What’s the difference between SEO and SEM?

As a B2B marketer, you would have heard the terms SEO and SEM when people are talking about Google.

For an effective search marketing strategy, you need to understand the difference between SEO vs SEM, and how they work together to generate more website traffic.

Back when I first started in digital marketing, I was teaching myself all the tips and tricks through trial and error with a blog I had at the time. I started researching what SEO was and putting into practice what I was learning, when a new term appeared — SEM.

I had no idea what it was at the time (I know, embarrassing!!!), now it’s obvious, and I’ve put a lot of time into studying them both and how they work together.

In this post you’ll find:

  • What is the difference between SEO and SEM?
  • What is better for a B2B digital marketing strategy

SEO Vs SEM: Starting at The Start

Before we dive into the difference between SEO and SEM, you need to understand what search optimisation is.

Search optimisation is any activity that a company does to improve the traffic their website gets from search engines.

The ultimate goal of search optimisation is to get your website to the top of a search engine’s SERPs.

There are two main categories in search optimisation:

  • SEO — Increasing your search engine rankings organically.
  • SEM — Increasing your search engine rankings with paid methods.

As you can guess, the big difference between SEO and SEM is that SEO is organic and SEM is a paid form of digital marketing.

Let’s go over the two in more depth.

SEO Vs SEM: What is SEO?

SEO or search engine optimisation is the strategy of increasing the amount of organic traffic from search engines that your website gets.

With SEO, companies don’t pay to be ranked in search engines SERPs. Instead, they implement tactics to gain keywords and to rank higher. In fact, Google has over 200 ranking factors that all contribute to where a website is ranked.

There are two main components of SEO:

  • On-page SEO — Is the tactic of optimising single pages on a website. This includes things like;
  • Writing and publishing high-quality content
  • Adding relevant ALT text to your website’s images
  • Adding and using the correct header types
  • Adding in the relevant keywords to your content
  • Off-page SEO — Is using tactics that occur off your website to increase your rankings. This includes things like;
  • Building backlinks
  • Influencer marketing

With the importance of B2B digital marketing, all companies should have a great SEO strategy with the end goal of ranking for as many keywords as possible and as high as possible.

When you’re developing that strategy, it’s important that you know the difference between short-tail keywords and longtail keywords:

  • Short-tail Keywords — Short-tail keywords are keywords that only have one or two words in them. These keywords are more competitive to rank for but have much high searches than longtail keywords.
  • Longtail Keywords — Longtail keywords are structured like a phrase and are how most of us search the internet. They have less competition than short-tail keywords and have a higher conversion rate but have fewer search volumes.

SEO Vs SEM: What is SEM?

SEM (Search Engine Marketing) is the paid part of search marketing that aims to get your website at the top of the SERPs for chosen keywords. An SEM strategy involves setting up ads and budgeting for these ads.

A popular term used to describe SEM is PPC (pay-per-click), which are ads where the advertiser pays a certain amount of money every time their ad is clicked on.

Google Ads is the most recognisable search engine where this kind of marketing is used. You’ll notice examples of SEM every time you search an enquiry on Google.

The process of SEM includes;

  1. Conducting keyword research to identify which keywords you want your ads to be shown.
  2. Picking your target market.
  3. Developing the ads — which in their simplest form include, a header, ALT text, and a link.
  4. Setting the budget for each ad.

SEM is a powerful B2B digital marketing strategy for reaching short term goals. With them, you’ll start to see results instantly.

SEO Vs SEM: What is The Difference Between SEO And SEM?

SEO and SEM are very different digital marketing strategies but have huge advantages when put together.

Look at the table below for the key differences:

Now that you know the difference between SEO and SEM, let’s break down each of the categories:



The goal of SEO is to organically gain as many keywords as possible. It’s important to note, that SEO doesn’t happen overnight. It takes months or even years to start seeing an ROI, which I’ll discuss in the next section.


With SEM you’re looking to generate as many leads as you can within a budget. The point is to develop leads at a cost that’s less than the value of your deals.

Time to see ROI


SEO is a long term strategy. Even if you’re an SEO expert it will still take a few months to start gaining keywords. Then, to actually see a ROI, it will take around 18–36 months. In fact, the average number of years a page has been live for to rank number one is 5 years!

But!! When you do start to see a ROI, there’s no cap. Your traffic will keep growing and so will your leads. As it’s not working within a budget but instead works with time and consistency.


SEM is great while you’re waiting for your SEO to kick in. Once you set up an ad, you’ll start to see results. But remember, when working with a budget, there’s only so much you can get out of it, no matter how much you optimise! This is why you need to do SEM and SEO at the same time.



You can argue that SEO is free. It doesn’t require a budget but it will cost a lot of time, wages and content development if you decide to outsource.


The cost is entirely up to you. Generally, B2B businesses will set a monthly budget. Ideally, you want enough budget so that your ads are operating at their full potential but no too much that you’re not making that money back.



Anyone and everyone will see your website in the SERPs when SEO starts to kick in.


Your ads are limited to the target market that you identify and there will be other companies competing for those keywords.

Provide value over time


SEO is focused on providing value over time. Think of it like compound interest — it’s all about staying consistent and eventually, you’ll start to see progress that is astronomical. The key thing to remember with SEO is to stay consistent — develop blog posts at least once a week and do it for a long time.


When comparing SEM to SEO, SEM doesn’t really provide value over time. It’s always going to cost you money but if you can find the right budget, the right words and the right target audience, you’ll get an amazing ROI for that budget.

What is Better For a B2B Digital Marketing Strategy

So, the question you’re probably asking yourself, is which is better for a B2B digital marketing strategy? Should you purse SEM or SEO?

And I bet you guessed that the answer is both!

SEM is great for reaching short-term goals. It will generate traffic and new leads as soon as you put the campaign live. But, it does have it’s limitations. Eventually, you would have optimised the campaign as well as it can be and the only way for you to get more traffic and leads, you’ll have to increase your budget.

SEO only works after it’s been done for a couple of years. Making it ideal for the long-term. So as your SEM generates leads, SEO will be improving in the background.

Until your SEO starts to take over your SEM. That’s when SEO really starts to kick off. It will keep growing and growing, there’s no cap on the potential of SEO because it’s not locked down by a budget.

Originally published at https://hunchmetrics.co on October 7, 2020.




All things marketing and attribution | www.hunchmetrics.co

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