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SEO vs SEM: Which One is Better for Your Business

By John Mathews

Digital marketing has become an essential tool for businesses in all fields and of all sizes. Why that’s the case should go without question; competition is fierce, and digital marketing is lucrative. Furthermore, the Internet offers a massive pool of potential customers, many of whom are actively seeking brands to engage with. Thus, as you try to differentiate yourself and rise above the competition, you may come across the SEO vs SEM debate. And while you may certainly understand the basics of SEO or SEM, it is indeed worth considering which suits you best. If that’s the case for you, you’re in luck; in this article, we’ll explore the debate of SEO vs SEM, and which one might be better for your business.


Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) are indeed frequent topics of debate. If you’ve delved in digital marketing of any kind in recent years, chances are you already know these acronyms. However, just to be thorough, let us begin with a joint definition.

Both SEO and SEM are digital marketing strategies. More specifically, both seek to generate traffic to your website and thus increase your brand awareness online. As the names imply, both use search engines to increase your website’s visibility. That’s where the similarities end, however, and that’s where the SEO vs SEM debate begins.

SEO: what it is, and why it matters

SEO seeks to generate organic traffic to your website by increasing its ranking in search engine results pages (SERPs). Google itself describes this method as a way to “help Google find your content” and “help Google (and users) understand your content”. That’s indeed what SEO is, and it achieves this by following search engine-friendly best practices such as:

  • Creating optimal titles and snippets
  • Using the “description” meta tag, or “alt. tag”
  • Structuring content properly through headings
  • Using proper website hierarchy
  • Creating relevant, valuable content

The above is, of course, a simplified list that does not include all SEO factors. What’s more, SEO factors may change over time, as algorithms change – which was famously the case with Google’s Penguin algorithm update and similar ones. Thus, it’s in your best interest to remain informed on it to avoid common SEO mistakes that may hamper your efforts.

As for why SEO matters, that’s a simple question to answer. The top 3 SERP results on each query share 50% of all traffic for that query. This vital metric should showcase just why SEO earns its place in the SEO vs SEM debate; it’s undeniably beneficial.

SEO pros and cons

Since SEO seeks to increase organic traffic, it has long-term benefits. After all, it’s a long-term strategy; optimizing your website for search engines optimizes it for humans too. A potent SEO strategy will provide sustained traffic to your website and increase brand awareness. Lastly, it will do so with comparatively little cost.

That’s not to say it has no disadvantages, however. There would be no SEO vs SEM debate if SEO was the perfect standalone solution. As mentioned above, it depends on algorithms which may change over time. Furthermore, it requires constant effort to keep your content optimized. Lastly, it comes with very steep competition.

SEM: what it is, and why it matters

Unlike SEO, SEM is paid marketing; it’s essentially Pay-per-Click (PPC) advertising. It still seeks to increase brand awareness, and it does so by targeting very specific audiences, but it is not organic like SEO.

A great example of SEM is Google Ads; hyper-targeted PPC ads that appear above SERPs and generate inorganic traffic.

SEM pros and cons

Since SEM aims to generate hyper-targeted, inorganic traffic, it has visible short-term benefits. It lets you focus ad content on each campaign’s goals, and it lets you serve it to specific, refined audiences for immediate traffic.

However, as with all PPC and unlike SEO, it comes with a steeper cost. SEM is often not small business-friendly for this reason; ads only last as long as one’s budget does. Thus, it may get you a good start if your landing pages aren’t fully ready for SEO, but it is not a permanent strategy. Finally, it too comes with steep competition.

SEO vs SEM: which one is better for your business?

Having delved into the SEO vs SEM debate, it should now be clear that both have merit – and costs. The correct choice between the two will thus depend on your business itself:

  • Do you prioritize short-term or long-term benefits?
  • Is your business local or global?
  • How much of your budget or effort can you devote to either?

Put simply, there is no clear, definitive answer. Your goals, priorities, and budget will ultimately determine which you should depend on more.

Conclusion: SEO vs SEM, or SEO and SEM?

Finally, let us note that the two are not mutually exclusive. Choosing to invest more heavily in one over the other is up to your criteria, but you should ideally neglect neither. Indeed, the two can perfectly coexist and even complement each other. Both can generate traffic in tandem, and the insights you acquire from each can inform your future decisions on both. Thus, it’s smarter to use both appropriately and find your ideal balance between them than it is to just choose one and dismiss the other.

Author bio:

John MathewsJohn Mathews is a US-based freelance web designer, amateur author, and senior copywriter at Digital Dot New York. He often writes on the moving industry and the challenges moving businesses face in the digital era. Off the clock, he enjoys hiking almost as much as reading and going to the movies on weekends.

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About the Author
An online marketer, SEO copywriter, and speaker for 15+ years, Gloria Grace Rand has helped over 150 companies including AAA and Scholastic Book Fairs attract and convert leads into sales.

Losing her older sister to cancer propelled Gloria on a journey of spiritual awakening that resulted in the publication of her international best-selling book, "Live. Love. Engage. – How to Stop Doubting Yourself and Start Being Yourself."

Known as “The Light Messenger” for her ability to intuitively transmit healing messages of love and light, Gloria combines a unique blend of energy healing techniques, intuition, and marketing expertise to create transformational results for her clients.

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