Both SEM and SEO focus on bringing in traffic from search. SEO does this organically (unpaid), whereas SEM does it by combining paid search (PPC) and SEO together for a holistic approach. Read on to learn their similarities, differences, and when to use each.

Here, you’ll find:

  1. What are the differences between SEM and SEO?
  2. Similarities between SEM and SEO
  3. SEO vs. SEM vs. PPC
  4. When should you use SEO?
  5. When should you use PPC?
  6. Why a holistic approach (SEO and PPC) is the best

Search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) are two of the most common terms under that big ol’ “online marketing” umbrella.

With only a single letter of difference, how different can they be?

Turns out, quite a bit.

Image: HawkSEM

What are the differences between SEM and SEO?

SEM (search engine marketing) improves your performance and visibility on search engine results pages (SERPs) using strategies like pay-per-click advertising (i.e., PPC) and organic search strategies, aka SEO, which uses “non-paid” strategies to rank higher on search engines.

SEO methods may include content marketing, link building strategies, and making technical improvements to your website, like increasing speed and simplifying navigation.

Obviously, these strategies aren’t free. This just means we don’t pay the search engine to appear at the top of the results page — those are for paid search ads (PPC) only. Ranking #1 (or as a snippet) is all about high-quality content on a high-quality website.

It can help to understand how Google’s algorithm works and tweak your website according to the 200+ search ranking factors to better comply with rules, optimize content, and be more appealing to searchers.

SEO strategies can be broken down into a few major categories. These are:

  • On-page SEO: All of the content creation, optimization, and interlinking you do to create a website that people want to visit and that Google views as a valuable and worthwhile website to show in their rankings for various search queries
  • Off-page SEO: The promotion, outreach, link building, and other efforts you take to promote your content on other sites, build a reputation, establish authority, and optimize factors like high-quality backlinks
  • Technical SEO: All of the invisible or technical factors that go into making a site that complies with Google policies and guidelines, including metadata (meta descriptions, title tags, etc.), structured data (Schema), and server optimizations like site speed and mobile compatibility
  • Local SEO: The optimization you do to improve your rankings for location-based and locally-relevant searches (local SEO isn’t just for physical businesses, either, and almost half of all web searches are local)

Together, these elements are the bulk of what we consider SEO, which is a significant component of SEM.

Search engine marketing

Search engine marketing can be a combination of PPC and SEO (Image: Unsplash)

The similarities between SEO and SEM

SEO is often part of an SEM strategy. Therefore, SEO is a subcategory of SEM, alongside PPC. And with so many acronyms, there’s bound to be confusion.

“SEO and SEM are digital marketing strategies aimed at increasing website visibility and driving traffic from search engines,” says Matt Smith, associate director of SEO at HawkSEM.

He adds that “SEO focuses on optimizing a website’s content and structure to improve organic search rankings, while SEM involves paid advertising to appear in search engine results. In other words, SEO is a long-term strategy with no direct cost, while SEM requires a budget for keyword bidding and offers more immediate visibility through paid ads.”

Yet, some still consider PPC and SEM to be synonymous. They believe SEM to be just the paid half of online marketing, while SEO is the organic half.

But we’re here to clear things up.

SEO vs. SEM vs. PPC

SEM is a Venn diagram: SEO is one circle, PPC is on the other, and SEM is where the two overlap.

SEM Venn diagram

Image: HawkSEM

Here are the key differences between SEO and PPC:


The first difference is money. While you can do SEO for “free,” PPC is pay-to-play. PPC involves paying Google (or Bing, Yahoo, Amazon, or any other form of search engine) for a spot in the search results.

SEO, on the other hand, only requires paying for the people, agencies, and tools that assist in your efforts to rank higher — rather than giving money to Google directly.

How much do SEO and PPC cost?  You can expect to pay anywhere from $2,500 to $10,000+ per month. SEO can be performed for “free” or cheap, though the results you get may not be effective. 

And while you can run PPC ads cheaply, the paid results are just as small as the investment. Large brands have large budgets, befitting the number of digits on all the numbers they use.


The second difference is time. Time applies in two ways: how long it takes to start working and how long the impact lasts.

  • SEO takes roughly 3-6 months to show results. It typically does not start working right away. SEO requires the search engine to index your content and rank it appropriately, which can take six months or more. It generally only takes a short time for Google search to index content and give it a rank, but it takes much longer for content to grow to a high enough rank to be visible in the top organic search results.
  • PPC takes roughly 2-3 months to see results. Meanwhile, PPC is nearly instant in comparison to SEO. You create an ad, the ad network (usually Google Ads) approves it, and it starts running immediately. As long as your budget and cost per click (CPC) are sufficient to win the ad auctions, your quality score and user experience are high enough to keep your ads in the running, and the traffic volume is sufficient, your ads will start to display immediately.


In terms of longevity, the same dichotomy holds:

  • SEO can last nearly indefinitely. Some of the best content on the internet is many years old. While organic content can “age out” and fall out of favor, it can also be refurbished and kept relevant. With the proper maintenance, SEO basically lasts forever.
  • PPC, meanwhile, lasts precisely as long as you have the money to pay for it and keep your ad campaigns active. If your budget runs out, the PPC campaigns stop until you put more money into the system. And, of course, if you decide you don’t like the ad’s performance, you can pause them at any time.

This phenomenon is primarily why both SEO and PPC advertising complement each other well. SEO starts slow and takes a long time to build up, while PPC begins almost immediately.

Further, you’re less likely to have PPC success without strong SEO. If your ad directs a prospect to a poorly written landing page, you’ll probably miss out on a conversion.

High-quality web pages = conversion rate

Keyword research

The third difference is in keywords. Keyword research is at the core of both SEO and PPC. However, the types of keywords that work best and the metrics that you’re looking at will vary.

organic keywords trend report

Keyword research is at the core of both SEO and PPC

When performing keyword research, you’ll find specific keywords have different intents behind them. These intents are:

  • Navigational: the user knows where they want to go and wants a link
  • Informational: the user has a question and wants an answer
  • Tutorial: the user has a problem to solve and wants to know how to solve it themselves
  • Commercial: the user has a problem to solve and wants to research solutions they can buy
  • Transactional: the user wants to make a purchase and is looking for where to do it

Informational and tutorial keywords tend to perform best for SEO and are less effective for PPC.

If your goal is to get your target audience to download a checklist, for example, PPC ads can probably get some downloads and provide value. However, you may want to let SEO handle these early-stage inquiries and focus on more purchase-ready keywords for your PPC campaigns.

Commercial and transactional keywords tend to perform best with PPC, though properly-formulated quality content can also work well for SEO. PPC tends to be most relevant when it has a tangible offer for the user and a concrete, easy-to-calculate return on investment.

A massive part of effective SEM is understanding the intent behind a search term and sculpting the marketing campaign you use to reach that intent most effectively.

When should you use SEO?

When it comes to choosing between SEO and PPC, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Both strategies have their place in a successful digital marketing strategy. However, for some campaigns and businesses, you may find that SEO is the better option.

If your goal is to get on the first page of the SERPs and stay there, investing in a good SEO campaign will be essential. Although Google Ads can get you onto the first page quickly, being on the organic side of SERPs is more reliable and longer lasting.

With a smart SEO campaign and consistent efforts over time, you can achieve a higher click-through rate (CTR) than with paid ads because people trust organic results more than they do ads.

Another instance where SEO may be preferable over PPC is when you’re targeting keywords with high competition. If your budget isn’t high enough to compete with other advertisers for those keywords, then you’ll need to focus on organic search engine optimization instead of PPC.

This involves creating content that targets those keywords and optimizing it for search engines to appear near the top of SERPs when people search for those terms.

If your goal is to secure long-term visibility in the SERPs while also building trust with potential customers, then investing in an effective SEO campaign should be part of your digital marketing strategy.

With targeted keyword research and consistent efforts over time, you can build your website’s authority without relying too much on paid advertising campaigns.

According to our expert, Smith, you should use a mix of the following in your SEO campaigns:

SEO mistakes to avoid:

If you attempt to do your own SEO, then avoid these common mishaps:

  • Not taking time to understand your target audience
  • Misguided or lack of keyword strategy
  • Low content publishing cadence
  • Low-quality content
  • Poor site architecture
  • Lack of technical stability and page indexation

“To avoid these mistakes, businesses should prioritize ongoing education and stay updated on SEO best practices,” advises Smith. “It’s beneficial to consult with SEO professionals for guidance. Regular audits of the website’s SEO performance, fixing any issues, and monitoring analytics data can help identify and rectify any mistakes or areas for improvement.”

A real-world example of SEO at work

MileIQ, a mileage logging mobile app, needed to enhance its SEO and bring in more high-quality organic traffic to its app. To achieve this, it needed to get more rankings in Google, especially on the first page, by leveraging higher volume search terms.

So it partnered with HawkSEM and our teams zoned in on featured snippets, answering common search questions, and building in-depth content to enhance their authority. 

The results:

  • Growth in year-over-year organic site traffic by 125%
  • Nearly 4,000 new first-page keyword rankings
  • Increased organic sessions by 207%

A lot goes into making SEO effective, such as building backlinks, updating old content, and ensuring your sitemap is accurate. We handle everything from the on-page and off-page to the technical aspects of SEO.

When should you use PPC?

While SEO is focused on improving organic rankings in search engines, search marketing is a paid strategy that uses advertisements like Google Ads (previously Google AdWords) or Bing Ads. Depending on your goals and budget, one of these strategies might better suit your needs.

For instance, if you want a short-term solution with guaranteed visibility, then use SEM paid campaigns to deliver fast results.

With PPC advertising, you can create ad copy that targets specific keywords and appear at the top of SERPs within hours. This means you won’t have to wait months or even years to see results from your SEO efforts as you would with SEO campaigns. Plus, since you’re only paying for ads when people click on them, it can be more cost-effective than SEO if budgeted correctly.

Additionally, PPC also offers greater flexibility than SEO by allowing you to adjust and test different components of your ad copy. For instance, if certain keywords aren’t driving enough clicks or conversions, you can quickly replace them with keywords that perform better while also testing different variations of titles or descriptions to determine which works best.

In a nutshell, PPC is a great choice if you need quick visibility into SERPs and need a way to measure the success of your campaigns in real-time. But even though it might be tempting to rely solely on paid advertising campaigns instead of SEO strategies in the long run, doing so could lead to higher costs and fewer conversions over time due to its limited targeting abilities.

PPC mistakes to avoid

Attempting to run your own paid advertising campaigns? Then avoid the following mistakes:

  • Not understanding your target audience
  • Misguided or lack of keyword strategy
  • Wrong bid optimization strategy
  • Broad targeting
  • Making high-impact, structural changes the account quickly (instead of in stages)
  • Lack of negative keyword management

“SEM requires constant maintenance and refinement, so it’s imperative to consistently test, monitor and execute changes based on keyword-level performance,” says Smith.

A real-world example of PPC at work 

Columbia Virtual Academy, a public education program in Washington State, understood the importance of digital marketing, but lacked the in-house expertise to effectively build and execute a strategy.

So it came to HawkSEM to restructure its PPC account with new campaigns, ad groups, keywords, ad copy, and ad extensions. 

The results were phenomenal:

  • Increased Google Ads conversions by 134% year over year
  • Decreased cost per acquisition (CPA) by 51%
  • Increased search clickthrough rate (CTR) by 45%

But this only works with proper experimentation and tools. The PPC experts at HawkSEM have decades under their belts, plus our proprietary software, ConversionIQ, which helps pinpoint the keywords that yield the highest conversions.

Why a holistic approach (SEO and PPC) is the best

In digital marketing, it’s not always about this vs. that — it’s about using all available tools and strategies to get the results you need. At HawkSEM, we believe a holistic approach that combines both SEO and PPC is often the best choice. Using both maximizes visibility and ensures your message reaches the widest possible audience.

For example, an organic SEO campaign can help boost your website’s rankings while also building trust with potential customers over time. On the other hand, a PPC campaign can help you get quick visibility into SERPs and also measure the success of different ad variations in real time.

It’s an ideal approach for various industries, including eCommerce, technology, B2B, B2C, and service-based companies. By targeting ad and organic search, you improve the odds of occupying more SERP real estate, which means more visibility and clicks. 

If a person sees your ad at the top and clicks — that’s a win. Or if they have “ad blindness” and click your organic listing instead, that’s still a win. So with a holistic approach, you can’t lose.

All you need is the right strategy to make your SEM campaign succeed.

The takeaway

“SEM” covers the bulk of your online advertising, while “SEO” is just one of the tools at your disposal, alongside PPC.

Your digital marketing strategy will depend on your goals, targeted keywords, budget, the quality of your site, your competition, and more.

Finding the right balance between SEO and PPC is essential in SEM. That’s why powerful tools like ConversionIQ exist. We created this platform to help you easily monitor and optimize your campaigns, resulting in better performance and higher ROI.

The question is, where do you put your budget? Can you write more content for organic traffic and SEO results, pay for high-quality tools to improve your overall marketing, or give Google money directly to give you more exposure and website traffic?

The choice is yours.


This article has been updated and was originally published in September 2022.

Josie Rojewski

Josie Rojewski

Josie is a content marketing writer at HawkSEM with 7 years of digital marketing, content writing, and editing experience. She uses her linguistics and teaching background to compose in-depth articles, how-to guides, and other SEO-friendly content to help marketing leaders succeed. She loves reading, baking, and searching for the perfect pen.