SEO & SEM - The Key Differences

Whether you are online for research or pleasure, web searching is one of the Internet's most powerful tools. From students to professionals, everyone uses Google daily to find answers, be entertained and learn new things. And, thanks to Google's incredible market share, it's the most effective way to gain exposure. As a business owner, you have two key options to drive this traffic to your site: SEO or SEM. To make this choice simpler, this blog explores the features of SEO (i.e. ensuring your content is optimised to receive more organic traffic) and SEM (e.g. pay per click or sponsored ads).

Web traffic searches - SEO vs SEM

What is SEO?

Utilised by many businesses, Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is a way to improve your site to make it more attractive for search engines. This results in increased organic traffic (i.e. visitors who arrived via natural means as opposed to paid advertising) from search engine results. SEO is designed to attract your target market to your website. However, optimisation to generate organic traffic is only part of the solution. The primary aim is to get a higher quantity of natural targeted traffic, through the use of targeted, relevant keywords.

Why Does SEO Matter?

SEO is a vital component of digital marketing. Although paid advertising, a social media presence and other platforms generate web traffic, most traffic that generates revenue is driven by search engines. And, when done properly, SEO continues to pay dividends over time.

3 Types of SEO

There are three main SEO types: Technical SEO, On-Site SEO and Off-Site SEO. All of which will be explained below.

1. Technical SEO

This is the process of optimising websites, to assist search engines with “crawling” and “indexing”.

The key components of Technical SEO include:

  • Canonical URLs
  • Mobile-friendliness
  • Website structure
  • Website security
  • Page speed, and;
  • XML sitemaps

2. On-Site SEO

On-site SEO comprises a set of rules which can be applied to individual pages or specific content. Doing so, they can be optimised to particular keywords.

For an on-site SEO page, the following elements are optimised:

  • Meta description
  • URLs
  • Images (done through ALT text)
  • Page titles
  • Content, and;
  • H1 tags

3. Off-Site SEO

Off-Site SEO refers to obtaining references from other websites (i.e. backlinks). At a basic level, the more backlinks your website has, the more trustworthy and credible it will appear to search engine providers. However it should be noted these must be quality sites you gain these links from. Sites of poor quality can damage your rankings.

If you’re a beginner, this may be quite confusing. A helpful way to think of it is as a ranking system. Under this system, the website with the most references ranks the highest. References, of course, are links which are gathered from other websites. This is why off-site SEO is often referred to as “link building”.

To clarify, there’s more to off-site SEO than the number of links you have pointed to your website. There are several other important factors, such as: where the links are obtained, how reliable the references are, and more.

What is SEM?

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) goes beyond what SEO can achieve. This digital marketing method helps to increase the visibility of your website. This is achieved by getting paid traffic through pay-per-click (PPC) advertising.

That’s why, in today’s extremely competitive landscape, SEM is one of the most effective ways to expand your customer base. To reap the greatest benefit, we recommend creating a strong SEM strategy.

Why Does SEM Traffic Matter?

SEM traffic – generating from either PPC is regarded as one of the most important online traffic sources for acquiring new revenue faster. The obvious reason is, this traffic is directly targeted.

People rely on search engines every day, to solve problems, answer questions or learn a new skill. So, when potential customers click on a site or ad from search results, they’re more likely to convert. The high relevancy of these Ads and websites makes SEM the most valuable form of online traffic.

Brief Overview of PPC

The way paid search advertising works is, website owners purchase advertising space embedded within search engine results. Instead of attempting to rank on page #1 organically (as in SEO) and get free traffic, your payment guarantees you a spot at the top of the search results.

By far, the most popular online PSA is Google Ads (previously known as AdWords). Using Google Ads, your ads can appear in Google search results and you only pay for clicks on the ad. This is why the process is called PPC advertising.

Here’s a quick overview of how PPC works:

  • Create an account with your chosen PPC provider
  • Specify for which precise keywords you want your ads to appear in search results
  • Set a daily budget and a MAX CPC (the maximum amount you want to pay when your ads are clicked on), and;
  • Run your ad campaign and monitor its results closely.

After you’ve reached your maximum campaign budget, your ads will cease to run. Please note, however, that although you pay for ads to appear in search results, there’s no guarantee they will appear in top ad positions. Rather, your placement depends on how much you’re willing to pay per click and the competition.

Can SEM Help SEO?

Contrary to popular opinion, SEM does not help SEO. When you use PPC advertising to target particular keywords, this does not impact your SEO efforts positively or negatively. Your SEO rankings are determined through many factors, including: website security, page speed, domain age, user experience, mobile friendliness, Technical SEO, links and more. SEM does not influence these rankings, however.

Choosing Between SEO & SEM – Factors to Consider

When it comes to choosing either SEO or SEM, neither technique is necessarily better than the other. The most effective way to select either SEO or SEM (or a combination of both) is to evaluate your business’ needs and each approach’s benefits. The benefits of SEO and SEM are outlined below.

SEO Benefits

Stronger ROI – When implementing marketing strategies, you want to achieve as high a return on investment (ROI) as possible. A well-thought out and competitive SEO strategy allows you to do so. This is because search engines typically deliver a 15 percent new lead rate. Traditional marketing only gives you two percent. So, you can increase your conversion rate by 13 percent. With each new lead, your revenue will increase.

Long Term Growth – Generating long-term revenue is a major advantage of any SEO campaign. By its nature, SEO is a deliberate process which will pay off in the long term. When the revenue appears, it continues to pay off for a long time.

Using SEO will produce continual revenue for your business for many reasons, including:

  • Customers can search 24/7 – If you can be found in search engine rankings, you’re effectively in business 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
  • Search is part of your customers’ buying journey – With SEO, you’ll reach more customers. Becoming an integral part of their buying journey leads to greater revenue.
  • Search is a key revenue producer – With search, you’ll benefit from SEO, as it optimises your website for search engines and users. Put simply, keywords connect your brand with users who may very well be interested in purchasing what you have to offer. This results in successful leads, sales and increased revenue.

Add Value Over Time – Your SEM campaign is only running if you continually pay for results to show. Once you cease doing this, you essentially no longer have an SEM campaign. Conversely, a SEO strategy will continue to grow over time. The result is many attracted customers, and dramatically increased profits.

SEM Benefits

Increase Visibility – Optimised ads will appear at the top of a search engine results page (SERP). As they are above organic SEO results, only the most relevant traffic will be driven to your site. With a robust advertising budget, optimisation and a targeted message, you can increase Ad quality. This, in turn, ensures relevant visits and high visibility.

Impact of SEM is almost immediate – Paid SEM ads enable you to present your campaign to audiences in a few simple clicks. Within a very short time after you launch your SEM campaign, Ad results will appear in SERPs.  So, rather than waiting for your brand to rank on search engines as you need to do with SEO, the result is immediate.

Relatively Affordable – With SEM, you target people who are specifically searching for your product or service. This makes it extremely cost effective. Using a platform like Google Ads, you’re only required to pay when people click on your ad. They’ve found your Ad by searching relevant keywords, so they’re more likely to be a potential customer.


In summation, there is a key difference between SEO and SEM. SEO optimises web copy to achieve higher rankings in organic search results. Whereas, SEM goes beyond SEO, to achieve greater search engine traffic through means like PPC advertising. That said, no one technique is better than the other. Ultimately, whether you choose SEO or SEM depends on your business’ needs, budget, whether you want organic or paid traffic and more. In making the decision, we recommend evaluating the benefits of each method.

For more advice on how SEO and SEM can benefit your business, call or email Quantum today.

02 9037 0851