SEO vs SEM girl publishing image

Over my many years in the content marketing space, I’ve received a lot of questions about SEO and SEM. “What’s the difference?” or “which one is worth my money?” seem to be the most common ones.

I’m always glad when clients ask me about this because, while both SEO and SEM are designed to boost your site’s traffic from search engines, the two are entirely differently strategies. They don’t offer the same results, and they certainly don’t require the same amount of investment (either time-wise or financially!)

Let me dive in a little deeper and explain what I mean.


SEM, which stands for search engine marketing, is a paid strategy. Also called search advertising or pay-per-click advertising, it allows you to place targeted content (ads, essentially) in search results, hopefully reaching potential leads and gaining new customers.

Here’s how it works: you choose the keywords and phrases you want your site to show up in search results for, and select a bid for them. (You will pay for every click your content gets, so it can add up quickly if you bid too high!) Then, you create a headline and small snippet of content that displays anytime a user enters those keywords or phrases into a search engine.

SEM certainly has the power to be very effective if—and it’s a big if—you select the best keywords, target the right demographics, and craft your ad content to be persuasive enough. We’ve all become pretty savvy with our searching. We’re at the point where, no matter how slyly Google integrates paid content into its search results, users can spot an ad a mile away—and that can impact how effective SEM campaigns are on the whole.

According to a recent study by Enquisite, paid search ads are 8.5 times LESS likely to garner a click than the organic results are. Those are pretty bad odds.

Here are a few other things to consider with SEM:

  • Costs – Costs on keywords can change daily based on competition. If you’re not careful to manage your campaigns daily, costs can get out of hand fast. Additionally, studies show that SEM costs, on average, 8 times more than SEO efforts. Yikes!
  • Complexity – The most effective campaigns require painstaking strategy. You must know what types of users to target (and where they come from); choose keywords that are within budget, yet can still deliver results despite competition, monthly search volume and other statistics; and be able to write powerful copy that drives users to click. It’s definitely not a one-man job.
  • Speed – When getting results right now is important, SEM can be a good option. But think of it like throwing money at your problems; sure, if you spend $10,000 on SEM ads this week, you’ll probably get a few new clients out of it. But is that growth sustainable in the long run? Probably not.
  • Longevity It’s worth remembering that your paid search efforts will not influence your organic rankings. So, if you stop advertising, your website will no longer show up on the first page results for your desired keywords.


SEO, or search engine optimisation, is a more hands-on, holistic strategy. The main goal is to align a website with current search engine algorithms so that it ranks organically—without the help of paid ads or other sponsored content.

Generally, an SEO campaign requires addressing a number of facets on any given website including its copy, imagery, meta tags, URL structure, usability and speed. While it sounds like a lot of work, it’s actually a much more effective strategy in the long run and will likely improve your customer’s user experience. That’s because when all these pieces are optimised—meaning they’re based on a solid content and keyword strategy, as well as aligned with current search algorithm requirements—search engines take notice all on their own.

When crawlers from Google and Bing index the site, they pick up on those keywords, the page loading speeds and all those other painstaking details, and they say “This site would be a great resource for users searching for XX.” Then, the search engines start displaying that site for your keywords.

A few things to think about SEO:

  • It’s not a DIY strategy – Too many people attempt to “do SEO” on their own. Unfortunately, this is usually ill-advised, no matter how web-savvy a site owner might be. You see, SEO has a lot of moving parts, and search engine algorithms change several times a year. Unless you’re up-to-date on all the latest best practices AND you have solid knowledge of analytics and back-end web structures, it’s probably best left up to a pro. (I liken it to plumbing problems. I wouldn’t try to fix my leaking toilet on my own. I wouldn’t suggest you attempt SEO on your own either!)


  • It takes time – Now I don’t just mean it takes a while for you to results (it can take a few weeks or months to start seeing an uptick in search results), but I also mean it’s a long-term commitment. Because algorithms change often, as does the competition for any given keyword, SEO requires regular maintenance and updating in order to ensure efficacy.


  • It’s more affordable – Up front and over time, SEO is significantly more affordable than SEM. Instead of paying out for every individual click your site gets, you instead invest in your website as a whole, beefing up its content with meaningful and valuable resources for your audience, improving its URL structure and speed, and aligning it more with search engine requirements. These improvements not only help with lead generation (bringing in more potential customers from search engines), but they also help convert those users who finally do make it to your site, and that means more sales and cash in your pocket.

Try Tandem

Both SEO and SEM have their merits. If your business has just kicked-off, or if you’re launching a new product or campaign, I usually recommend using both methods in tandem. But, if your website has been around for a little while, SEO is always the more effective option in the long-term. If you have the cash, consider investing in both and give your business a well-rounded search presence. If budgets are tight, focus your efforts on more organic search strategies instead, and get an SEO expert to help guide your way and ensure its efficacy.

Author Laura Prael

Laura has more than a decade of experience in the digital communications industry and has worked for big brands including Google Australia, Westpac, Sanitarium, Weet-Bix, Avon and Elle Macpherson Intimates. Laura holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of Newcastle, and a Master of Public Relations & Advertising from the University of New South Wales.

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