Search engine optimization (SEO) is half of your digital marketing strategy. The other half is search engine marketing (SEM), widely known as pay-per-click ad campaigns (PPC).
If you’re coming from the PPC side of things, you should know that SEO (the organic content side of marketing) is just as important as SEM (paid ads).
Ads might get your site in front of eyeballs immediately but, without street cred to back up your offer after the click, those clicks become expensive lost opportunities.
Think of SEO and SEM as the flip side of one shiny coin, but they work together toward the same goal: making more coins.
And, despite their differences, both SEO and SEM are anchored by the same thing: keywords.
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How is SEO different from SEM?
In a nutshell:
- SEO optimizes your web pages to persuade search engines to recommend your site in organic search results (SERP)
- SEM pays money to appear at the top of paid search results—and doesn’t give two f*cks about an endorsement
Out of the nutshell:
SEO and SEM are two acronyms run by different departments in a marketing agency.
Where advertising aficionados control SEM, content creators and backend technical teamsters control SEO.
What else is different?
SEM is short term, SEO is long term.
SEM turns on when you turn it on and turns off the second you stop feeding it money (either because you have so many leads you can’t keep up or because those clicks didn’t come in and your money pot is empty).
SEO, on the other hand, grows organically over months and years, gaining attention, credibility, followers, and authoritative industry clout all the while.
SEM uses the Google Ads platform to bid, build, and launch ad campaigns. Then it uses the same platform (linked to Google Analytics) to measure website traffic and metrics like click-through rate (CTR) and cost per acquisition (CPA).
SEO uses best practices to optimize content for search engines (getting in toight with Google’s algorithm) and SEO tools to verify performance and execute a successful content marketing campaign.
What are SEO best practices?
- keyword research
- on-page SEO hierarchies, image alt text, snippets (title tags and meta descriptions), anchor text, UX principles (user experience)
- off-page backlinks and competitor content gaps
- technical SEO tactics like page speed, robots.txt, sitemaps, and schema markup
SEM costs you money. You decide how much you want to pay every time someone clicks your ad (pay-per-click). You also decide how long you want to run your ad campaign based on your budget—because once your budget is gone, you disappear from the SERPs.
SEO costs you nothing (except your reputation and conversion opportunities if you do it wrong). But one thing you do need to be able to afford is time to create content and optimize it.
You can’t walk away from SEO for months and hope it snowballs into incredible results for you.
Your competitors are out there vying for a top spot in the SERPs every day. If you want to outrank them, you need to produce new content and refresh old content continuously or you will fall off the SERP and that snowball will melt into a puddle of lost conversions.
Can SEO beat SEM?
Your advertisers are belly laughing 🤣
Your Google Ads team sees themselves as the money-making marketers. They look at the organic team as educators.
But think about this:
You might not always run PPC ads. But you still want to gain traffic when you pause your SEM campaign. SEO keeps working all the time without hurting your wallet.
A piece of content could rank for hundreds of keywords that you don’t target with your ads. Maybe the PPC cost is too high for some keywords or the return on ad spend (ROAS) doesn’t justify the expense. That doesn’t mean you can’t mine value out of them. If the traffic is high enough, add those keywords to your content and make SERP gains without paying for them.
In this way, SEO has nothing to do with ads but everything to do with sales.
Ads get prospects to your website quickly. But your site has to convince them to do something.
That’s your end goal: motivate an action.
But here’s the thing: most people don’t buy on whims.
Most purchase actions require a certain level of confidence in the brand. SEO creates that comfort zone with creative, substantive, top-notch content.
Prospects will look around and do their research. So, once they land on your landing page after clicking an ad, they’ll likely surf around to make sure you’re legit.
That’s when SEO kicks in to persuade people that you really know your sh*t.
Your carefully crafted content educates, enlightens, engages—and hopefully delights so much it converts first touchpoint prospects (coming in from an ad) into confident purchasers.
Also, SEO is great at getting top of funnel researchers to notice your value, moving them through the funnel. In this way, it helps your other channels (like email, social, and ads) perform better.
How do SEO and SEM work together? (the football analogy)
Ads get you instant exposure, but ads don’t solve problems. Ads point to the content that does. Whoop!
Think of marketing as a football game.
Keywords are the field of play and SEO is your defensive line; it’s slower and bigger and works hard to stop your competition from beating you.
PPC is your offensive play, and the football is your clever ad.
Once the playing field is set, your team plays the game; your quarterback tries all game long to get the football (your ad) into the hands of the players searching up your keywords—wherever they are on the field.
Semantic keywords (search terms with similar intent) are the entire reason spectators come to the game. Keywords set up every organic SEO strategy and every paid advertising PPC campaign for success or failure. They are the central focus at the search query level.
There is no game without keywords.
And guess what?
You don’t win a football game without both your offensive and defensive teams. Each line contributes to yards gained, and both work hard as two vital parts of one cohesive unit to light up that leaderboard.
That’s how SEM and SEO work together.
Note: Both SEO and SEM point prospects to landing pages, where your CRO commandos work their magic (but that’s another guide entirely).
What are the benefits of SEO compared to SEM?
Ads (SEM) feed traffic to your optimized content (SEO) that, if optimized correctly, converts ad clickers into new customers. There are individual benefits of doing SEM strategies and SEO strategies at the same time.
The benefit of SEM (paid visibility)
SEM is pay to play:
Google Search Ads, Google Shopping Ads, YouTube Ads...
Pay per click (PPC), cost per acquisition (CPA), cost per lead (CPL), A/B testing, and campaign duration—all that juicy stuff—powers the paid side of digital marketing and sends paid traffic to your content.
You set up an ad campaign, put money down, and you’re on.
There’s no waiting.
You bid on keywords, write your ad copy, flip the lever, and you’re live and dancing in front of your customers right away.
Are things not working as well as you hoped?
Change your ad copy, adjust your focus to a slightly different target audience, refine your landing page—and test the results of those changes.
SEM is easier to tweak and test than SEO because the change is immediate. Bonus: take what you learn from paid insights and apply it to your SEO work—optimize your web pages to perform better.
That’s the benefit of SEM: instant exposure and quick fixes.
The benefit of SEO (organic visibility)
Now let’s talk about organic marketing.
Organic marketing (SEO) is the stuff you do that isn’t ads to get traffic.
If you’re paying for traffic, it’s not organic.
Organic search engine optimization brings people to your website from the unpaid section of the search engine result pages (SERP). Then it keeps on working (via high-quality content) to convince potential customers that you’ve got the hottest spot in town and the right tools to fix their problems.
Robots crawl the content on your web pages. Those bots tell Google that you’ve got content and, not only that, but it looks and sounds great.
That last part (the great part) is essential.
If you make sh*tty (unoptimized) content, Google doesn’t like it, and that means the people you made it for won’t know about it because it wasn’t optimized well for the search engine results pages.
It didn’t make the cut.
But if it’s high quality and it’s optimized splendidly well for SERP, searchers find out about your content because they’ll see your organic link on the first page of SERP.
SEO is all the things you do (at zero cost but for time and effort) to optimize that high-quality content for search engines, so people see it at any time all the time.
It’s your stable long game.
That’s the benefit of SEO: it costs nothing and it’s always on.
SEO vs. SEM: which should you use?
That’s the quick answer that doesn’t take into account many variables, but here’s what will happen if you do SEO and SEM together:
Both SEO and SEM will get your site to show up in the SERPs if you target the right keywords (whether you bid on them or optimize around them).
Drive traffic to your site
Showing up in SERP on page one increases the chances that someone will click through to your site (CTR).
Get cozy with your competition
Getting to know your audience and figuring out your keywords means sneaking a peek at what your competition is doing and what your industry is ranking for.
Know thy enemy (but be nice to them on the street).
Increase your return on investment (ROI)
Neither SEO nor SEM are set-it-and-forget-it things.
They only work if they’re given attention, updated, optimized, and tested. Do that, and you will be successful in the short term (SEM) and over the long game (SEO).
Here are some considerations that might force you to pursue one strategy (either SEO or SEM) before the other:
If you want to drive quick traffic to an offer or get eyes on something that’s new and hasn’t had time to climb the organic trellis, ads are your best tool. But if you’re looking to drive long-term growth, optimizing your content (SEO) for organic traffic is your better bet.
Have you had a website for decades and you’ve focused hard on your organic growth? Then maybe it’s time to supplement that effort with an instant traffic injection.
Buy some ads.
Maybe your keyword has a high click cost and you only have so many dollars this quarter to work with. Figure out your cost per click (CPC), and project your conversion rate. If it doesn’t look like it will be easy to turn a profit, focus on SEO until finances allow for paid results.
SEO is free.
You can use one channel over the other, but the smart strategy is to incorporate both.
That SEO vs. SEM balance will look slightly different for each company. Move the slider however it works best so you can run SEO and SEM together as part of your wider marketing strategy.
That opens all the doors and grabs attention from top of funnel researchers down to bottom of funnel buyers.
Use the data you get from SEM to inform your SEO: If something is working for your ads, create organic content for it.
Use SEO to add weight to your SEM. If a piece of content converts well, target that high-performing phrase with a paid ad.
Together, SEO and SEM dial into untapped traffic opportunities, ultimately dominating SERP in both the ad space up top and the organic listings below.
That’s what we do here at KlientBoost.
SEO is the jam to our SEM peanut butter.
We put our 100+ expert SEO and SEM brains together to help companies from scrappy startups to massive brands scale their paid and organic strategies (making the world’s best marketing sandwiches).
Want to know exactly how we do it? Like this.