Skip to Main Content

SEO vs SEM: Choosing a Sustainable Path to Long Term Success

While most new business owners will try to weigh up the benefits of SEO vs SEM, not everyone fully understands the differences between these two critical online marketing techniques.

Worse yet, many small businesses dive straight into paid promotions without realizing that this is not the most sustainable or affordable way to achieve long-term success in digital marketing.

In addition, we often hear this question from regular readers of the Website Magazine: Should I do SEO or SEM to increase the traffic to my website?

This question is predicated on the false premise that SEO and SEM are either/or options. They’re not.

As a business owner, you use SEO and SEM for different end goals.

Choosing between SEO and SEM is not like choosing between a red and a blue tie (that’s a real choice!). It’s like choosing between a tie and a car (which, outside of being ‘choices,’ have nothing in common), versus choosing between buying a Tesla or a BMW.
In this article, we will carefully look at the pros and cons of SEO vs SEM, when to use each tactic and what role each strategy should play with regards to your overall digital strategy.

SEO vs. SEM: How Do You Choose?

Search engine optimization (SEO) is an organic method to drive traffic to your website, while search engine marketing (SEM) refers to paid-efforts to promote a website and increase visibility on search engines.

For the most part, SEM is focused on pay-per-click (PPC) advertising and SEO is designed to optimize your website and using certain white hat strategies to show up organically at the top of search results.
But why might you need to choose between them?
It’s simple. You should only leverage one strategy over the other if you’re concerned with results this month versus this year.
That is to say, PPC can deliver targeted traffic but this only lasts for the duration of an ad campaign and the costs involved are most often very high compared to SEO (more on that below).

Meanwhile, SEO is a much more sustainable strategy to increase your online visibility because, when done right, SEO will drive traffic to your website in the long run.
However, in order to better understand the pros or cons, we need to know the differences between the two:

What is SEO?

Search Engine Optimization is a set of techniques which can increase the quantity and quality of traffic to your website.

In other words, SEO will improve your rankings in search results for search engines like Google, Yahoo or Bing for a set of targeted keywords, which are either buy-oriented or informational in their nature.

Let’s take a concrete example.

Website Magazine is a digital forum dedicated to business owners who want to improve their online visibility, learn new marketing tips and tricks and stay on top of the latest SEO, SEM and growth hacking tricks.

Let’s say you’re an online reader who’s never heard of the Website Magazine.

You go to Google and search for ‘SEO friendly website builder’. Who would search for this keyword? Marketers and business owners who want to learn how to easily build an SEO-optimized website, right?

So what do you see in Google search results? Website Magazine commands the  #1 organic search result.


If you see the results above, you will likely click on the first result that’s not an ad, and then you will see this article.

In this context, a reader who’s never heard of the Website Magazine gets introduced to our website and also finds an answer to his or her question.
You see, Google has only one main objective - to provide the most accurate and relevant answers to various search queries.

For this reason, there is a complex set of guidelines called algorithms that help search engines assess various forms of content and rank your website based on the quality of this information.
Although the precise nature of these algorithms remains a mystery, SEO experts can identify certain keywords that can help your website gain more traffic over time. However, there are many reasons why most companies fail at SEO and not every agency can be trusted to get the job done.

On-site SEO versus Off-site SEO

There are two different types of search engine optimization techniques you should be aware of - On-site SEO and Off-site SEO.
On-site SEO refers to the optimization of your existing content and website pages to be Google-friendly.

For example, you might edit certain pages or blog posts and insert important keywords to help the content rank higher on search engines. And what that means simply put is that  you are optimizing your content for what Google is looking for on a page. We've put together a comprehensive guide on how to optimize your site from a technical SEO point of view to make it Google friendly.

Meanwhile, off-site SEO is mostly tasked with earning (NEVER buying!) backlinks to your content from other websites.

As you may know, search engines use “spiders” to crawl the internet and when these bots identify pieces of links pointing back to your website, this will eventually improve the authority of your online presence.

If you are not as familiar with Google search algorithms, watch this short but excellent crash course video. It comes straight from Google’s top SEO engineer which explains in plain English exactly how the leading search engine in the world works.

Bottomline: links are considered the “juice” behind your website and this determines the extent of visibility your future content will have online.

What is SEM and PPC?

Many business owners seem to be confused by some of the jargon in digital marketing such as SEM and PPC. For all intents and purposes (aka the final outcome!), they are the same.

But if you want the textbook definition, here’s the difference.

SEM, or Search Engine Marketing, refers to all the strategies a company can use to purchase ad inventory online.

There is, of course, some confusion here because, in the past, Search Engine Marketing used to refer to the management of both paid ads and SEO strategies.

However, today, most marketers use SEM to refer to paid search only. And the most common form of paid search today is Pay-Per-Click (PPC), which is the method through which businesses pay for advertisements on search engines and social media.  

As you might have guessed, as a business, you simply pay a fee each time an online user clicks on an ad and is routed to your website.
For example, if you pay for an advertisement on Google, your ad will appear in the search results for specific keywords or queries, usually above any organic search results. If an online user happens to click on your ad listing, you will pay a specified amount for that privilege.

Let’s look at the same example we used above.


As you can see, the Website Magazine is the first organic search result. We, as a company, do not pay any fees to Google if a user clicks on our article.

On the other hand, in the instance above, Google looked at its current ad inventory (aka what keywords some advertisers are bidding on) and displayed an ad for SquareSpace.

A quick look up into the Google Adwords Planner shows us that the cost per click for ‘seo friendly website building’ is $15, as of April 1st 2019 (cost per click changes over time based on demand). So if I clicked on the SquareSpace link above, Google would charge them $15 dollars.

Bottomline, SEM refers to all the paid search strategies through which a company like SquareSpace decides what keywords to bid for in order to maximize a return on investment in the form of purchases or signups on their website.

SEO vs SEM: The Pros and Cons

While there are many benefits to each method, the main difference for SEO vs SEM is that the first of these leads to organic traffic, while the latter involves paid promotion. However, let’s take a closer look at the advantages and disadvantages of SEO vs SEM:

The PROs of SEO

Get Great Leads with Targeted Traffic with SEO

Effective SEO can generate high quality traffic and potential leads and/or direct sales. In the long run, this is an extremely effective way to increase conversions over time and improve the quality of traffic that ends up on your website.

Cost Effective Results of SEO vs SEM

While PPC can generate immediate results, the return on investment for SEO is much higher. SEO brings 6x more leads than SEM. In other words, SEO is more effective than SEM.

SEO Shows a Positive Long Term Return on Investment versus SEM

When you create SEO content on a weekly and monthly basis, you will inevitably increase traffic to your website over time. What’s more, you can drastically improve your search rankings by updating your content over time so that your article remains the most relevant answer to a specific search query made online.

Ranking Organically in Search Results Improve Your Company’s Credibility and Authority

When you rank in organic search results with your content, you demonstrate authority and increase your presence in a particular field without having to produce salesy content. After all, everyone can pay to have their ads shown in search results. But only the most authoritative articles ever make to the top of organic search results.

Additionally, online users are often put off from reading self-promotional materials and to even click on ads. And the data shows it. As of 2018, 94% of online users click on organic search results versus 6% of users who click on ads.

SEO Helps Sales Efforts

White papers and other SEO content can be optimized to act as a sales tool. For example, you can use links from your SEO-optimized articles to generate sales or even commission from affiliate links. If you ever needed convincing in terms of the value of SEO vs SEM, the jury is out and the verdict is in: you should always prioritize your SEO efforts over SEM (but ideally do a bit of both!).

SEO Will Increase Your Reach & Traffic

When you consider how much the average person relies on Google and other search engines to answer their queries, it should be obvious that SEO can significantly increase reach and traffic. Even if you choose the SEM route, most of the traffic is going to organic search results anyway, so you will lose out on the majority of interested visitors (all 94% of them!) if you only choose to ONLY pay for ads.

The Cons of SEO

SEO is great for business. But it also has its own limitations and drawbacks. Let’s explore the obvious cons of SEO.  

SEO is time consuming

SEO takes time to implement but far longer to have any impact. According to Ahrefs, it takes one year on average to get to the #1st position in Google Search Results and an average of 90 days to reach the first page of search results (aka #10th result). As far as SEO vs SEM goes, it is a lot faster to use ads to generate qualified traffic in the short term.

SEO Requires Consistency

You must continue to improve SEO over time and adjust in order to meet the requirements of search engine algorithms. As a rule, this strategy should include both on-site and off-site SEO, while these efforts should be daily, weekly or monthly at the very least.

You May Choose the Wrong Agency and Not See Results After 90 days

Unfortunately, many businesses feel disillusioned after working with a bad agency. You should always ask the agency to show page one search results from other clients and ask that they explain how these results were achieved. Just keep in mind that trustworthy agencies will never employ black hat tactics in an SEO strategy. That said, you may choose the wrong agency and then you won’t see the results you’re looking for. If that’s the case, don’t give up on your SEO strategy - just fire the company you’re working with and find a better one.

Initial Cost of SEO is fairly high

SEO takes time and requires a significant monthly retainer to rank for specific keywords. Most companies report spending between $5,000 and $15,000 per month, for content production, keywords research and securing backlinks as part of their SEO efforts. And as we know by now, if you’re working with a really good agency, it will take 90 days at a minimum to see results.

Unknown Return on Investment

You simply cannot know the return on investment for SEO when starting out and only time can tell whether the strategy was effective or not. For this reason, you need to trust both the process and SEO agency to get things done behind the scenes and produce the desired results.
Now, let’s also take a look at the pros and cons of PPC:


Supplement for SEO

While you should always have a focus on search engine optimization, PPC can be used to supplement these efforts in the short term. To this end, you can choose the most relevant keywords and then use these words as the focus for your ad campaign.

Rank Ahead of Competition

You can use SEM to encourage online users to click on your business as opposed to the competition.

Let’s look at a specific example. If I type in “Uber” in Google I see this:


Observation: Lyft is bidding on the ‘uber’ keyword as well in an attempt to take traffic away from their main competitor.

Re-targeting Customers

When online users visit your website but do not purchase or perform a specific action, you can use PPC to re-target these users. In most instances, this means that your ad will show up on other websites while the user is browsing the internet in an effort to encourage them to revisit your website. There is no organic way in which to re-target customers which is one clear difference in terms of SEO vs SEM (SEM wins!).

Cons of PPC

Most People Ignore Paid Search Results

Many online users are desensitized to paid search results and have a tendency to ignore paid advertisements entirely. All 95% of them as we saw above.


There’s a High Competition for Paid Keywords

Because paid ads command only 6% of all Google clicks, there’s a huge competition among advertisers bidding for specific keywords. Since the number of ‘available clicks’ is low, you are always in direct competition with other businesses for the same keywords and you need to pay more if you want to outrank these competitors. But this also means that the cost of acquisition per new user continues to go up over time for ads.

SEM Only Provides Short-term Gains

While PPC delivers targeted traffic, it’s an expensive process and one that ends with the last day of each campaign. It’s like pouring water in a glass. The second you turned off the faucet, there’s more water being poured in your glass. Same applies with SEM. Meanwhile, SEO delivers traffic at a much lower cost and brings traffic to your site in the long term. When it comes to SEO vs SEM, there is no question that PPC is a short term strategy.

Doing PPC Well is Quite Complicated

PPC involves a fairly complicated process and targeting these campaigns can prove especially expensive. That is to say, the cost of an ad campaign can really add up without the right targeting. As if that’s not enough, changing these ads requires more time and money which is something that effective SEO efforts can cover the first time around.

PPC is Often Associated with Spam

Unfortunately for PPC, most people are hesitant in terms of clicking on ads due to the extent of spam online. On the other hand, these people also know that many agencies are using unethical marketing tactics which often means that they waste their time clicking on ad listings.


SEO vs SEM: Final Thoughts

As you can see, choosing between SEO and SEM is very important for any business owner out there depending on your goals. That said, we hope this article made it obvious that SEO will provide the best return on investment and create a foundation for your digital strategy to lead to tangible and sustainable results.

On the other hand, SEO is continually evolving as a practice and your strategy should always adapt to keep up with these inevitable changes.

Bottomline: SEM can produce short term results but SEO is certainly more sustainable and the best way to achieve long term growth.
Today's Top Picks for Our Readers:
Recommended by Recommended by NetLine

Leave Your Comment

Login to Comment

Become a Member

Not already a part of our community?
Sign up to participate in the discussion. It's free and quick.

Sign Up


Leave a comment
    Load more comments
    New code