SEO vs. SEM: What’s The Difference & Why You Need Both

Illustration of SEO vs. SEM digital marketing and why you need both.

Nearly every day, marketing directors, advertising planners, and agency partners are asked about the pros and cons of search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM). 

Commonly, business owners and sales leaders are uncertain how to define SEO and SEM. They are different, yet impactful digital marketing strategies.  Simply put, they are not the same. 

However, both SEO and SEM matter and are a must-have in a solid digital marketing plan.

Here is what you need to know:

Organic Reach (SEO) vs Paid Reach (SEM)

The largest differentiator between these two strategies is that SEO influences organic traffic (unpaid) to your website and SEM delivers paid traffic.

Search Engine Optimization

With SEO, your website gains organic traffic by optimizing its position in search engine results pages (SERP). This includes a few key areas of focus:

  • The technical health of your website
  • The content that is driving visitors by meeting their needs
  • The continuity of your digital presence.

This can look like optimizing and maintaining things like: 

  • The search intent and keywords often used by your audience (and competitors)
  • Integrating those keywords into your website content and folder structure
  • The quality of content on each one of your pages.

These are all factors that can help you provide a better user experience (UX) on your site, making your content easier to find and understand. Which can help you rank higher within search engines organically.

Search Engine Marketing

SEM on the other hand, focuses on paid channels. Rather than organically ranking on the first page of a search engine, SEM simply pays for that ad space at the top of the search results (above the organic results). This allows you to reach your audience faster and be more top of mind.

Like other paid channels, your individual ad ranking is based on your media spend, the quality of your ad, and the audience-to-search ratio.

However, one is not “easier” or more important than the other. SEO and SEM work together to gain as much SERP real estate as possible. While each discipline requires its own strategy, there is one thing that they both have in common, and that is keyword research and strategy.

Keyword Strategy

The biggest similarity between SEO and SEM is that they both require keyword strategy. In both SEO and SEM, you need to know:

  • What your target audience is looking for
  • How (and where) they are searching for it

It is imperative to make sure that what you are advertising is what you are delivering (both organically and paid). Any funny business here results in a negative ranking by the search engine’s algorithm or your ad simply not appearing. For example, Google’s algorithm uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, which makes it smart enough to understand search intent for user needs. So, trying “funny business” or what is known as “black hat SEO” like over-stuffing keywords into every corner of your webpages will hurt you. Keep it natural.

With SEO and SEM, it is incredibly important to define your organization, your value, and the products or services that you are delivering to your audience. It is equally important to truly define what exactly your audience is looking for, and how you can help, making sure you are clearly communicating those needs every step of the way. In both SEO and SEM, understanding who your audience is and what they need is critical.

Bottom Line

Both strategies are incredibly important, and one is not better than the other. SEO and SEM work together to gain as much SERP real estate as possible. Which is important, especially in 2021 when digital brand presence is more important than ever.

Where SEO and SEM differ most is in their delivery and upkeep. This is exactly why most modern websites are built with SEO techniques in mind. This allows for minor consistent updates. SEM on the other hand helps reach your audience faster. It is imperative that you do not silo these two services. Where SEM is the color paint that makes your house stand out amongst the rest, SEO is the foundation that keeps your house standing. The data obtained from both can help define and enhance the other.

To learn how an SEO or SEM strategy can help your business grow, give Lightburn a call to speak to a digital marketing expert at (414) 347-1866 or via email at

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