SEO vs SEM: What's the difference and which should I use?

Search engine optimization (SEO) is often confused with Search engine marketing (SEM). The two are not interchangeable despite their overlapping nature. SEO can be done without spending any money on paid advertising and yields good results, but it takes time and effort. SEM can help you get your site more traffic at a fee. Both strategies are important for businesses that rely on online traffic for sales.

We will briefly look at the two and their differences, with some advice on which to choose for your business's next marketing campaign.


SEO and SEM:  What are they?

SEO is the practice of increasing a website's exposure and prominence in unpaid, natural ("organic") search engine results. SEO is all about making your site attractive to search engines so that they will list it higher in organic rankings when a person searches for a relevant term.

SEO can be done in many ways, such as improving the content and HTML code on your page or optimizing your site's links.  It is a long-term strategy and typically requires ongoing modification and monitoring of your site.


SEM is an umbrella term that encompasses many different types of online advertising. SEM includes display advertising, paid inclusion (the ad results you see when doing an internet search on Google or Yahoo), keyword ads that appear alongside search engine listings, and sponsored links that are usually displayed at the top and bottom of your search results page. It works on a pay-per-click (PPC) basis.

SEM can help you get your site ranked higher both in organic searches and paid searches. It is a short-term strategy that can help you quickly increase traffic to your site or bring attention to an important page. However, it is not as effective as SEO because you are paying for this exposure instead of earning it naturally through excellent content and other factors that search engines value.


SEO vs SEM: The Differences

Search results, SEO search placements are placed in the natural, unpaid rankings on the results page.  While SEM search results include an “Ad” designation, there is a little "Ad" icon placed next to each SEM search result.

Per-click fee, you pay nothing when a user clicks on your SEO search result. SEM, on the other hand, will pay a fee every time a user clicks on your SEM search result. The amount of fee depends on several factors such as which search engine you're on, whether or not the keyword is a high competition.

Results, SEO is a long-term strategy that requires ongoing modifications and monitoring of your site, it takes time to see the results. SEM is more short-term in nature and focuses on bringing traffic to your site quickly.

Keywords, SEO is about optimizing the elements of content on your website including keywords. While SEM only uses keywords, SEO uses them to rank your website.


SEO or SEM: Which to Choose?

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you want instant or long-term results?

If you want instant results, then SEM is your best bet. However, if you're looking for long-term growth in traffic and revenue, SEO is the way to go.

  • What are your current business goals?

Are you trying to build brand awareness or drive more traffic to your site? SEO is great for building awareness through links with other online content. On the other hand, SEM is great for driving traffic to specific pages of your site while building organic SEO.

  • Do you have limited advertising budgets?

If so, SEO may be the way to go, since you don't pay for user clicks. But if your business doesn't have an in-house SEO team, to do SEO right, you will need to hire SEO professionals, which might be costly, so keep this in mind.

  • How well do you know your business's industry?

If you know the industry well and who your competitors are, then SEO is a good choice for you. However, if you don't know much about your industry or competing sites and businesses, SEM can be a great way to test things out and see what kind of results you can get.


Both strategies are important for your business, so it's advisable to do both SEO and SEM is possible.

It is a good idea to hire an expert who can handle all of the SEO/SEM work. We at Media Studio HK offer extensive SEO and SEM services for all your campaigning needs, feel free to contact us for your next business marketing campaign.


One final word before we wrap up. Yes, SEO, SEM, and other online marketing strategies are important for your site, but please make sure your site provides value to its visitors. Otherwise, your new visitors won't come back to your site if they see no value in staying on your site.

This wraps up our today's topic on SEO vs SEM, if you find SEO and SEM interesting, this article deep dives into them.

If you got any doubts about SEO vs SEM or any general inquiries, feel free to contact us.

Allen He
Developer @ MSHK

FullStack Developer, SEO editor. WebRTC and JavaScript enthusiast. Love to explore new web technologies.

Two illustrated person sitting on the ground and brainstorming.
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