SEO vs. SEM: When to Optimize and When to Pay for Traffic

Search engine optimisation (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) are two of the most widely utilised digital marketing strategies in the Asia Pacific region today. In fact, in 2019, APAC was the largest region in the global SEO services market, accounting for 32 percent of the total. APAC also continues to be one of the major markets of pay-per-click advertising this 2021, which is a primary SEM technique. For beginners, the difference between these two strategies may seem confusing, especially since some people use SEO and SEM interchangeably. If you’re planning on breaking ground in the digital marketing landscape soon, it’s important that you understand the differences between these two so you can leverage them strategically for your brand. In this article, PurpleClick discusses how SEO and SEM work, what they’re for, and how utilising both strategies helps grow your business in the long run.

SEO vs. SEM: The Big Difference

Both SEO and SEM help brands rank higher on search engine results pages (SERPs) by targeting specific keywords that audiences use. These two strategies aim to boost your brand awareness and visibility, driving more traffic to your website to convert into leads and, eventually, paying customers. The two main differences between SEO and SEM is your initial investment and the time it will take before you see results. SEO is what we call an organic search strategy, which requires a minimal commitment of financial resources when compared to its counterpart. It optimises your website according to what search engines deem as rank-worthy to increase your ranking on the SERPs. SEM, on the other hand, requires an initial investment to get you to the top of the SERPs.  Although PPC ads cost money, you only pay for every click you get, not the amount of time you occupy the ad space. This makes SEM a cost-efficient strategy because you’re investing money only in users who are already somewhat interested in what you’re offering. paid vs organic search results infographic The results beneath these paid search placements are the organic ones achieved through SEO. Just like SEM, the goal of SEO is to help raise your search visibility but without you having to pay. It leverages Google’s ranking factors to push your web pages higher on the SERPs. Another difference between SEM and SEO is the time they take to produce visible results. SEO takes longer to show concrete results since Google would have to systematically crawl and index your web pages first before it ranks them. Your organic page ranking will slowly rise over time as it gains more traffic and backlinks. SEM, on the other hand, delivers results faster because its ads are highly targeted. This means you’re showing your ads and paid search placements to people who have higher chances of clicking on them.

Search Engine Optimisation

SEO Search engines look at various things on your website to determine your ranking. These include content quality, keywords, website authority and backlinking, among others. Recently, Google added core web vitals to its major ranking factors, meaning your browsing experience also affects your search ranking. SEO’s strategy, therefore, is to make a brand’s website appealing to search engines’ algorithms and ranking factors. This, in turn, will organically boost your online visibility.


Improved brand authority

Effective SEO helps build your brand authority by publishing high-quality, well-researched content that’s relevant to your target audiences. The better your content is, the more your readers will trust in your capabilities as a service provider. They’ll continue patronising not only your products and services, but also your blogs and other content pieces, which brings you more engagement and sales.

Stronger online presence

SEO brings in a larger traffic share than SEM since it doesn’t focus on specific audience segments. Your optimised content will reach those who don’t necessarily fit into your buyer personas but are nonetheless interested in what you have to offer. This kind of loose targeting technique is great for building brand awareness. People will remember your brand name, which you can benefit from in the future if they ever have a need that you can provide.

Long-term returns

One of the biggest advantages of SEO over SEM is its long-lasting results. SEO works on your entire website, including the content, user experience and other technical factors. As long as you take care of these website elements, you’ll be able to maintain or further improve your search ranking.


Requires a lot of work

SEO requires a lot of work, time and adjustments for you to reach the first results page. It’ll take even longer if you’re competing against big, already-established brands.

Limited monitoring capabilities

With SEO, you’ll need to keep track of multiple search terms that direct people to your website—a task which becomes more complex the more search terms you monitor. When not tracked properly, you could miss out on profitable keywords or search phrases for your business. Luckily, there are platforms like Google Search Console that track your website visitors and segregate them according to the keywords and devices they used to find you online.

Search Engine Marketing



Precise targeting features

The best thing about SEM techniques is their advanced targeting capabilities. Your paid search listings will only appear when the user matches your ideal buyer persona, so they’re more likely to click on your web page. In short, you’ll be reaching people who have the highest chances of converting.

A/B Testing

Advertising on search engines lets you test your ad copy until you find the one that attracts the most clicks. This is ideal for businesses who are new to digital marketing and are still trying to find their brand voice. A/B testing is a good way to tweak your SEM strategy and make sure you’re making the most out of your ad spend.

Budget control

Even small businesses can utilise paid SEM strategies because they deliver results no matter the size of your budget. PPC options also give you tight control over your budget by limiting your daily ad spend to make sure you don’t overspend.


Quickly decaying results

The downside of SEM is that your ads will stop showing the minute your budget runs out. You won’t retain the ranking for that paid search listing, which means losing a good source of web traffic. For many companies, this fact makes PPC too expensive to be a long-term strategy.

High competition

Although PPC does give you tight control over your spending, that doesn’t mean it’s automatically inexpensive. If you want to secure the top spot on the SERP, you need to outbid other brands who are vying for the same keyword. These bidding wars raise the cost-per-click of your ads, making your paid SEM strategy more expensive to run every time the bid increases.

How SEO and SEM Work Together

Seeing as both SEO and SEM have pros and cons, the best thing you can do is to utilise both techniques and bank on their strengths. SEO is always a good investment since it brings you long-term results, even though it takes some time before you can reap the benefits. It’s a digital marketing technique you can’t skip, especially if you’re a new business trying to raise brand awareness. SEO also serves as the foundation of many paid strategies. Once you have a user-friendly website and paid ads that target the right keywords, you’re bound to get more conversions from your SEM strategy. The users who’ll click on your paid search listings will be directed to your site, and from there, it’ll be smooth-sailing from the landing page to the contact or checkout page. SEM is also a wise investment for brands that have only started going digital. This technique gives them the boost they need to get in front of their audience’s screens and generate noise around your brand. Ultimately, you want to leverage all the tools and techniques available to catapult the growth of your brand, and SEM and SEO present multiple opportunities to do just that. Take what you know about these two strategies and use that to keep your brand abreast of digital marketing trends and achieve your unique business goals.
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