid SEO strategy as a foundation.


You’ll often hear people touting SEO as a way to generate free traffic to your site, but this is pretty misleading. Competing with major websites to gain traction for your site takes a lot of time and effort, and typically involves investing in paid SEO tools. On top of that, if you aren’t going to be writing your own content (which, again, takes time), you’ll need to pay for that too.

That being said, there is a huge spectrum when it comes to how much SEO costs. If you’re trying to build an e-commerce store that competes with Amazon listings, successful SEO efforts are going to come at a cost. If you’re trying to increase new patients to your locally-based medical practice with several locations, on the other hand, SEO can be a very affordable way to find new clients.

Managing Website Costs

One great thing about SEO, though, is that the investment (whether in time or money) you make keeps working for you over time. The evergreen content you post can be viewed by users for years and years after you first published it, and your website can steadily climb up search engine rankings as it increases in age, authority, and usefulness to the audience.

The PPC aspect of SEM, however, stops working for you as soon as you stop paying for it. After all, you are paying per click, and if you stop your PPC efforts, the benefits will also stop.


Speed is perhaps the most noticeable distinction between SEO and SEM. If your site is new, SEO tactics can take some time to work their magic. Through PPC, however, you can start to get more traffic right away. That being said, receiving a positive ROI from PPC can take some time as you have to fine-tune your copy.

Tracking PPC Speed

Even though SEO takes longer to show its results, it has a lot more staying power than the PPC aspect of SEM.


Another important factor has to do with which strategy helps to produce the greatest results. Even though PPC can help you get more traffic practically immediately, SEO is thought to have a more significant user impact than SEM.

This is because organic search drives 53% of traffic online versus 27% for paid advertising. In fact, the first organic result on a SERP receives a CTR of 28.5%, while the first paid ad only enjoys a click-through rate of 10%.

Though this might be surprising initially, it makes sense if you reflect on how you personally respond to search results. Many people don’t like the feeling of being sold to, and they prefer to select organic results for their queries rather than clicking on an ad, even if they end up clicking the organic result for the exact same site.

Analyzing SEO and SEM Results

The reality is that you’re building brand recognition even if people scroll past your ad and head for one of the top organic results. Plus, you’re not even paying for that exposure because you’re only charged when a user actually clicks on your ad.

The quality of the traffic you receive through PPC tends to be lower than with SEO as well. One potential cause of this is click fraud, where competitors repeatedly click on your ad in order to cost you more ad dollars and use up your budget for the day right off the bat. This is a black hat strategy, but it doesn’t mean some brands don’t stoop to that level.

For this reason, many brands choose to use a combination of SEO and PPC as a part of their larger SEM strategy. By capitalizing on the ability to create more traffic quickly with PPC and the more favorable numbers and staying power of SEO, brands can help increase traffic to their site.

How Do SEO and SEM Work Together?

Because of the pros and cons of both SEO and SEM, you can use both of these strategies to create campaigns where your ads complement your SEO efforts.

The ideal result of using SEO and SEM together is to be able to land the top organic search result spot while also creating more visibility through paid advertisements.

One of the key points of overlap between SEO and SEM is their heavy reliance on choosing the right keywords to help drive traffic to your site. Through SEO tactics, you can help people find your site when searching for keywords relevant to the product or service you’re offering. With paid advertising, you can make sure potential customers are able to find your site easily.

Your paid advertising will have the best success rate if your site is optimized for SEO purposes. Basically, you will want to use SEO to build a solid foundation upon which you can launch PPC campaigns. When you use both SEO and SEM at the same time, it can help to improve conversion rates and ensure that you are receiving high-quality traffic.

This is because you need Google to see your website as legitimate and authoritative. What’s the best way of doing that? Employing solid on-page and off-page SEO strategies.

SEO and SEM Working Together

If you’re launching a brand new website, PPC ads can help you generate some initial traffic until the search engines start ranking your site. However, it’s important not to forget about the importance of SEO during this initial push. SEO is the strategy that offers you staying power in search rankings, while PPC is more like a short-lived boost.

Investing in paid advertising can help boost your organic numbers in a number of different ways, including:

  • If searchers see both your ad and your organic listing, they’re more likely to click on the organic result.
  • People are more likely to search for your brand and return to your website after they have seen your paid advertisements in search results.
  • Paid advertising can help boost social signals that are impactful on SEO by extending your reach.
  • PPC ads can help increase the number of people that share your site on various social media platforms, boosting engagement signals that positively impact SEO.

SEO and PPC don’t have to be mutually exclusive tactics and, in fact, work best when you use them in tandem.

Is It Time For You to Drive More Traffic to Your Site?

Blue Pig Media is a one-stop shop for all of your digital marketing needs. We can help you grow and expand your market through SEO, PPC, and social media marketing. We can also assist you in creating a content strategy that helps you become an authority in your niche. On top of that, we’ll even help design and develop your site if you’re just starting out or ready for a fresh look.

Analyzing Website Traffic

Are you looking to get the most bang for your buck when it comes to your SEO and SEM strategies? If so, you’ve come to the right place. At Blue Pig, we focus on creating financially responsible digital marketing strategies that allow you to achieve the greatest return for the smallest investment. If that sounds good to you, contact us today.

David Curtis
David Curtis
David Curtis is the founder and CEO of Blue Pig Media. With twenty years of successful execution in sales, marketing and operations, for both clients and vendors, he has a bottom line ROI driven mentality rooted in metrics driven performance across highly competitive global corporate initiatives.

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