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SEO vs SEM: What is the difference?



SEO and SEM are two terms you should know if you want to learn about digital marketing. It’s all too easy to mistake one for the other, but there are differences.



Just looking at those definitions should already show what is the main difference between SEO and SEM.


But to be sure, let’s go into further detail before helping you figure out which one of these two you actually need.



What is SEO and when should you use it?


As stated earlier, SEO is the process of optimising a website and its content to rank higher in search engine results pages (SERPs) for relevant keywords and phrases.

There are different types of SEO, ranging from onpage SEO to local SEO. In all cases, it’s mainly used as a long-term strategy to improve the visibility of a website or brand in the organic (this means non-advertisement) SERPs.


Now, SEO typically takes time to get results. However, it’s often more cost-effective at driving traffic than advertising too.


This makes it a good choice for businesses that want to improve the relevance, ranking and credibility of their website without being over-reliant on paying for ads.



What is SEM and when should you use it?


We said earlier that SEM is a form of paid digital marketing. It allows you to target specific keywords, demographics and geographic locations.


When you do SEM, you pay for advertising space on SERPs. You do so to appear at the top of those SERPs, which obviously makes you highly visible.


SEM covers all paid search advertising, including PPC or pay-per-click ads, CPM or cost-per-thousand-impressions ads and display ads.

It can be used as a short-term strategy to quickly increase visibility and drive targeted traffic to a website. As such, SEM is a good choice for businesses that want to achieve certain marketing goals quickly.



Are SEO and SEM the same?


SEO and SEM are not the same, as you can see, although they are closely related. They’re also often used together as part of a comprehensive digital marketing strategy.


SEO is a form of organic marketing. It generates interest in and traffic to your business over time by offering value (say, through informative articles), building relationships (through social networks), and anything else that doesn’t involve ads.


SEM is the opposite because it’s all about ads. It’s similar to classic TV commercials, in that sense: you pay for an advertising spot in order to be shown to the consumer.


To put things another way:

  • With SEO, you increase your visibility by creating something that makes you more interesting and thus, more visible.

  • With SEM, you increase your visibility by paying another platform to put you in a place where you’d be more visible.



Should I use SEO or SEM for my business?


Most businesses should use both SEO and SEM. This is because both SEO and SEM digital marketing tools have the potential to be effective marketing strategies.


Both can increase visibility, drive targeted traffic to a website, and ultimately increase revenue. That said, they do work differently.


So, the answer to which one is best for your current situation or campaign depends on your goals and resources.

​Some Specific Goals of SEO

Some Specific Goals of SEM

Improving a website's ranking in search results for relevant keywords and phrases

​Appearing at the top of search engine results pages to increase brand visibility

Increasing the volume of organic search engine traffic to the website

​Targeting specific keywords and phrases to boost more targeted visitors to a website

Increasing the website's overall search engine visibility

Targeting certain demographics and geographic locations to increase conversion rates

Enhancing search engines accessibility and user experience on the website

Maximising the performance of advertising campaigns to drive return on investment (ROI)

It’s just a question of figuring out what you need more and what you can afford.


Want fast, short-term results vs. longer-lasting, long-term ones, for example? SEM gives you the former, while SEO gives you the latter.


Or want something that works even after you’ve stopped paying for an expert to do it vs. something that works only as long you keep paying for it? The former applies to SEO whereas the latter applies to SEM.


In sum, understanding how best to use SEO and SEM can help you make the most of your marketing efforts.



Get started on both SEO and SEM now


From the start of this article, we have avoided discussing SEO and SEM as exclusive strategies. That’s because both truly can shine the most when you use them together.


Leveraging both strategies together helps you compensate for the weaknesses of each one. This leads to a well-rounded approach to digital marketing that can give you amazing results.


If you’re not sure how to start on that, talk to us. We craft both SEO and SEM strategies for dozens of businesses in Singapore and may do the same for you.


Simply contact us for a chat for your digital marketing needs and we can talk about what might be best for your situation.

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