• Serena Trinh

SEO or SEM? Which is Suitable for Your Business?

Updated: Sep 9

Search engines are a powerful marketing source to attract attention and reach potential customers. Most businesses are aware that search engines can drive massive traffic to their website, then increase sales and leads. However, search engines can be a challenging marketing strategy because Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) would be a confusing concept for those who are not familiar with digital marketing.



In some circumstances, SEM and SEO can be used interchangeably because of their similar set of activities. Although it might be difficult for people who are not in the marketing industry to notice the differences, a solid understanding about these two terms is necessary to help you create a clear and effective marketing strategy for your online visibility.


This article will go through the most basic differences between these two marketing tools.


What is Search Engine Optimisation?


Search Engine Optimisation, a.k.a SEO is an approach to optimise a website in order to place a high rank in Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs), so as to get more organic traffic.


SEO is an important marketing tactic in digital marketing strategy because of its exceptional benefits. Firstly, SEO helps a business increase organic traffic. By being on the first page in SERPs, there is a higher chance that users click to your website. Secondly, SEO improves authenticity and trust. When people do search, if your website is in a high rank position, this means your website is relevant and authentic. Users are more likely to trust search engine’s suggestions. Last but not least, SEO increases conversions and improves conversions rate. If your website is on the first page, when people make a search, there is a high possibility to convert. This is because your page is quite related to the user's search intention. In other words, your website is the solution that the users are looking for.



SEO is a complicated process which requires a lot of work. These are a number of tasks you need to perform when trying to improve SEO for your website. They are classified into 2 tiers:


On-page SEO


On-page SEO is a series of practices that you make adjustments on an individual page and the website as a whole. It can be to optimise website structure, so as Google can read through and users can navigate your website easily. On-page SEO isn’t only about optimising content on body text, it also includes adding keywords into textual elements on the website. These elements are URL, title, meta description, alt of images, ect. They help users and search engines understand the content quickly.


Another consideration of on-page SEO is to optimise technical aspects on the website. They can be using structured data, reducing page load time, improving user interface, ect. Therefore, technical SEO requires you to have some understanding about web design and coding.


Off-page SEO


Off-page SEO is the activities that happen out of the website, which is mostly known as backlink building.


Backlinks (or external links) are the links that point from other pages to your website. Backlink building is the practice to increase the link popularity. When you have many quality backlinks, your website is seen as authority and trusted by search engines. Then, your website is more likely to be suggested to users.


We can see that SEO is a long-term strategy and requires a lot of activities to perform. Therefore, it is not easy. However, if doing SEO correctly and successfully, you can enjoy the values from it over a long period of time.


What is Search Engines Marketing?


Search Engines Marketing, a.k.a search engine paid ads, is an approach to get traffic by purchasing paid or sponsored ad listing on search engines.


When people make a search, businesses have an option to buy ad space on search engines by joining an auction with others to bid for being shown. If you win this auction, your page is on the very first position and highly to be seen by this user.



Compared to SEO, SEM requires less work. The important thing here is you understand your customer intention, so as to appear when they need you. That can be done by refining your keyword list and creating compelling ad copies and visuals. Furthermore, you can control your ads by setting the right budget and bidding strategy.


Purchasing ad listings is beneficial since it ensures you are in front of your potential customers and appear when people are looking for the products or services you offer. In addition, search engines are mostly used for searching information and they contribute significantly in customer purchase behaviours.


The most popular search engine is Google which is dominating the search engine market, with 83.3% of users on both desktop and mobile. Google allows businesses to advertise on Google platforms and other Google’s partners through Google Ads. They provide exceptional features for businesses, ranging from audience targeting to bidding and cost controlling.


What are the Differences Between SEO and SEM?


In general, both SEO and SEM involve search engines and keywords which make you appear in SERPs. However, there are significant differences between these two.

  • SEO is free of charge. You don’t have to pay search engines for appearing on SERPs nor pay for being in a high position, but might cost for SEO experts. Meanwhile, SEM costs you money for being in the first position on search results. You will get charged every time a user clicks on your ads.

  • In SEO, results are shown to everyone who makes search queries on search engines; while in SEM, your ads can appear to selectively targeted audiences on search engines and other websites.

  • SEO takes time to rank high in search engines; while in SEM, ads can appear in front of your audience as soon as you launch a campaign.

  • SEO enhances your business’s online presence and success for a long-term; while SEM can bring traffic to your site in a short-term, until you stop your paid ad campaign.


SEO and SEM, which one is suitable for your business?


SEO and SEM carry both pros and cons to be considered which one is better than the other.


SEO is free of charge, brings long-term success but takes lots of time and effort. Meanwhile, SEM takes less time to be on the top of SERPs and brings traffic to the website quickly, but costly and gains no value in the long-term. It isn’t easy to tell which one is better because every business is different.


The best practice to consider which is a suitable tactic is to understand your business nature and market. For example, how competitive is the market you are in? What are your marketing goals and objectives? Who is your targeted audience? How long have you been in this industry? What is the current state of your website’s SEO? And so on.


There are no rules to choose the winner since it requires a lot of factors to consider. However, when you understand the similarities and differences between SEO and SEM, you can have your own answer.


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