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

Doug Hughes
by Doug Hughes 18 May, 2023

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?

You may be asking, what is the difference between SEO and SEM? 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 SEM and SEO:


What Is SEO?

Search Engine Optimization is a set of techniques that 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-Page SEO Versus Off-Page SEO Versus Technical SEO


On-Page SEO

On-page SEO refers to the optimization techniques that are implemented on a website's individual pages in order to improve their ranking in search engine results pages (SERPs). The main elements of on-page SEO include keyword research and placement, high-quality content creation, meta tags optimization, image optimization, internal linking, and mobile-friendliness.


Keyword research involves identifying the keywords that users are most likely to search for when looking for information related to the website's topic. These keywords are then strategically placed in the website's content, URLs, and meta tags. High-quality content creation involves creating relevant, informative, and engaging content that is optimized for both users and search engines.


Meta tags optimization includes optimizing the website's title tag, description tag, and header tags. Image optimization involves reducing the size of images on the website and adding alt text tags to describe the images. Internal linking involves linking to other relevant pages on the website to create a logical flow of information. Finally, mobile-friendliness involves ensuring that the website is optimized for mobile devices and has a responsive design.


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.


Off-Page SEO

Off-page SEO refers to the optimization techniques that are implemented outside of a website in order to improve its ranking in search engine results pages (SERPs). The main elements of off-page SEO include link building, social media marketing, and brand mentions.


Link building involves acquiring backlinks from other websites to improve the website's authority and reputation. These backlinks should be from high-quality and relevant websites and can be obtained through guest posting, broken link building, and other tactics.


Social media marketing involves using social media platforms to increase the visibility and reach of the website. This includes creating and sharing high-quality content, engaging with followers, and building a community of loyal followers.


Brand mentions involve getting other websites to mention the website or brand in their content. This can be done through PR outreach, influencer marketing, and other tactics.


Off-page SEO is important because it helps search engines understand the authority, relevance, and popularity of a website. By implementing effective off-page SEO strategies, a website can improve its visibility and ranking in search engine results pages (SERPs).


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.


Technical SEO refers to the optimization techniques that are implemented on the website's technical infrastructure to improve its ranking in search engine results pages (SERPs). The main elements of technical SEO include website structure, website speed, mobile-friendliness, crawlability, and schema markup.


Website structure involves organizing the website's content in a logical and hierarchical manner to make it easier for search engines and users to navigate. This includes using a clear and concise URL structure, creating an XML sitemap, and organizing the website's content into categories and subcategories.


Website speed refers to the time it takes for the website to load. A fast-loading website is important for both user experience and search engine optimization. This can be achieved by optimizing images, using a content delivery network (CDN), and reducing the number of HTTP requests.


Mobile-friendliness involves ensuring that the website is optimized for mobile devices and has a responsive design. This is important because a large percentage of website traffic comes from mobile devices.


Crawlability involves making sure that search engine bots can crawl and index the website's content. This can be achieved by using a robots.txt file, submitting an XML sitemap to search engines, and fixing broken links.


Schema markup involves using structured data to help search engines understand the content on the website. This can help improve the website's visibility and ranking in search engine results pages (SERPs).


By implementing effective technical SEO strategies, a website can improve its crawlability, indexing, and ranking in search engine results pages (SERPs). This can lead to increased visibility, traffic, and conversions for the website.


What Are 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, 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 between SEM and SEO is that SEO leads to organic traffic, while SEM involves paid promotion. Another key difference between SEM and SEO is speed to results. However, let's take a closer look at the advantages and disadvantages of SEO vs. SEM:




Get Great Leads With Targeted Traffic With SEO

SEO and paid search are two popular methods businesses can use to generate leads. While both methods can be effective, the quality of leads they generate can vary.


SEO is a long-term strategy that focuses on improving a website's organic search ranking. Leads generated by SEO tend to be high-quality since they are actively searching for the product or service being offered. However, SEO can take time to achieve results and competition for top rankings can be fierce.


Paid search, on the other hand, involves paying for ads to appear at the top of search engine results pages. The quality of leads generated by paid search can vary depending on the targeting and ad copy used. While paid search is more immediate than SEO, it may not produce leads with the same level of intent.


Businesses with limited budgets may find paid search to be expensive and unsustainable. On the other hand, SEO can be a more cost-effective option over the long term. Ultimately, the choice of approach depends on the specific goals and needs of the business.


Cost-Effective Results Of SEO vs. SEM

When it comes to cost-effectiveness, SEO and paid search have different pros and cons backed by statistics.


According to HubSpot, SEO has a 14.6% close rate compared to a 1.7% close rate for outbound marketing methods like paid search. Additionally, SEO leads have a 14.6% conversion rate, while the average conversion rate for paid search is 2.35%.


While SEO requires consistent effort and investment over time, it can lead to a much lower cost per lead compared to paid search. According to a study by Conductor, the average cost per click for paid search is $2.69, while the average cost per click for SEO is $0.10.


However, paid search can be a good short-term solution for businesses with specific goals and limited budgets. According to WordStream, the average click-through rate for paid search ads is 2%, while the average click-through rate for organic search results is 20%.


Ultimately, the cost-effectiveness of SEO versus paid search depends on the specific needs and goals of the business. While a well-executed SEO strategy can be a cost-effective option over the long term, paid search can be a good short-term solution for businesses with specific goals and limited budgets.


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.


 According to a study by BrightEdge, organic search drives 53% of website traffic, while paid search drives only 15% of website traffic. Additionally, organic search has a much higher click-through rate than paid search. According to Moz, the average click-through rate for organic search results is 31.7%, while the average click-through rate for paid search is only 1.91%.


While SEM can provide more immediate results, the long-term return on investment of SEO can be higher. According to a study by Conductor, the average cost per click for paid search is $2.69, while the average cost per click for SEO is $0.10. Additionally, the cost per lead for SEO is 61% lower than the cost per lead for paid search.


Furthermore, while SEO requires consistent effort and investment over time, it can lead to sustained traffic and leads. According to a study by HubSpot, 61% of marketers say that improving SEO and growing their organic presence is a top priority.


Ultimately, the long-term return on investment of SEO versus SEM depends on the specific needs and goals of the business. While SEM can provide more immediate results, SEO can lead to sustained traffic and leads, and can be a more cost-effective option over the long term.


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.


Search engines like Google rely on complex algorithms to determine the credibility and authority of a website. By implementing effective SEO strategies like high-quality content creation, internal linking, and backlinking, businesses can improve their website's authority and reputation over time. This can lead to increased trust and loyalty among customers.


According to a study by HubSpot, 75% of internet users never scroll past the first page of search engine results. By appearing at the top of search engine results pages (SERPs), businesses can establish themselves as experts in their field and gain more exposure and credibility.


Finally, effective SEO can lead to increased engagement and social sharing, further enhancing a website's credibility and authority. According to a study by Search Engine Journal, websites with high-quality content and effective SEO have an average conversion rate of 14.6%.


Ultimately, by improving a website's organic search ranking through effective SEO, businesses can improve their credibility and authority, leading to increased traffic, engagement, and conversions.


SEO Helps Sales Efforts & Monetization

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!).


There are several strategies and tactics that businesses can use to monetize their website using SEO:

  • Affiliate marketing: This involves promoting products or services on behalf of another business and earning a commission on any resulting sales. By incorporating affiliate links into their SEO content, businesses can monetize their traffic and generate additional revenue streams.
  • Sponsored content: Businesses can monetize their SEO content by accepting payment to promote a product or service within their content. This can include product reviews, sponsored blog posts, and other forms of sponsored content.
  • Display advertising: By incorporating display ads into their SEO content, businesses can generate additional revenue streams. Display ads can be sold directly to advertisers or through ad networks like Google AdSense.
  • E-commerce: By incorporating e-commerce functionality into their website, businesses can generate revenue directly through product sales. Effective SEO strategies like keyword research and optimization can help improve the visibility and ranking of product pages, leading to more traffic and conversions.
  • Lead generation: By using effective SEO strategies to generate high-quality leads, businesses can monetize their traffic through the sale of leads or by offering their own products or services to these leads.

Ultimately, the key to monetizing a website using SEO is to provide high-quality, informative content that attracts and engages potential customers. 


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:



While SEO and PPC advertising have their own pros and cons, there are several advantages of PPC advertising over SEO:


  • Immediate results: PPC advertising offers immediate results, providing businesses with instant visibility and targeted traffic to their website. According to WordStream, paid search results are 1.5 times more likely to convert clicks into purchases than organic search results.
  • Control and flexibility: PPC advertising allows businesses to have complete control over their campaigns, including the ability to set budgets, target specific audiences, and adjust campaigns in real-time. This can lead to a more efficient and effective use of advertising budgets.
  • Highly targeted: PPC advertising can be highly targeted, allowing businesses to reach specific audiences based on demographics, location, and other factors. According to Google, businesses make an average of $2 in revenue for every $1 they spend on Google Ads.
  • Easy to measure: PPC advertising is easy to measure, providing businesses with valuable data on their campaigns and the ability to make data-driven decisions to improve their results.
  • No algorithm changes: Unlike SEO, which is subject to frequent algorithm changes by search engines like Google, PPC advertising offers a more stable and predictable advertising environment.
  • Brand awareness: By appearing at the top of search engine results pages (SERPs), businesses can improve their brand awareness and establish themselves as experts in their field. This can lead to increased visibility and credibility over the long term. 


Overall, while PPC advertising can be more expensive than SEO in the long run, its advantages in terms of immediate results, control, targeting, and measurement can make it a valuable addition to a well-rounded digital marketing strategy.


Supplement Your SEO Efforts

In addition to the above benefits, PPC is a great way to supplement and improve your SEO. With PPC you can see immediate results of content and keywords. If content is performing well with PPC, that’s a strong indication it may be worth optimizing for with SEO. According to a study by Conductor, 89% of search engine marketers use PPC data to optimize their SEO campaigns.


Rank Ahead Of Competition

Even if you don’t have strong SEO rankings, PPC essentially lets you buy top rankings by outbidding competitors. To optimize PPC campaigns and achieve top positions, businesses can use several strategies, including:

  • Conducting thorough keyword research to identify high-traffic, high-converting keywords that are relevant to their products or services.
  • Creating compelling ad copy that highlights the unique value proposition of their products or services, and using strong calls to action to encourage clicks.
  • Creating highly relevant landing pages that are designed to convert clicks into conversions, and are optimized for mobile devices.
  • Monitoring and adjusting bids and budgets in real-time based on performance data, and testing different ad formats and targeting options to optimize performance.


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 SEM and SEO (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 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, understanding the differences between SEM and SEO and choosing the best option for your business is important. In an ideal world with a sufficient budget, the best option is to utilize both. If you can only afford to do one, SEO is a solid long-term digital strategy for yielding tangible, 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.