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Ranking on the first page: the differences in SEO & SEM

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) are two digital marketing tools to generate traffic to a website. How do these traffic generation methods differ? How do both ways help to rank higher on result pages in search engines? How can they strengthen your online presence or help you to create the best user experience?

This article explains how search engines work and what SEO and SEM have to do with them.

SEO & SEM; what are the similarities?

SEO and SEM are two of the most important digital marketing terms, but what do they mean and how do they differ? Understanding the difference between SEO and SEM is important for any company that takes its marketing budget and resources seriously.

But before talking about the differences, let's start with the similarities:

  1. SEO and SEM techniques are different, but both focus on getting traffic.

  2. Both SEO and SEM rely on keyword search queries to drive traffic users to website pages. SEO selects key queries for the content, while SEM for their use in ads.

  3. If SEO and SEM are correctly configured, there are more opportunities to get users and improve conversion rates.

  4. Both digital marketing terms start with search engines (SE).

Let's explain search engines in more detail, as the back and forth between SEO and SEM in digital marketing can be confusing.

Search Engines

Search engines show the most relevant results to users. Every single day, Google Search Engines make over 3.5 billion searches per day. These searches contain both paid search results and organic search results. The traffic generation method Search Engine Optimization (SEO) attracts "organic traffic results", while Search Engine Marketing (SEM) attracts both paid traffic via various paid search ads (PPC) and free, organic traffic via SEO.

Google's search results are divided into two main categories: paid and organic.

What is SEO?

SEO, Search Engine Optimization, refers to

"The continuous process of optimizing a website to increase the positioning (or improve the ranking) of a website in order to rank in the organic, free results of search engine results pages (SERPs)."

Organic results are the "free search results" offered by the search engine. Online content needs optimization to rank higher organically on Search engines as Google uses over two hundred ranking signals in their algorithm.

SEO makes sure a website has the structure and content to be easily indexed by search engines. When a user searches Google for a specific keyword related to your business, your website appears among the first organic search results returned.

There are four main subcategories of SEO to gain more traffic:

1) On-Page SEO

You optimize your website around keywords that your business target audience searches for in Google, Bing, and other search engines. This helps to improve your search engine ranking results:

  • include the main keyword in the title tag, meta description, and webpage URL.

  • write effective metadata, such as meta descriptions and title tags and incorporate keywords.

2) Off-Page SEO

Off-page SEO is getting trust and authority signals from other websites. This involves link building:

  • building high-quality backlinks to your website

  • improve your website's expertise, authority, and trust via social media sharing.

3) Technical SEO

Technical SEO is the process of improving aspects of a website that don’t involve content to make sure Google and other search engines can crawl and index all your website pages.

  • Website speed (webpage load time)

  • structured website data

  • crawlability

  • mobile-friendliness of your website

  • website architecture set up

4) User Interaction Signals

The way users interact with your website helps Google and other search engines to figure out if your webpage is a good search result match.

  • website bounce rate

  • keyword fit

What is SEM?

SEM, Search Engine Marketing, refers to

"Different paid search advertising models, to gain visibility on the sponsored results of the Search Results pages (SERP)."

So, SEM is the paid version of SEO.

Paid results are sponsored results paid to show up first in search engines. In Paid search strategies, such as PPC, the advertisement budget needs to be related to a user's search query.

You can distinguish a paid placement in the SERPs by the "Ad" icon.

1) Bidding via PPC (pay-per-click)

PPC (pay-per-click) is a paid search method. It includes keyword research and choosing the right keywords on which to invest to appear among the sponsored results on the leading search engines.

With PPC the advertiser bid on a specific keyword. When a user searches for that keyword, the ad will show up. The rankings of the ads are proportional: the highest bidder appears in the other ads. A high-Quality Score gives a discount on each click.

This method is used to attract users that are searching for a specific brand as a solution via products, services, or information.

Google calculates the Quality Score of an ad based on:

  • the click-through rate (CTR)

  • the quality of the landing page

  • Google Ad account's Quality Score

PPC helps to generate leads, increase website sales and spread brand awareness. Google ads consist of keyword research and keywords that show up at the top of a list of search results pages. Such ad campaigns are available in a variety of formats, including:

  • Text-based ads

  • Visual ads (shopping ads or product listing ads (PDLs))


  • Search engine optimisation focus on ranking in the free, organic results of search engines.

  • Search engine marketing includes both organic positioning strategies and paid advertising strategies (PPC) to get traffic from search engines.

  • PPC (Paid search advertising marketing, such as pay-per-click (PPC) promotes a business product or service to potential customers now searching for a solution. The advertiser pays each time a potential customer clicks on the paid ad.

SEO & SEM: What are the differences?

One of the main differences between SEO and SEM is speed.

With SEO, it takes at least up to 2 years to rank on the first page of Google. If you want to rank as one of the top-ranking pages, then add at least another year. Many of the top-ranking pages were first published over 3 years ago.

You can shorten this time by a few months by constantly focussing on SEO, using long-tail keywords and SEO best practices. This will result in some organic traffic within months. Yet it will take years of consistent work to rank organically.

A website's value over time depends on SEO. If you want to raise your ranking and gain traffic quickly, SEM is the best option. However, it can take months of testing and tweaking to get a positive Return on Investment (ROI) from a PPC campaign ad.

A second difference between SEO and SEM is the Free vs Paid traffic.

People think SEO is free traffic. It is true that you don't pay if a user clicks on your site in the organic search results. Yet SEO is not free, as it takes up a lot of resources to create SEO. You need to constantly create high-quality content, hire a graphic designer, send emails to get your content out, hire a web developer to improve technical SEO on the website and use expensive digital tools to improve SEO.

In the short term, PPC is usually cheaper than SEO.

The third difference between SEO and SEM is that SEM clearly marks the Ads on the search engine pages (SERPs).

SEO & SEM: Which marketing strategy to use?

Marketing often focuses on the differences between SEO and SEM and business want to know which of the two marketing strategies will give them the best results.

SEO is preferred, for:

  • a limited budget.

  • a long-term effect is preferred: a business can wait to rank for 6-12 months.

  • ranking informational keyword search intends.

  • increase the trust and credibility of a website.

SEM is preferred, for:

  • a budget to spend on ads.

  • short-term: a business needs quick results to expand audience reach.

  • Speed

  • focus on a geographic area.

  • brand identity.

  • websites with few backlinks.

Both SEO and SEM play important roles in a digital marketing strategy.

Combining SEO & SEM is preferred to:

  • drive a higher amount of relevant and quality traffic to your website.

  • find relevant keywords.

  • test and optimise.

A good approach to drive visibility, traffic, and conversions from search engines to a business website is to combine both SEO and SEM as part of a larger digital strategy.

Best Practices to combine SEO & SEM

When deciding how to promote your products or services online, there are several best practices:

1: Key factors

Consider the following key factors: Budget, Target audience, Business goals and objectives and Marketing timeline (short-term vs long-term).

2: Target the same keywords

Targeting the same keywords helps a business dominate search engine result pages and improve website visibility.

3: Use PPC to improve SEO

Use Pay Per Click (PPC) ads to improve SEO to get quick results for specific keywords.

4: Continuously track search results

Continuously testing and optimising ad campaigns is important. Try different ad copy, keywords, and targeting options and track search results such as conversions and analytics via Google Analytics.


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