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SEO and SEM Basic Guidelines And Which One You Should Use

Last updated: Jun 06, 2022

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Figure 1: Picture of two hands holding a paper with the words SEO and SEM on a white keyboard background on the orange table. As an illustration of someone who is comparing which one is better between SEO and SEM for website optimization strategies.

SEO and SEM are two terms that often come up in website optimization for business purposes. Both terms are website optimization strategies to increase rankings and traffic. Read more about the definition, differences, and comparisons.

What are SEO and SEM?

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the practice of website optimization to get a better performance in organic search at no cost (free). The right SEO strategy can make your website appear at the top of search results and increase web visibility.

SEO is often used as a digital marketing strategy because it can generate high-quality traffic that can increase conversions. Here are other reasons why SEO strategies is important for a website:

  • It increases the quantity and quality of traffic from your website
  • Deliver a better user experience
  • Increase the popularity and brand trust
  • Have a good influence on the long-term growth of your business

In general, SEO is divided into three types, namely on-page SEO, off-page SEO, and technical SEO.

On-page SEO focuses on optimizing the content within the website. Off-page SEO to increase the credibility of the website through promotional activities and link building outside the website. Lastly, technical SEO or optimization from the technical side to ensure crawling and indexing run smoothly and ensure the website has a good performance.

While search engine marketing (SEM) is an optimization practice carried out to increase visibility and traffic from paid and organic searches. In other words, SEM is a digital marketing strategy that costs you money.

Some of the reasons why you might need SEM are:

  • The target market can be set as you want so that it can reach potential consumers
  • Increase website traffic from paid search results
  • The budget spent can be adjusted according to your need

Examples of SEM strategies include pay-per-click (PPC) activities, product listing ads (PLA), or paid advertising such as Google Ads. Practically, you need to do keyword research so that the SEM strategy you applied gets the best results. Attractive ad copywriting will increase the click-through rate (CTR) of your website.

From the above explanation, it can be concluded that the similarities between SEO and SEM are both used to improve site performance in search engines. However, you also need to know the difference between SEO and SEM to determine which strategy is the most suitable for your website.

Difference between SEO and SEM

After you know the definition of SEO and SEM, next, we will discuss the difference between SEO and SEM. There are several factors that make the two different, ranging from the cost, appearance in the SERP, time period, and other factors which will be discussed in detail below.

Cost Difference

The most tangible thing that distinguishes SEO and SEM is the cost. SEO can be implemented for free, while SEM is the opposite. The application of SEM in the form of paid advertising requires a certain cost to get the expected results.

SERP Display

The views generated by implementing SEO and SEM in the SERP are different. SEM implementation is usually indicated by the presence of an advertising label on the left side of the search results, while SEO does not have any labels. Paid ads will be served above organic search results.

Figure 2: Screenshot showing the SERP of the “cmlabs” search query. At the top, it is marked with a green indicator showing the results of SEM implementation in the form of paid advertising. At the bottom marked a green indicator showing organic search results from SEO implementation.

Period of time

Another thing that marks the difference between SEO and SEM is the time period to achieve the expected results. SEM does not provide immediate results because it is needed to analyze audiences and competitors in advertising. But with this strategy, you can reach your goals faster than SEO.

SEO tends to take time and a long process to get the results. Especially if your website has just launched and doesn't have many backlinks yet. With SEO, it can take at least four months to a year for Google to realize the relevance and value of your website.

You need to apply SEO best practices to shorten the time it takes, however it will not be as fast as SEM but SEO is good for long-term business.

Target Audience

Another difference between SEO and SEM is that SEO cannot target a specific audience. SEO only targets the audience based on the keywords used in the article. This is why you need to choose the right keywords in implementing SEO.

While implementing SEM allows you to set your target audience based on device type, region, language, and more. Thus, ad serving can reach audiences that have the potential to become your customers.

Potential CTR

The top three results in the SERPs tend to generate more CTR. If your website is one of them,  your CTR generated from SEO can outnumber the SEM CTR. However, if a website isn't in the top three or even on the next page, SEM is probably getting the most CTR.

Implementation Results

The difference between SEO and other SEM is in the results of the implementation. Implementing SEO makes a website perform better in organic search. In that way, you can get better rankings, increase potential traffic, make your brand more popular and trusted, provide the best user experience, and be good for the long term of business.

Meanwhile, SEM allows your website to appear in the top search results. It will allow your website to reach a more specific audience and increase traffic. The targeted audience in SEM has the potential to become customers for your business.


Now you know the meaning and difference between SEO and SEM. Next, read the following comparison before deciding to choose the right strategy between SEO and SEM for your website.

Consider the cost

If your business has a dedicated budget for paid advertising campaigns, then use SEM. This is because paid advertising takes some time to analyze the audience until it reaches optimal results. Meanwhile, keep using SEO if your budget is limited.

Results Deadline 

As is known that SEO takes a long time to see the results. If you have a quite long time to wait, then we recommend using SEO. However, if the deadlines you have for achieving your business goals are quite limited then you can apply SEM instead.

Consider your ability

You are required to have basic skills in optimizing a website either through SEO or SEM. If you want to implement SEO, you have to know the best practices to do starting from on-page optimization, off-page, and the technical side of SEO.

Similar to SEM, although it is fairly instant, it cannot be done arbitrarily. In order to get the best results, you need to know how to do keyword research and determine a strategy so that the costs incurred can reach the expected target.

If you feel you are unable to do web optimization yourself, then you can use SEO services that can guide you in achieving better web performance.

Track website progress

If your website is relatively new, then the best option is to implement SEO and SEM strategies at the same time. Implementing SEM will help your website reach your audience and bring in traffic at an early stage. You can also take advantage of the backlink service to increase the credibility of the website.

On the other hand, you also need to implement SEO as a long-term optimization effort. If you feel that the implementation of SEO is optimal, then you can decide to keep using both or just focus on SEO.

So, we have clearly stated the complete explanation regarding the understanding, differences, and comparisons between SEO and SEM. These two optimization strategies will help your website generate more traffic. After reading this guide, we hope that you will be able to determine which one is better for your website, SEO, SEM, or both.




Note: We have attached some of the most common questions asked by users below, along with their answers. To use the cmlabs Keyword Ranking Tracker application, you don't need to request for a quote from marketing. Please click login to the application.

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