SEO vs. SEM - Which is more effective?
Out of the Blue Blog

The SEO vs. SEM Debate: Which is More Effective for Your Online Marketing

Search engine optimization and search engine marketing are two sides of the same coin. When properly utilized, each one can provide amazing benefits for businesses large and small.

SEO and SEM are valuable digital marketing channels that can be used to grow and expand an organization, but many people struggle with the question of ‘when’ and ‘how’ to use them?

These two channels aren’t mutually exclusive. They can easily be used in tandem with one another. So when should you try just SEO, or just SEM, or both? And what are the main differences between SEO vs. SEM? Let’s review.

What is Search Engine Optimization

What is Search Engine Optimization?

SEO is the process of ranking a website in search engines for certain keyword phrases. It is meant to be an organic process wherein content is created, then is naturally spotted by Google to rank.

Despite the organic nature of search engine optimization, there is still a great deal of strategy involved to help boost your rankings. Getting the most out of your SEO means targeting your approach around multiple facets.


On-Page SEO is the process of optimizing a webpage or blog post for certain keyword phrases. These keywords should be the page’s main focus, and all content needs to be written in a way that ‘answers the search query’ for your main keyword.

Let’s say you are answering the question “What is the best sprinkler system for my home?” Your content would need to target terms like ‘best sprinkler systems’ or ‘top residential sprinkler systems’ in order to address this main search query. If someone Googles ‘best sprinkler systems’ you want your page to be the first result.

Title Tags and Meta Descriptions

How do you go about optimizing your page for SEO? It starts with the page’s title tag and meta description. This is the text that appears with your page on search results, the title tag being the blue line of text and the meta description being the short paragraph just below that.

SERP Result Title Description Labeled

Title tags and meta descriptions are easy to optimize, especially if you are using WordPress in tandem with a plugin like Yoast SEO. They are incredibly important for improving your SEO ranking since these are the first elements people see after entering a search query.

H1 Headers

Another critical element of on-page SEO is the H1 header. This is usually the main title of the page as it appears on the page itself. H1s should include your #1 target keyword for the page as this is one of the first things Google will look at to understand your page’s content.

Subheaders and Paragraph Text

Next on the list of on-page SEO importance are subheaders, like H2, H3, and H4s, and the paragraph text used in the content.

Subheaders are important for utilizing secondary keywords and organizing your page as a whole. Think about them like chapters in a book. These will guide readers as well as guiding Googlebot through your webpage.

Paragraph text is an area of on-page SEO that needs to be heavily calculated. There’s a tendency among many new writers to stuff keywords into every section of a webpage without rhyme or reason. Avoiding this tendency at all costs will help make your content sound more organic while also helping your rank higher for your target keywords.

Modern on-page SEO is not about keyword stuffing, in fact it’s the exact opposite. You want to use keywords strategically. It’s more beneficial to use your target keyword only a handful of times and instead focus on implementing secondary keywords that help add context to your topic.

Back to our ‘best sprinkler systems’ example. You would want to avoid writing the exact phrase ‘best sprinkler systems’ repeatedly, instead you should want to use variations of the term like ‘effective sprinklers,’ as well as using secondary keywords like ‘sprinkler heads’ or ‘irrigation systems’ to further round out the topic.

On-Page Anatomy Breakdown


The other side of search engine optimization happens away from your website. Off-Page SEO refers to any inbound signals from other websites and outside sources pointing to your site.

Link Building

The most common version of Off-Page SEO is called link building. It’s the process of acquiring links from other sites to your site, known as backlinks. Backlinks are perceived like a vote of confidence from Google. Higher quality links will help your website climb the rankings and remain more stable at the top.

Link building has a mixed reputation, which is understandable. It’s a discipline rife with shenanigans and shady tactics. Some of these tactics include creating a series of fake websites known as private blog networks (PBNs) that link to your main website in hopes of adding backlinks to it. Others will purchase guest posts with the sole objective of placing a promotional backlink in the article.

The safest method of link building involves creating great content that essentially “earns” a backlink from another source. This would be something like a useful how-to guide, or an expert round-up post.

The key to earning backlinks is by optimizing your on-page SEO as best you can. This will help the content naturally rank for keywords which will help it get more traffic and shares. As people share your content across social media and link to it from their own website you will increase your page authority which will keep your rankings near the top.

So like anything in life, link building requires hard work. Luckily there are SEO professionals who can help you make the process a lot easier.

Business Citations

Another piece of the Off-Page SEO puzzle are business citations. This is especially important if you are a local business, but it’s advisable to build business citations for just about any type of business.

Key Citations Tracker screenshot

Services such as BrightLocal allow you to keep track of all of your local business listings in one place.

What are business citations? These are business listings on websites across the internet that display your contact details as well as solidifying your brand’s legitimacy. They include everything from Yelp to Superpages, YellowPages to a Facebook page. The goal is to keep your information consistent across all areas of the web. Google will use this to further understand your brand and assess its authenticity.

Technical SEO

Think of technical SEO as all the stuff people can’t see. This includes components that keep your website fast and functional.

Page Speed

The amount of time it takes a user to click on your website and land on your webpage needs to be fast. REALLY fast.

Google is getting stricter about penalizing websites with slow load times as they continually push to reward sites that have better user experiences.

Page Speed Insights Score

This is an example of what the page speed score results look like.

You can monitor your website’s page speed using Google’s free PageSpeed Insights tool. You can also check which URLs or other site assets are slowing things down by looking at Google Search Console’s Mobile Usability and Core Web Vitals reports.

Broken Links

When you go to a webpage and it says “404 Not Found,” it’s known as a broken link. This means that the page no longer exists, which means it will eventually get removed from the search index if not restored.

The worst part about broken links is that they have a negative impact on the user experience. If a person lands on a nonexistent page, they are far likelier to exit the website.

The best fix for this is to set up a 301 redirect from the broken page to a live page. This is a way to tell Google that people who look up the old page should be sent to this new page.

Be strategic about where you are sending people though. It’s wasteful to redirect everything to the homepage. Instead, make sure the redirect page is a similar topic to the broken page.

Duplicate Content

It seems like a simple problem to avoid, but duplicate content can creep on your site and cause all sorts of havoc. Duplicate content literally means there are two pages on your site that share the same (or nearly the same) content.

Duplicate content can be caused by many factors. One example is having multiple versions of your website live at a given time, i.e. an HTTP and HTTPS version that both load separately. This is resolved by utilizing 301 redirects to the primary version of the root URL. You should also specify the correct domain to be recognized in Google Search Console and create an XML sitemap with the URLs you want Google to index.

Ecommerce product catalogs are also a common source of duplicate content mishaps due to the pagination they create. It’s best to utilize canonical tags to specify your base product catalog pages and prevent additional pages from getting indexed, i.e. /2/,/3/,/4/, etc.

User Interaction Signals

User Interaction Signals

The term user experience, or UX, is a buzzword these days. It refers to your site visitors’ interactions and overall experience with your website. Google measures this factor through a series of user interaction signals.

Time on site

This measures the amount of time a user spends on your website. A longer time on site implies that your website has interesting content.

Click-Through Rate (CTR)

One of the most important signals from the search phase is click-through rate or CTR. This figure is calculated by dividing clicks by impressions and it is used to determine the effectiveness of a title tag and meta description since these are the first two elements a user encounters when they first see your page’s search snippet.

CTR is also a key metric in search engine marketing.

Bounce Rate

The bounce rate calculates the number of users who exit the site shortly after loading the first page. It’s the percentage of users who perform a single-page session, which is a vital metric to use when determining the quality of the page.

Is your page providing the necessary content to users? Bounce rate is a quick way to understand this. Average bounce rates will vary depending on the industry, but a general rule of thumb is that anything over 60% is considered high.

What is Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

Search engine marketing involves the acquisition of paid traffic, unlike SEO which focuses on organic traffic growth. SEM can be useful on its own but it provides an even better complement to your SEO campaign.

Keep in mind that search engine marketing techniques aren’t limited to Google search. In fact, it can be useful to incorporate other search engines like Bing. Expanding your PPC options can help you gain additional visitors and potential consumers to your web pages.

SEM and SEO combined allow you to dominate the SERPs from top to bottom. For now, let’s talk about SEM specifically.

PPC Bidding

Pay-per-click (PPC) is the foundation of search engine marketing. This is the amount you are willing to pay in exchange for a single click on your ad.

Several factors determine PPC values and can dictate your overall strategy. Some of the most important factors include Quality Score, the overall competition you’re up against, and the specific keywords you’re using.

Quality Score

Google Ads uses a metric called Quality Score to determine which ads are of higher value to consumers. It is believed that this score plays a major role in figuring ad placements. Theoretically, a higher quality score means a higher ad placement at a lower CPC.

Keyword Bids

Choosing which keywords to bid on can be challenging. It’s often a balancing act between choosing keywords that a lot of potential consumers are searching for while avoiding prohibitively high costs per click.

There are ways to lower your costs per click, especially when you’re able to choose more long-tail keywords. However, long-tail keywords usually have less volume which means fewer clicks are available.

Example of a high bid SEM term

Here is an example of a very competitive keyword with a high cost bid.

Certain industries command high keyword bids for just about every valuable term, upwards of $100-$200 per click! This includes law firms, plumbers, and emergency services (the higher the urgency the higher the cost per click in most cases).


Hopefully, we didn’t scare you off with those potentially high prices. A lot of CPC is determined by your competition. So even if you are a local plumber, your cost per click may not be so high if you don’t have many local competitors.

Local search engine marketing is heavily influenced by your immediate competitors and it could have seasonality involved, especially if you are a chimney cleaning company.

If competitors are constantly coming and going in your space, it could drastically affect your bidding strategy, ad positioning, and overall CTR. This is especially prevalent around the holiday season when e-commerce companies are vying for valuable search real estate.

Ad Copy

What title tags and meta descriptions are for SEO, ad copy is for SEM. This is the written content that goes on your ad to encourage people to click through to your website.

Screenshot of Ad Copy

Here is an example of one of our PPC Ads.

Ad copy is all about CTR. Your copywriting skills must be on point to garner attention and drive traffic to your page. For Google Ads, there’s a headline and a description. The former allows for 30 characters while the latter allows for 90.

Most experienced search engine marketers will split test their ads, using different ad copies for each one to see which gets a higher click-through rate.

Account Management & Ad Groups

SEM campaigns can become complex, especially when you introduce multiple ads that target multiple audience segments. That’s why account management is so important.

Organizing your ads account starts with understanding the structure of your campaigns. At the campaign level, you will be targeting a specific objective. This could be a top-of-funnel goal like brand awareness, or it could be a bottom-funnel objective like conversions.

The next step down from the campaign level is the ad group level. Ad groups are a way to house your ads based on different targeting preferences, like audiences and specific subject targeting.

Let’s say your ad campaign is selling clothing. You could have dress shirts and ties in one ad group called “formal wear,” then have swimsuits and sandals in another ad group called “beachwear.”

Ad groups are not only a great way to manage your campaign, they are an effective way to test different audiences and see who is most profitable.

Search Engine Marketing Tools

There are many SEM tools to help you optimize your campaigns. Software like SEMrush, Spyfu, and Wordstream make it easy to analyze keyword potential, provide cost-per-click estimations, and show competitor metrics.

typing search terms into a keyboard

What Are the Differences Between Organic SEO & Paid SEM?

SEO and SEM have the commonality of getting websites to show up in search results, but they do so in different ways.


Search engine optimization gets your site ranking in search results the old-fashioned way, for FREE. Now, when we say “free” it doesn’t mean that SEO is entirely free. You will still likely have to pay for content creation as well as paying for an SEO strategist.

Compared to SEM though, SEO is definitely more of a cost-saving strategy. With SEM, the only way to appear on search results pages is to pay. Once you stop paying, your ad disappears. With SEO, you can theoretically rank for a term and remain on page one of Google for an infinite amount of time.

Length of Effectiveness

Another clear delineation between SEO vs. SEM is the time needed to see results.

The beauty of search engine marketing is it’s instantaneous. You can launch a Google ads campaign in the morning and see results by the afternoon. Granted you’re spending money for each second that the campaign is live, but if you need immediacy then SEM is your answer.

SEO is a long game strategy. You won’t typically see organic search rankings within the day or week, it can often take several weeks or even months before rankings take root. The nice part about SEO is that once you’re ranking, you can usually stay there for an extended period of time. You don’t have to keep switching SEO campaigns on and off the way you do for SEM.

What’s More Important: SEO or SEM?

SEO and SEM can be equally effective digital marketing channels, and they are best used in tandem within a process called synergy.

Synergy occurs when marketers are able to achieve the utmost value from both an SEM and SEO campaign simultaneously. They effectively own the SERPs through placements on both channels.

There’s also a psychological benefit to people seeing your ad. A 2017 study found that searchers who see a paid ad, as well as an organic result, tend to favor that brand over those with single results.

Another synergistic component is the Quality Score. Although QS is specific to ad placements, it also looks at the quality of content on the landing page. This can relate to SEO since pages with a better user experience tend to attain higher rankings. Thus, solid SEO can help keep PPC lower.

Search Engine Marketing Strategies to Get More Traffic

SEM is a highly effective form of online advertising that gives businesses the ability to reach new customers who are actively searching for their products.

A well-optimized SEM campaign will get your products in front of the most qualified potential buyers in little time. Even if you are conducting a B2B search engine marketing campaign, you can still use paid search to reach qualified customers of any ilk.

The benefits of search engine marketing are numerous, but this can often be confusing for those who are new to the concept. This is why hiring an experienced team of PPC specialists is critical for getting your campaign off on the right foot.

Contact Us

We’re here for you.
Let’s talk.

Get in touch