SEO vs SEM: What’s the Difference?

There are two ways to advertise your business on Google, SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) and SEM (Search Engine Marketing). If you are new to Google advertising then these terms may not sound familiar to you.

We will break them down in simple terms so that you can not only understand them but also equip you with the necessary knowledge to choose the right marketing strategies for your business.

By using these 2 advertising methods, you can not only advertise on Google search but also on other Google properties, we will guide you in detail about where you can advertise using SEO and places where your Google Ads can be placed.

Let’s dive in.

Table of contents:

  1. SEO: Search Engine Optimisation
  2. SEM: Search Engine Marketing
  3. First Impression SEO vs SEM
  4. Key differences between SEO and SEM
    1. How long do SEO and SEM take to work?
    2. How much do SEO and Google Ads costs?
    3. What happens if you stop or pause SEO & SEM?
    4. Which one gets a high ROI?
    5. Risk factors with SEO & SEM
  5. How to choose SEO vs SEM?
    1. SEM – Choose if you need fast results
    2. SEO – Choose if you need a long-term strategy
    3. Choose both – if you need holistic marketing
  6. Pros and cons of SEO and SEM
    1. Pros of SEO
    2. Cons of SEO
    3. Advantages of SEM
    4. Disadvantages of SEM
  7. FAQs

SEO: Search Engine Optimisation

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) allows you to make your business visible on Google Search and other search engines like Bing, Yahoo etc. Your business can also be placed on Google Maps for people reach you in person.

SEO listing appears just under Ads in Google as shown in the graphic below.

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SEO takes time to optimise your website for relevant keywords and once it starts to rank then people can click on it to visit your website to enquire about your service or buy products or services online. You do not pay to Google to have your business listed or when users click on them. You need to pay to SEO expert to plan and execute your campaigns for several months before they will become nicely visible on Google. Learn more about SEO vs SEM comparison below.

SEM: Search Engine Marketing

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) allows you to display your ads in the top section of Google search and other Google properties like Maps, YouTube, Gmail etc.

As they are paid ads, you do not pay for your ads to appear there but you will be charged once the user clicks on them. Google bills you once you reach your allocated threshold or it’s monthly if you don’t reach the threshold.

You will need to hire a Google Ads expert to plan, build and run your campaign. You may get started on your own but if you need quality results then should hire a Google Ads consultant. Learn more as to why Google Ads should be run by an expert.

We have listed the difference between Search Engine Marketing and Search Engine Optimisation below.

First Impression – SEO vs SEM

Ads appear on top and that is the first thing users see while searching and this is very important for businesses to be there. If the first impression matters for your business then you should consider advertising on Google Ads.

Some businesses do not advertise their entire category on Google Ads but to protect their brand, they advertise just their business name to ensure that users shouldn’t click on competition ads by not being there.

There are other businesses that do not consider Google Ads so they purely rely on organic and other marketing presence. There are a lot of users who feel that ads are pushy and they tend to search for organic listings.

Overall, a paid listing is the first thing a user sees and increases your chance of getting a site visitor and organic listings, are more credible, some users tend to prefer them over paid listings.

Key differences between SEO and SEM

There are many differences between Search Engine Optimisation and Search Engine Marketing. We have listed some key differences to help you understand both better to make the right business decisions.

How long do SEO and SEM take to work?

SEO ranking time

Generally speaking, you can expect to see SEO results in 4-6 months, it can change significantly based on the competition in your niche locally or globally.

In simple terms, SEO ranking is purely impacted by Keyword Difficulty. Higher competition increases the keyword difficulty. See examples below:

SEO Keyword Difficulty High

A regress approach SEO process like a high degree of quality content production and link building can speed up the process significantly, visit SEO ranking time to learn more about these factors in detail.

SEM ranking time

Search Engine Marketing may start to produce results almost instantly once launched, the turnaround time is much quicker as compared to SEO.

You can expect to get SEM results in one to two weeks for a simple campaign. More sophisticated campaigns may take several weeks to start getting quality results and it may require more adjustments post-launch.

How much do SEO and Google Ads costs?

SEO cost

The cost of SEO is purely driven by the effort and the level of competition you may have to produce quality work to achieve the desired result.

The search engine will not charge you anything for SEO but you have to pay to SEO expert to implement SEO activities to rank your website.

Visit our SEO cost in Australia page to learn more about SEO packages and rates.

Google Ads cost

You also pay search engines when a user clicks on your ad. The amount charged is your bid amount for the ad and generally varies with every ad.

To run Google Ads by an expert you will need to pay the setup fee and monthly management fee to keep maintaining your campaign by doing data analysis, insight building and doing necessary changes.

Visit Google Ads packages page to learn more about the different packages available and other rate-related details.

What happens if you stop or pause SEO & SEM?

  • SEO: Once you pause or stop your SEO campaign, your ranking will still be there but will start dropping slowly or rapidly depending on your competitors as they continue optimising their websites.
  • SEMYour ads will stop running instantly if you pause your SEM campaigns. Ads are only visible if you keep your campaign active.

Which one gets a high ROI?

There is no definite answer to this as it is impacted by how you assess the outcome and the cost associated.

It’s very easy to calculate the ROI using Google Ads or other paid advertising channels as you spend x to get y as revenue.

With SEO, you have to pay an SEO consultant to do SEO for several months before you start to notice changes in your ranking. The results are also long-lasting, so calculating the direct impact becomes challenging.

Generally speaking, in the long run, SEO can provide a significant boost to the business provided it is done correctly with the right intentions.

Risk factors with SEO & SEM

Not many people talk about the risks associated but it’s worth knowing some of the minor or major risks associated with SEO and SEM.

SEO Risks

There are three main risks you should know about with Search Engine Optimisation.

  1. Results are not guaranteed: Yes, SEO results are not guaranteed as they are impacted by various factors. But if the SEO is done correctly then there is no reason why you can’t desire rankings. If you may need something faster to work then SEO may not be your friend.
  2. Possible Penalty: If SEO is done poorly by implementing black-hat tactics then your website may get penalised by Google. One of the most common reasons for SEO penalties is due to poor link-building practices. Get quality SEO from a trusted consultant or don’t do SEO at all.
  3. Time & Money: As SEO takes time, in the beginning, you may feel it’s taking time and money without much results, but be patient. If you stop halfway then you will be disappointed. Get a proper consultation before commencing.

SEM Risks

  1. Time & Money: If you are in a very competitive niche, your CPC may be higher so you will have to pay a much higher amount to acquire a conversion. Get an audit done by an experienced Google Ads consultant to set the expectations right.
  2. Getting Banned: Google and other PPC advertising platforms have policies in place and you have to follow them. Sometimes for some sensitive niche, you may have to provide additional documents to run your campaigns. It may not be an easy experience dealing with Google for these.

Diversifying your channels and avoiding relying on one channel to run your business online. Always have alternate options available.

How to choose SEO vs SEM?

SEM – Choose if you need fast results

As the heading says, choose SEM if you need to achieve results fast like getting leads or start selling products online.

Google Ads is a great platform to start getting quality results within days or weeks. You pay Google for every click but you can achieve a higher ROI provided it’s done correctly.

The promotions for running seasonal sales, time-sensitive offers and new product launches are almost instantaneous and provide a great boost for online sales.

SEM is also faster when it comes to mistakes. Let’s say you chose a keyword that is not generating enough clicks, you can go back and tweak your keywords immediately.

With SEM, even if buyers don’t click on your ad, they keep you in mind as they see it as the first result, this makes a lasting impact on them. This increases visibility and can help you in future.

SEO – Choose if you need a long-term strategy

Yes, SEO is a long-term strategy but you also get long-term results, it can give you amazing results.

Start your journey with moderate expectations, quality and healthy SEO services and it may exceed your expectations.

Another feature of SEO is its cost-effectiveness in the long run. Initially, with a good SEO expert, your investments will be higher, however, your organic visibility will bring in a lot of traffic in the long term, which makes it cost-effective.

It builds reputation and authority as you’ll start ranking higher in your domain, and people will see your content as relevant and reliable. People will see you as the authority on the subject and you can command higher traffic and more quality sales.

If you hire an SEO expert, you’ll be way ahead of your competition as they work to make your website competitive by consistently creating quality content. This gives you lasting traffic and an edge over your competition.

Choose both – if you need holistic marketing

Just relying on one channel is never a good idea for serious businesses, consider both SEO and SEM and also other advertising platforms like Facebook Ads, and EDMs if you need a much greater presence online.

You get to combine the instant visibility of SEM and establish authority from SEO. Start with one strategy and gradually build the other one to get the optimal results.

SEM delivers quick results, driving immediate traffic and leads, which is perfect for time-sensitive campaigns or product launches. Meanwhile, SEO enhances your website’s credibility and organic search rankings, providing sustainable growth over time.

Starting with one strategy allows you to fine-tune your efforts and understand what works best for your business. As you gain insights and resources, gradually incorporating the other strategy will maximise your online presence and effectiveness.

For instance, you might start with an SEO-focused approach to build a strong foundation of organic traffic, then layer in SEM whenever necessary to capture immediate opportunities and reinforce your brand’s visibility.

Pros and cons of SEO and SEM

Both SEO and SEM have their advantages and disadvantages, check out the pros and cons of both below:

Pros of SEO

  • No Need to Pay Google: You do not need to pay Google to have your business featured organically. This means you save costs in SEO.
  • 24/7 Reach: SEO works 24/7 for you, unlike SEM which stops when your budget is exhausted.
  • Ranking Stays: If done correctly, mostly SEO rankings do not drop instantly even if you pause or stop active efforts which is unlike SEM which stops showing results if you stop the campaigns.
  • Scaling: If you would like to scale your business then SEO should be at the top of your list. During the process, your fixed cost may increase but the traffic and return may reach a record high. Unlike SEM, you do not need to plan your budget to get a specific number of clicks.
  • Trust: SEO is generally a reflection of trust as it requires time and effort and generally only serious businesses can commit to it.
  • Higher click-through rates: May users prefer organic listings over SEM as they are credible and trustworthy. So organic traffic over a period of time will be higher.
  • More Brand Awareness: With consistent SEO efforts, you are more likely to show up in the first page in your industry and it boosts awareness.

Cons of SEO

  • It Takes Time: SEO requires patience and requires months to show results and bring in any traffic to your store.
  • Results are not guaranteed: Results can be unpredictable but with an SEO expert the unpredictability is reduced.
  • Poor SEO Can Get Penalty: If not done correctly, search engines will not show your content and in some extreme cases can even penalise you for bad SEO.
  • Keeping Up with Ever-Changing Algorithms: Search engines constantly improve their algorithms and if you don’t keep up with changes, the SEO efforts may appear to be wasted.
  • Technical Complexity: SEO involves complex technical aspects that may require special expertise.
  • Link-Building Challenges: Acquiring quality backlinks can be difficult and time-intensive.
  • Highly Competitive: If you are working in saturated markets, getting the top spot organically becomes a big challenge.

Advantages of SEM

  • Fast Result: SEM gives you immediate results by ranking you higher, which means high visibility and traffic.
  • Scale When You Need: For Google ads, you don’t need to consistently run them, you can run them for targeted days, sales or whenever you need them.
  • High Conversion Rate: With good SEM, you are visible on the first page at the top, which grabs attention and for low-involvement purchases, the conversions are high.
  • Easy To Convey Key Message: Even if users don’t click on your ad, you are still more visible to the users and with the right messaging, it’s a breeze to make an impact.
  • Target specific audience: If you are looking to attract a niche audience, SEM can target based on demographics, location and behaviour.
  • Scalable Campaigns: You can scale the campaigns easily without adding additional manpower to them.
  • Easy to Measure: SEM comes with tools to collect and show data making the management of campaigns highly effective.
  • A/B Testing: If you are experimenting with ads, it provides you with testing different ad copies and you can choose the more effective one. You can also apply other AB testing mechanisms.

Disadvantages of SEM

  • Expensive: Cost-per-click prices are on the rise and if you are in a competitive industry, you may struggle to allocate the desired budget.
  • Stops After Daily Budget is Over After you have exhausted the daily budget set, the SEM will stop working.
  • Click Abuse: Bots and competition can maliciously click on ads and drain your budget without results. While Google has made some effort to count invalid clicks, your competition can still click on them which can impact your daily budget.
  • Ad Fatigue: Users may get tired of your ads, reducing their effectiveness over time.
  • Ad Blockers: Some users employ ad blockers, reducing the reach of your campaigns.
  • Dependence on Budget: Performance is heavily dependent on the allocated advertising budget. Big sharks with deep pockets usually reap better benefits.


Is SEM more effective than SEO?

It depends on how you measure them. SEM offers tools for measuring conversions, whereas with SEO, you have to implement different strategies to measure it.

If you go purely by the number of clicks to conversions, then possibly yes, because you can control your ads better and convey the message more effectively, leading to higher conversions with SEM.

What is a drawback to using an SEM?

One major drawback of SEM is its ever-rising CPC cost; it can become expensive, especially in competitive markets, and the traffic stops once you stop paying for ads.

What is a drawback to using an SEO?

SEO can be time-consuming and requires ongoing effort to maintain and improve rankings, with no guaranteed outcomes due to constant changes in search engine algorithms.

Can you do SEO without SEM?

Absolutely. Both are two different channels; you can do either or both depending on your marketing needs and goals.

Does SEM include Google Ads?

Yes, PPC (Pay-Per-Click) ads that appear on searches like Google, Bing, Yahoo, DuckDuckGo, or other search engines come under the SEM segment.

How to choose keywords for SEM?

The best way to select the right keywords for an SEM campaign is by using Google’s Keywords Planner.

SEO & SEO difference PDF

The key SEO and SEM difference PDF document highlights them in a simple tabular format.

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