SEO vs SEM: What's the difference?

SEO vs SEM: What's the difference?

Tom Parker
By Tom Parker

Getting your site to the top spots on Google’s search results is one of the most effective ways to drive up website traffic, engagement and conversions – but what’s the best way to get there?

There are two key places for your business to feature on Google: 

  1. the organic search results that are listed down the page and 
  2. the paid advertising placements which are marked as an ‘ad’ and sit above the organic results. 

Ranking at the top of the organic search results involves expert crafting of your website content and metadata known as SEO or Search Engine Optimisation, while SEM or Search Engine Marketing is a paid ad placement which can be targeted to your audience around specific keyword groups. 

In this post we’ll explain the difference between SEO vs SEM, when each method is best and how your business should be using them together for short and long-term success.

What’s the difference between SEO vs SEM? 

In simple terms, the difference between SEO and SEM is:

  • SEO helps you gain visibility in organic search results
  • SEM helps you gain visibility in paid search results

So while both SEO and SEM are digital marketing tactics you can use to increase your visibility on search engines, SEO represents your organic efforts and SEM represents your paid efforts. Below we take a deeper dive into the definitions.

What is SEO?

What is SEO

SEO or Search Engine Optimisation is the process of improving your business’ visibility in the organic results of a search engine like Google.

With billions of websites out there, how do search engines like Google know which sites to offer up as solutions for what someone is searching for? It may sound a little sci-fi, but Google literally sends out digital spiders to crawl the web and look for websites that are authoritative, trusted and relevant. If the spiders like what they find, they’ll present your website closer to the top of the search listing for that particular search term. 

To impress the Google spiders with your website, SEO marketers look at a number of core strategies. These include: 

  • On-page SEO – optimising elements on your web page such as title tags, image alt tags and meta descriptions.
  • Technical SEO –  improving the technical structure of your website, such as loading times, mobile-friendliness, security and crawlability. 
  • Content – creating and publishing high quality, value-adding content that’s optimised for the right keywords.
  • Off-page SEO – building the authority and trustworthiness of your website through tactics like link building.

SEO is a highly effective marketing strategy that offers big returns, but it does take time to see results. That’s because building expertise, authority and trustworthiness is a long term process. Just like when you plant a fruit tree, you have to wait and work hard before you can harvest the fruit – SEO brings the biggest rewards with consistency over time. 

Also read: Top tips to improve SEO for visibility.


What is SEM?

What is SEM

SEM stands for Search Engine Marketing. There are some sources that claim SEM covers all marketing efforts you make on a search engine – including paid advertising and organic SEO strategies. However, as the digital marketing industry has evolved over the years, the concept of SEM has also evolved. 

Nowadays SEM typically refers to paid marketing strategies you use to boost your visibility on search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo.

Also referred to as paid search or PPC (Pay Per Click), SEM is the fastest way to target audiences that are already looking for you via highly relevant ads created around particular keywords. With the ability to turn SEM on and off, it can help you boost conversions quickly while you wait for your SEO to kick in. 

Similar to SEO, SEM is an expert trade in analysing and crafting keyword groups, monitoring results and optimising for improvements. But while SEO is a slow burner, SEM is better at getting short-term results. One of the great benefits of SEM is its ability to test particular keywords and messaging and get helpful feedback fast. You can use these insights to improve both your paid and organic marketing efforts.

Is SEM the same as PPC?

Is SEM the same as PPC

At Dilate, we use SEM to describe paid advertising strategies that improve your visibility on search engines – this includes Pay Per Click or PPC advertising. In other words, PPC is the same as SEM or at least a very big part of SEM. Other names you might come across which are synonymous with PPC and SEM include: paid search, search ads and cost-per-click (CPC) advertising.

PPC advertising is a form of online advertising where you only pay for ads when someone clicks on them. Google Ads is the most well-known PPC advertising platform, although you’ll also see PPC on Facebook, Bing and other platforms too.

Is Google Ads SEO or SEM?


Google Ads (formerly known as Google Adwords) is a PPC advertising platform, so it falls under the category of SEM. When you use Google Ads, you bid on particular keywords for a chance to show up in the Google search results – and you pay Google when someone clicks on your ad to go to your website or call your business. 

You can’t pay for your website to show up in Google’s organic search results. The only way to improve your rankings in the organic search results is through SEO.

Get your head around what Google Ads can achieve for your business: Google Ads explained by the professionals.

Is SEO better than paid ads?

SEO is all about the long-term strategy, while SEM helps with short-term tactics. So the best strategy really depends on your goals and needs. 

It’s easy to think of SEO and SEM as mutually exclusive tactics – that you have to pick one or the other. But the truth is, the best results usually come from using both SEO and paid advertising. Ultimately, investing in both SEO and SEM will set your business up for success now and long into the future.

Which is better: SEO or SEM?

Think of it like you’re creating a garden. The first thing you should plant is the trees as they take the longest to grow. With their sturdy roots, the trees form the foundation for a strong garden in the future. They’ll take a while to blossom with gorgeous leaves and nourishing fruit, but when they do, they’ll be the key attraction for visitors to enjoy, share and come back for more. These trees represent your SEO strategy. 

But until the trees are fully grown, you can still bring people to your garden with eye-catching flowers. The great thing about flowers is that you can buy them from the store and pop them right into the garden with instant results! You can also test what colours are most attractive and change them up each season. The flowers are your SEM tactics for short-term success and quick wins.

How do SEO and SEM work together?

While they both have their benefits, the most effective strategy for improving search visibility involves SEO and SEM working together – like a healthy ecosystem.

Here are three ways SEO and SEM support each other:

  1. Things you learn when running SEM campaigns can provide valuable data points you can use in your SEO strategy. For example, SEM can help you discover keyword groups, effective audiences and messaging styles that best drive engagement or conversion.
  2. SEM will drive quality traffic to your site which will also help improve your SEO ranking.
  3. SEM tactics require you to create valuable landing pages and effective sales funnels, providing content and user journeys that SEO can also utilise.

When should you use SEO vs SEM

Deciding which tactics you should use for your business depends on a number of factors, including how old your website is, the products and services you sell and how competitive your industry is. A digital marketing agency that is well versed with both SEO and PPC advertising can help you craft a holistic marketing strategy, whether you’re a well established business, launching a new website or trying to grow your audience. 

Here’s a rough idea of how our SEM and SEO services can help:

  • For established websites, we can help you analyse which pages currently rank well in search and identify opportunities to improve with SEO as well as boost visits to unranked pages through SEM.
  • For brand new websites, starting to drive visitors with SEM is a great way to introduce your products and services to those who may be looking for them but don’t know your brand exists. That is until now with your shiny new SEM campaigns. Establishing a long term SEO strategy will ensure you continue to grow and build your brand authority over time.

Speak to us about your digital marketing strategies

Speak To Us About Your Digital Marketing Strategies

If you’re creating content and you want to drive leads or sales from it, you need to be optimising for search with SEO for long-term success and SEM for quick wins and learnings. Whether you have an existing website that needs some love, are launching a brand new site, or need ideas on how to take your business growth to the next level – the team at Dilate are ready to help.

Keen to get started? Dilate is a SEO Perth company, specialising in SEO and SEM. We’ve got a team of experts who are passionate about helping businesses grow sustainably and an excellent track record of results. Give us a call today on .

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