SEO vs. SEM: Comparing Techniques, Costs, and Outcomes

SEO vs. SEM: What’s the Difference?

SEO focuses on optimizing organic search results through tactics like keyword research and content optimization, while SEM includes both organic and paid strategies like PPC advertising to improve online visibility.

When you search on Google, you generally encounter two types of results:

  1. Organic Search Results: These are unpaid listings that show up on a search engine results page (SERP) because the search engine’s algorithm has found them to be relevant and useful for the user’s query.
  2. Paid Search Results: These are advertisements that appear on the SERP and are marked with tags like “Sponsored” or “Ad” to differentiate them from organic results. Businesses pay a fee each time one of these ads is clicked, which is why they are also known as pay-per-click (PPC) ads.

Below is an example of a SERP featuring both organic and paid results:

SEO is dedicated to enhancing organic search results. On the other hand, SEM encompasses both paid and organic search results. Thus, SEO is considered a subset of SEM.

Let’s delve deeper into the differences between SEO and SEM:

What Is SEO?

SEO is the practice of enhancing your website to improve its organic visibility on SERPs. This usually involves creating and optimizing pages that cater to users’ search intent, which is the underlying reason behind a search query.

Pages with the most helpful and relevant content are more likely to appear in the top organic search results, making them the first results users encounter.

However, having helpful content alone isn’t enough. It must also be easily understood by the bots (also known as spiders and crawlers) that search engines use to crawl websites.

Here’s a general overview of how the process works for Google:

1. You publish or update a page on your website.
2. Google crawls your site and discovers the new or updated page.
3. Google indexes your page.
4. Google ranks it as a search result for specific queries, allowing users to find it.

Search engines use complex algorithms to determine a page’s ranking in search results, evaluating various factors in the process.

SEO strategies are designed to align a website with these ranking factors, increasing the likelihood of achieving higher positions on SERPs.

Some of Google’s key ranking factors include:

Relevance: Does the content match the user’s search intent and provide a comprehensive answer?
Quality: Is the content credible and authoritative? This can be assessed through backlinks from reputable sites and the depth of the content.
User Experience: How user-friendly is the website? Factors like site speed, mobile compatibility, and intuitive navigation are crucial.

SEO tactics can be categorized into three main areas: on-page SEO, off-page SEO, and technical SEO. Here’s a brief overview of each category:

On-Page SEO

On-page SEO focuses on optimizing webpage content for search engines, but its primary goal is to enhance the user experience. It’s about making your pages more valuable and informative for users, not just search engines.

Semrush’s On Page SEO Checker is a helpful tool for improving your on-page SEO. Simply open the tool, enter your domain, and click “Get ideas” to receive actionable suggestions.

Follow the steps to complete the configuration. If you need assistance, refer to our in-depth setup guide.

The tool will audit your pages and generate a report. Look for the “TOP pages to optimization” widget, then click “# ideas” next to any page to see specific suggestions.

You’ll be directed to the “Optimization Ideas” tab for the chosen page.

Follow the recommendations to enhance your site’s on-page SEO.

Now, let’s review some common on-page SEO techniques to ensure your webpage content is optimized from the start:

1. Create High-Quality, Authoritative Content

Google places priority on content that is both helpful and trustworthy. One effective approach to maintaining a high standard of content quality is to adhere to Google’s Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trust (E-A-T) guidelines. These guidelines are utilized by quality raters when assessing search results.

Indeed, quality extends beyond credibility; uniqueness is also crucial.

Search engines prioritize original content, often ranking it higher in search results.

2. Optimize for Relevant Keywords

Keywords are the terms or phrases users input into search engines to find information.

Effective on-page SEO involves two key steps:

Identifying the most relevant keywords for your content.

Incorporating these keywords naturally into your content.

You can utilize Semrush’s Keyword Magic Tool to discover suitable keywords.

Simply open the tool, input a seed keyword (a broad keyword related to your product or business), and click “Search.”

Within the Keyword Magic Tool, you’ll encounter a plethora of keyword ideas accompanied by vital data points including search volume, keyword difficulty (which assesses the challenge of ranking in the top 10 for a specific keyword), and search intent.

Choose the keywords that are most relevant to your business, then click the “+ Add to list” button. Finally, name your list.

After selecting your desired keywords, click the checkmark to add them all to the Keyword Manager. This tool will automatically group your keywords, allowing for centralized management and analysis.

Once you’ve identified the keywords you want to target, you’ll need to integrate them into your content. This involves including them in headings, subheadings, body copy, and other relevant sections.

3. Write Descriptive Meta Tags

Meta tags are HTML elements crucial for helping search engines comprehend the content of a webpage, potentially impacting its appearance in search results.

An essential meta tag is the title tag (also known as the meta title), which serves as the title of your page in SERPs. Search engines take into account title tags for rankings and they can significantly affect users’ decisions to click through to your site.

Here’s an example of a title tag:

Another significant meta tag is the meta description, which provides a brief summary of the page’s content. It typically looks like this:

Although the meta description doesn’t directly impact your rankings, a captivating meta description can persuade users to click on your search result rather than a competitor’s.

4. Build a Network of Internal Links

Internal links establish connections between different pages within your website, fostering a cohesive structure.

Strategic linking of related content facilitates user navigation and encourages deeper engagement with your site.

Additionally, these internal links assist search engine bots in discovering, crawling, and potentially indexing your site’s pages.

4. Maintain Clear URLs

A URL should be descriptive and intuitive, providing users and search engines with insight into the content of the page.

For example, a URL such as “www.example.com/shop/black-umbrellas” clearly indicates the page’s topic compared to one with ambiguous characters.

Off-Page SEO

Off-page SEO encompasses all the actions conducted outside of your website to enhance its visibility and rankings on search engines.

Here are some common off-page SEO techniques:

1. Build Quality Backlinks

Backlinks, also known as inbound links, are hyperlinks from other websites that direct traffic to your site. Each backlink can be seen as a vote of confidence in your site’s credibility and relevance.

When reputable and relevant websites link to yours, search engines perceive your site more favorably. Consequently, websites with a robust backlink profile are typically viewed as more trustworthy and authoritative, often resulting in higher rankings on search engine results pages (SERPs).

Indeed, the quality of the domain from which backlinks originate is crucial, not just the quantity.

A couple of links from high-authority sites can hold more value than numerous links from lower-quality or less reputable sites.

To explore link-building opportunities tailored to your target keywords and competitors, you can utilize Semrush’s Link Building Tool.

Simply open the tool, input your domain, and click “Start Link Building” to begin your link-building journey.

In the next steps, you’ll be prompted to enter your top competitors and target keywords. You can refer to our in-depth setup guide to configure the Link Building Tool.

After completing the setup, you’ll see this screen:


Navigate to the “Prospects” tab. Review all the URLs listed and click “To In Progress” next to each site you wish to obtain backlinks from.

Next, go to the “In Progress” tab. Here, you can create and manage all your link-building email outreach activities.

You may need to experiment with different outreach tactics to find the most effective approach. With patience and persistence, you can gradually start acquiring more backlinks to your website.

2. Invest in Local SEO

Local SEO aims to optimize a business’s online presence to attract customers from local searches.

Here’s an example of how local listings appear on Google:

Google Business Profile is a crucial component of local SEO on Google. Since enhancing it involves actions outside your website, it is considered off-page SEO.

Optimizing your Google Business Profile can boost your visibility in local searches and showcase your reviews, which serve as endorsements from the community.

3. Write Guest Blog Posts

Publishing a guest blog post on a third-party website won’t directly impact your site’s rankings.

However, this tactic can still benefit your SEO efforts, especially if the website is reputable within your industry.

Guest blogging establishes you as an expert in your field and often provides opportunities to link back to your site.

Always prioritize quality and relevance when selecting platforms for guest blogging.

For instance, here’s an example of a guest post written by Sem.co Marcus Tober for Adweek: [Example Post Link].

4. Gain Brand Mentions

Brand mentions occur when other websites talk about or reference your brand, even without directly linking to your site.

Search engines monitor these digital conversations. When an authoritative or popular website mentions your brand, it signals to search engines that your brand is reputable and authoritative.

Consistent and positive brand mentions over time can enhance your online presence, potentially leading to higher search engine rankings for your content.

You can monitor your brand mentions using the Media Monitoring app. Simply enter your brand name and create a project.

You’ll receive a report listing your most recent mentions. Additionally, you can view the percentage of those mentions categorized as positive, negative, or neutral.

Technical SEO

Technical SEO optimizes your site for search engines and enhances user experience, akin to under-the-hood work.

To check your site for technical SEO issues, use the Site Audit tool.

First, create a project for your domain. Refer to our in-depth setup guide if you need help with the configuration.

Once the website is crawled, you’ll see this “Overview” report:

Navigate to the “Issues” tab. 

Review all the technical issues identified on your website. Address them methodically, one by one.

You can click on “Why and how to fix” to gain deeper insights into each issue and learn how to resolve them effectively.

Now, let’s discuss how you can proactively prevent these types of issues from arising in the first place.

1. Ensure Your Site Is Mobile-Friendly

Given that most searches now occur on mobile devices, having a mobile-friendly website is imperative rather than optional.

It’s essential to ensure that your site appears and functions seamlessly on smartphones and tablets. Here’s an example of how it should look:

To ensure your site appears optimally across all device types, it’s advisable to utilize responsive design.

2. Craft a Clear XML Sitemap

Think of an extensible markup language (XML) sitemap as a roadmap for search engines. It outlines all the crucial pages on your website and aids search engines in discovering new or updated content.

Here’s an example of an XML sitemap:

You can easily create, check, and submit an XML sitemap for your site. Which helps search engines more easily crawl your site’s pages. To help with indexing.

3. Use HTTPS

Hypertext transfer protocol secure (HTTPS) is the secure version of HTTP and ensures that the data shared between your website and visitors is encrypted. 

By migrating your site from HTTP to HTTPS, you can protect your users’ data and signal to search engines that your site is trustworthy.

Search engines prioritize secure sites, so migrating to HTTPS can positively impact your site’s rankings and credibility.

4. Optimize Your Core Web Vitals

The Core Web Vitals (CWV) comprise a set of metrics designed to evaluate user experience on your site. These metrics focus on loading performance, interactivity, and visual stability, and they can impact your site’s rankings as they center on page experience.

Specifically, these metrics are:

  1. Largest Contentful Paint (LCP): This metric gauges how long it takes for your page’s main content to load. Google recommends a target of 2.5 seconds or less.
  2. First Input Delay (FID): This metric measures the time it takes before a user can interact with your page. Ideally, this should be 100 milliseconds or fewer. Note that this will be replaced with a metric called Interaction to Next Paint (INP) in March 2024.
  3. Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS): This metric assesses how frequently users encounter shifts in your page’s layout. The goal is to achieve a score of 0.1 or less.

5. Manage Redirects and Address Errors

Setting up proper redirects is crucial for ensuring smooth navigation across your site and minimizing dead ends.

Redirects automatically direct users from one URL to another. They are particularly useful for pages that have been deleted or moved to a new URL.

A well-thought-out redirect plan helps prevent 404 errors, which occur when a page cannot be found.

For permanent moves, it’s advisable to use a 301 redirect, while a 302 redirect is suitable for temporary moves.

What Is SEM?

Search engine marketing (SEM) is indeed a comprehensive term that encompasses various aspects we’ve covered in SEO discussions. Additionally, it includes PPC (pay-per-click) search ads that frequently appear on search engine results pages (SERPs).Search engine marketing (SEM) is indeed a comprehensive term that encompasses various aspects we’ve covered in SEO discussions. Additionally, it includes PPC (pay-per-click) search ads that frequently appear on search engine results pages (SERPs).

Search PPC ads come in two distinct formats.

The first format is text-based. These ads often resemble organic search results but are labeled as “Sponsored” or “Ad.”

The other type is shopping ads, which showcase product images, prices, and additional details.

Understanding these components is crucial for creating effective paid search campaigns that drive relevant traffic and achieve desired outcomes for advertisers.

PPC Keyword Research

Keyword research in PPC entails identifying relevant keywords that align with your business and campaign objectives. By targeting the right keywords and criteria, you can ensure your ads reach the appropriate audience.

Semrush’s Keyword Magic Tool is a valuable resource for finding optimal keywords for your campaign. Follow the same process outlined earlier, but concentrate on keywords that align with your goals.

For example, if you operate a running shoe store in New York City, you might target keywords such as “buy running shoes” or “sports footwear sale” to ensure your ads appear when users in New York City search for these terms.

PPC Bidding

In PPC advertising, you have control over how much you’re willing to pay for a click on your ad, which is known as a bid.

Here’s an example illustrating the total bid range for target keywords in Google Ads:

Bid management is the process of strategically setting the amount you’re willing to pay for a click on your ad to maximize your return on investment (ROI). It involves finding a balance between wanting your ad to appear prominently in the search results and ensuring you don’t overspend.

For example, if you sell handmade shoes and set a bid of $1, you’re indicating to the search engine that you’re willing to pay up to $1 for each click on your ad. This bid amount can be adjusted based on factors such as keyword competition, campaign objectives, and budget constraints. Striking the right balance with bid management is essential for optimizing the performance and efficiency of your PPC campaigns.

PPC Audience Targeting

For PPC search ads, audience targeting allows you to specify criteria for who you want your ads to reach.

For instance, if you operate a local bakery in New York, you might target individuals within a 10-mile radius who have demonstrated an interest in baked goods.

This approach ensures you’re not squandering funds on ads shown to individuals in California or those solely interested in fitness products.

Here’s an example of some interest-based targeting options available in Google Ads:

PPC Ad Creation

Certainly, crafting compelling PPC search ads requires attention to detail and a focus on quickly conveying your message. This involves creating a catchy headline, a relevant description, and a clear call to action (CTA).

Here’s an example of an attention-grabbing search ad for the keyword “salesforce alternative”:

When crafting search ad copy, it’s beneficial to analyze your competitors’ ads and draw inspiration from their strategies.

Semrush’s Advertising Research tool facilitates this process. Simply input a competitor’s domain and navigate to the “Ads Copies” tab to explore their ads. This allows you to gain insights into their messaging, offers, and tactics, helping you refine your own ad copy for maximum effectiveness.

Analyze the emotional hooks they’re using and the keywords they’re targeting. 

If you find certain messaging from your competitors particularly effective during your analysis, it’s worth considering testing a similar approach in your own ads.

PPC Ad Assets

Previously known as ad extensions, assets are additional elements that can be added to your Google PPC search ads to provide users with more information and enhance ad visibility and engagement.

They come in various forms, such as a clickable call option:


Or a business address:

If you operate a spa, incorporating location assets in your Google PPC search ads would display your exact address to searchers, making it easier for them to locate your business. Additionally, including call assets would provide a direct line for users to book appointments, enhancing convenience and driving more conversions.

What’s the Cost of SEO vs. SEM?

The relative costs of SEO and SEM can indeed vary significantly.

While SEO may not involve direct payments for ad placements like SEM, it’s not entirely free. Implementing SEO effectively requires investments in website optimization, content creation, backlink outreach, and SEO tools.

The total cost of SEO can vary widely depending on factors such as the scale of your website, the competitiveness of your industry, and the specific goals of your SEO campaign.

For instance, a local business may spend less on SEO than a multinational corporation due to differences in target audience size, competition levels, and marketing objectives.

According to data from Backlinko in 2019, the average monthly cost of SEO services was around $500. However, it’s essential to recognize that individual budgets can vary significantly based on specific goals, industry competitiveness, and the scope of SEO activities undertaken.

SEM encompasses all SEO expenses in addition to the budget allocated for creating and managing PPC campaigns.

According to a study, typical PPC costs can range from $100 to $10,000 per month, depending on factors such as industry competitiveness, keyword competition, and campaign objectives.

Given this cost disparity, businesses with limited budgets might initially opt for organic tactics over paid campaigns. However, it’s essential to recognize that paid campaigns often yield faster results, which can be vital for companies seeking to drive immediate business growth.

How Long Does It Take to See SEM Results? 

Exactly right! SEO is a gradual process where it can take months to see improvements in organic rankings and traffic after implementing changes or adding new content to your website. On the other hand, PPC provides immediate visibility once campaigns are set up and approved. However, refining PPC ads for optimal performance may require some time and testing.

In summary, SEO offers a slow but potentially rewarding buildup, while PPC delivers immediate results that can be refined and optimized over time. An effective SEM strategy often combines both approaches to address short- and long-term goals and cater to different types of search intent.

Which SEM Practice Is Right for You?

Absolutely! Both SEO and PPC have their advantages and are suited for different scenarios, depending on your goals, budget, and timeline.

Here’s when to consider prioritizing SEO:

  • When you have a limited budget
  • When you’re planning for the long term
  • When you’re targeting informational intent keywords
  • When you want to build your reputation and credibility

And here’s when to consider prioritizing PPC:

  • When you want immediate results
  • When you’re targeting transactional keywords
  • When you want precise budget and targeting control
  • When you want measurable and quick results

Ideally, a comprehensive SEM strategy should incorporate both SEO and PPC to address immediate goals while laying the groundwork for future success. This balanced approach allows you to leverage the strengths of each channel effectively.

Build an Integrated SEM Strategy

To enhance your business’s online presence, a strong SEM strategy incorporating both paid and organic methods is essential.

Begin by evaluating your objectives, requirements, and financial resources. From there, craft a cohesive search engine marketing blueprint that leverages both SEO and PPC strategies to drive success.

Keep in mind, thorough keyword research is pivotal for both SEO and PPC endeavors. Utilize tools like Semrush’s Keyword Magic Tool to unearth high-value keywords suited for both your organic and paid initiatives.