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SEO Marketing

Differences between SEO and SEM

Differences between SEO and SEM

SEO is free and relies on organic search strategies, while SEM comes with a cost and relies on paid advertising. Additionally, SEO takes time to take effect, while SEM is instant.

Differences between SEO and SEM: The guide without room for confusion

SEO and SEM this is how we know the online marketing strategies that can be followed to improve the visibility or positioning of a certain website. But… do you know how SEO and SEM differ?

When you want to establish a digital marketing strategy, these two options usually cause a lot of confusion in users since they have the same final objective: to get higher-quality traffic to the website to increase conversions.

But, there are significant differences between organic positioning strategies (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM).

What do the acronyms SEO and SEM mean?

SEO: Search Engine Optimization.

SEM: Search Engine Marketing.

What is SEM?

The SEM concept refers to all the marketing actions that take place in a search engine. It is known as the set of strategies and techniques that help us improve the visibility of websites from search engines.

In other words, SEM consists of creating paid ads for specific keywords. When a user is conducting an active search for a product or service, the same ad is shown first, then the competition’s, managing to capture all user attention.

It also refers to the promotion of a website in search engines through paid ads through platforms such as Google Ads or Microsoft Advertising, previously known as Bing Ads. We also have a presence on platforms such as Google Maps, YouTube, Google Shopping, Gmail, and millions of web pages, thanks to the Display platform in Google Ads.

Through this strategy, the objective is to give immediate visibility to our website since from the moment we configure the campaigns and bid to exit, our ads have the possibility of appearing.

What is SEO?

The concept of SEO refers to optimization and implementation of a set of strategies to ensure that search engines, indexed correctly crawl the website, and sufficiently relevant. An SEO expert often designs these strategies. To be shown in the top positions of search engines for certain search queries by users.An SEO expert often designs these strategies.

To respond to a search, the different search engines evaluate dozens or even hundreds of signals from all websites to determine the best answer to said search. The aim is that users have the best possible experience and find what they are looking for quickly.

properly SEO-optimized website has a better chance of ranking high in organic results.

Therefore, the key is to appear in the first search results. How do we get it? With SEO optimization and without having to pay a direct advertising cost for each visit, thanks to the different on-page and off-page tasks that will make us more relevant and/or popular.

Within the SEO positioning work, there are 2 large sets of factors that we can optimize :

SEO On-page

It encompasses all those actions that we carry out within our website to optimize it to the maximum to position it better in search engines. What are the actions that we can carry out within our website to improve SEO positioning?

● Achieve an organized and easily understandable internal structure. With this, we make it easy for users to navigate our website, allowing them to stay longer on it. With this, we can improve the metrics that Google takes into account when properly positioning a website.

● Optimize titles and descriptions. To properly optimize a title, it is convenient to include the keyword, also trying to make it as attractive as possible to achieve more clicks, avoiding that it exceeds 60 characters so that it can be viewed completely. Something similar happens with the descriptions. We must tell you that we have the solution to what is raised in less than 140 characters.

● Optimize headings. Optimize H1, H2, H3 tags, etc. improves SEO positioning. How do we optimize them? Using the tag H1 for the title, H2 for the subtitles, H3 for the sections within the subtitles, etc. With this, we manage to organize the information and make the user better oriented within the content of our website, which we deserve to be positioned ahead of those who do not work on these aspects.

● Optimize content. It is one of the most important factors to improve SEO positioning, for this, we must achieve a content extension of about 1500-2000 words, a Keyword Density between 1% and 4%, optimize images, get comments on our content and use the keyword both in the first and last paragraph and in the rest of the content, but without overdoing it.

● Make friendly URLs. A URL to be optimized should be as short as possible and contain no more than three or four words. It is good that the keyword appears in the URL, you do not have to include underscores or weird symbols, and you can also skip the prepositions, conjunctions, etc.

● Get the charging time to be ideal. If our website does not load well, users will not be able to navigate it correctly and leave it, so the user experience will not be positive. What can we do to improve the loading time? Reduce the size of images, optimize the amount of code on the web, etc.

SEO Off-page

It encompasses all those actions that take place outside our website and that serve to increase its popularity. These actions do not imply making changes to our website or publishing content.

There are different techniques to work on off-page SEO:

● The generation of backlinks (Linkbuilding). It is achieved mainly by making other sites link to us (each site that links us is giving us a vote of confidence, and also, depending on the popularity of the site that links us, this link has more or less value). Our goal should be to obtain quality links from websites that have high authority to improve the SEO positioning of our website. For the generation of links, we must take into account three fundamental aspects:

– Authority: the Authority Score is a metric that measures the authority of a domain and indicates how impressive a site’s backlink can be.

– Another metric to take into account is the number of unique domains that link to our site. Domain diversity should be part of our strategies.

– Relevance of topics. Ideally, the websites that link to your site are related to the content of your website; that is, they deal with similar topics.

● Brand building. Carry out a series of activities that help us improve our online authority for users and search engines. To achieve a better online authority, we must take into account the following aspects:

– One of the indicators that help us discover if we are building our brand well is an increase in searches for our brand. We can find out how interest in our brand has evolved in Google Trends.

If you don’t know how to use this platform, we recommend the following post to better understand the tool.

– Content marketing encompasses both on-page SEO techniques and off-page SEO techniques. Any content that we write and publish outside of our website can also be considered content marketing. This is achieved by publishing guest articles on other blogs, registering in relevant thematic directories, distributing content that goes viral through social media and third-party sites, publishing press releases, and, ultimately, being online references in our subject matter. or sector.

– Many SEOs use digital public relations as a tactic to gain authority links. Also, an effective public relations campaign achieves authority links and increases brand awareness, presents your business to the target audience, and produces quality traffic.

● There are certain elements of local SEO that are key off-page SEO tactics:

– Google MyBusiness is of vital importance for local businesses. Let’s not forget that optimizing our page to position it in local results is also off-page SEO. More and more users are using Google to search for local information.

– Quotes. A quote is an online mention of your company that refers to the name, address, or phone number. Any local business that wants to rank in local search engine results should consider these citations, as they are considered key off-page positioning factors.

● Social networks are also used as search engines and discovery platforms. Most users use social networks to interact with the brands they use and seek answers to the posed questions. So it is important to have a solid presence in networks to gain positioning and create trust in users.

● Forums help us create value in our marketing mix. We can use the forums to create links and engage in conversations that relate to our experience to position ourselves as experts and get them to consider us specialists in the medium / long term. It is also one of the few platforms that allow us to discuss with potential customers asking about what we have to offer. This is a great way to start building trust and value relationships.

● Online events like webinars can help us build our brand. They help us engage our audience and benefit us from a real enthusiasm for our business, boosting engagement and links.

● Being more popular every day, podcasts help us achieve a competitive advantage. Thanks to them, we can reach new audiences to share our experiences and gain visibility in search engines other than Google.

● Reviews are becoming more and more important since users’ purchasing decisions often depend on them. No company can do without online reputation management. By collecting reviews and implementing them appropriately, Google can better understand our site by using them to derive brand referrals, increasing the authority of our website and our position in search engines. A company with good reviews is positioning itself as a brand.

These signals are external factors since they do not imply technical changes to our website.

SEO and SEM, therefore, are two strategies or ways of working on search engine optimization, totally complementary, and in fact, it is highly recommended in most cases to work both together and in a coordinated way.

How can SEO and SEM search results be differentiated?

Very easy, in search engines, sponsored or paid ads are shown under an  “ad” tag, sponsored links, or similar (for example, in the case of Google, Bing, or Yahoo!). Usually, these results appear in the upper area, but we can sometimes see them in the side area and at the bottom of the page.

There is no tag for organic SEO results, and they are usually displayed immediately after the first sponsored links. Let’s see some examples:

What are the main differences between SEO and SEM?

Both SEO and SEM have the purpose of improving the positioning of a website in search engines, but there are several differences between SEO and SEM:

● The main difference between SEO and SEM is that with an SEO strategy, we do not have to assume a direct cost for each visit, as we do with the SEM strategy. It is often thought that SEO is “free,” but it is not. Getting our website to rank in the top search results requires time, effort, and, of course, budget. But, it is an initial investment that pays off in the future, although it also requires some maintenance costs. However, if we use SEM, the expense is more constant since we will have to pay for each click on our ad.

● The place where our website is in the search results is also different. Google Ads ads rank above or below Google search results. We can also find them above, or below the Google Play search results, the Shopping tab, and Google Maps. However, the organic results are located in the central space.

● The content that is worked on in both strategies is different. In SEO, the content created has to be of quality, in longer formats, while in SEM, you have ads with a character limit and landing pages created to achieve the greatest impact with the minimum elements.

● Finally, with the SEO, we seek to achieve medium / long-term results, while the SEM is short/medium term.

SEO vs SEM, Metrics to take into account

To establish the SEO vs SEM differences, we will analyze the following aspects:

Number of keywords

  • SEOlimited number of keywords.
  • SEMunlimited number of keywords.

At least in principle.

When we propose an SEO strategy, the number of keywords with which we can work is limited as it depends on the amount of content and pages that our website has. The usual thing is to work a keyword and its slight variations (singular and plural, with and without prepositions, etc.) for each page. If we try to work each page for several keywords, we will find that in the end, that page is not relevant for any of them. This would be like working on different topics on a single page when the ideal is to focus on a single thing for each page. It is better to talk a lot about something than to talk little about many things (at an individual page level). Therefore, if our portal has few sections of content, we will not have too many options. On the contrary, if we develop new sections and content, we will expand our opportunities to be more relevant with our SEO. Unless we have an online store, a very good option is to add a blog to our site.

In the case of paid advertising (SEM), as it is a bidding system, we can choose all the keywords we want to go out, paying, of course, if we receive clicks. This allows us to identify those keywords that bring qualified traffic and that generate conversions. Therefore, it serves us both for prospecting and conversion. However, we must be careful, since if we bid on keywords that are not relevant, the search engines will detect it and make us pay an extra cost to exit, making it difficult for us to appear or showing us fewer times. In addition, if we bid on very broad keywords, we risk receiving a large number of low-quality clicks, which will cost us a lot. These are the reasons why for many searches, nobody advertises.


  • SEO: we pay for the optimization work (professional in payroll, external, or SEO agency).
  • SEMpaid for visits  (to Google, Bing, etc.) and campaign management (payroll professional, external or SEM agency).

Defining an SEO strategy with short, medium, and long-term implications and executing it requires the work of one or more specialists that know this task perfectly. This includes personnel with technical knowledge at the web level to work on those aspects related to the technology of our website (loading speed, optimization of tags and HTML code …) and personnel specialized in the generation of content, that is, people who know how to write and communicate. It is often difficult to find a person who can work effectively, so it may be interesting to have two different profiles (one more technical and the other focused on writing and copying) or to work with an agency that provides the service. Full. Otherwise, our SEO strategy may falter.

In the case of SEM, it requires a professional who knows how the main search engine payment platforms work, especially Google AdWords. Still, they give us many facilities to set up a campaign in a few minutes, so at the same time, it is extremely easy and fast to create a campaign that foolishly spends our money without obtaining hardly any results. . Taking into account that each click they make us will entail an additional cost to that of the professional himself, we must take this into account. These platforms are increasingly complex when it is known how they work.

In any case, both for SEO and SEM, we must remember that whoever executes it must be a well-trained professional in these areas, and better if they have experience. The online world is becoming more competitive and has become very professional. If others do it better than us, they are more likely to position themselves better because they have more experience or a greater budget and resources. Therefore, we will have to define our marketing objectives based on who we compete with and be reasonable about what we can achieve with our resources.

Time / visibility

  • SEO: the results are obtained, above all, in the medium / long term.
  • SEM: the results are obtained almost immediately and can be prolonged as long as we want in time.

Although there are times when we can obtain the first SEO results in a few days, the normal thing, especially when we have a project that starts from scratch, is that the results take time to arrive. Sometimes weeks and other months. The continuous and non-stop work that is developed (there will always be things that we can improve or polish) will make our portal take off at any given time. This is so because search engines want to make sure that our project is serious and long-term. Sometimes, we have done an impeccable job of optimization, and we hardly get visible results. And, suddenly, one fine day, our positioning shoots up, simply having continued with a continuous work but without having done any action that by itself justifies this take-off. And from then on.

On the other hand, through the SEM strategy, we can appear in a matter of minutes in the first or second place of the search results, surpassing all SEO results in one fell swoop. This will make us get results (visits and conversions) almost from minute zero. However, an SEM campaign requires a lot of experimentation and analysis, especially at the beginning, which is known as campaign optimization. Although results should be expected in the first month, the best results are not usually achieved until the second, third or fourth. Therefore, it is advisable to have a little patience if we see that in the first month the sales still do not amortize the cost of the campaign, as long as we see work that is progressing and the problems we find are solved. Sometimes, these problems do not depend on the campaign itself, but on the part of the conversion funnel that depends on the company itself (being able to close opportunities or leads, having a product or service that is interesting, a competitive price, … ) and the web. It must also be seen from the point of view that a new competitor enters the market, and the competition will move and make it difficult for us, sometimes even using unethical techniques or click fraud.

And once our SEM campaign works, we should not see it as a strategy that replaces SEO but as an additional and complementary strategy. As long as our campaign is profitable, we can use this type of advertising to generate conversions, visits, or sales recurring and continuous. In our case, we still maintain campaigns that started in 2006 and 2007. In fact, for many businesses, the SEM strategy is the one that attracts the most conversions and is essential. However, there are also businesses where the SEM strategy is difficult to make profitable and is limited, with SEO being the one that prevails.

The flexibility of the strategy to changes

  • SEO: it is not very flexible to changes.
  • SEM: it is very flexible to changes.

In SEO positioning, for changes to take effect, sometimes days or weeks pass. For example, for a title change to occur, the search engine robot must crawl the page again and update the result in its index on its servers. And we cannot propose to be changing the titles every day.

In SEM, any change in the campaign is applied immediately. For example, change the texts of the ads, pause a keyword that does not give us good results, add others, change what we bid to raise or lower our position …


  • SEO: various studies show that CTR (click rate) below the 5th position is less than 5%, greatly affecting the optimization work. Going out on the second page is practically like not being there since only 1% of users pass the first page. And going out first usually generates click rates close to 30%.
  • SEM: in the case of advertising systems such as AdWords, very high CTRs can be obtained in the first 4 results, which are those that come out in the TOP area, being able to reach figures higher than 10% and up to 30% in the case of being in the first position.

Some users prefer to click on organic results (SEO)  rather than paid results because they know ads.

We leave you a study that talks about CTR.

What can this be due to?…. As they have a commercial purpose, some advertisements offer the user content that is not what they are looking for. However, if the SEM campaign is designed properly, this should not happen to a large extent. If the search has a commercial intention, an ad can be equal or more relevant than an SEO result, given the great information it can contain (Google has recently expanded the length of its ads).

In any case, in both SEO and SEM, CTR decreases with the position. The lower we are, the fewer clicks we will receive.


  • SEO: originality, length, quality, and relevance must be sought.
  • SEM: above all, relevance should be sought, in addition to giving it a more commercial focus, focusing more on conversion.

In SEO, the contents of the pages that appear in the first organic search results are positioned by the website’s relevance within a certain theme or sector and by the quality of its contents. Therefore, the user is more likely to find what they are looking for in organic search results.

For its part, the SEM strategy has a clear business purpose. That is why most of the time, these contents do not satisfy the needs of the users who make the search queries. If you work with SEM, it is highly advisable to have specific landing pages that are very focused on giving the user what they are looking for and leading them towards conversion, using texts and claims that encourage action, and facilitating the user to reach the goal that we have considered with the campaign (registration, request, call, budget, download, sale …).


  • SEOthere is no guarantee of appearing in the first results.
  • SEM: from the moment the campaign starts, it is possible to appear in the first results.

Working with SEO, nobody can guarantee that you will appear on the first page of organic search results or in a certain position at a certain time. Whoever says that is either trying to deceive you or is using unethical or fraudulent techniques, which in many cases can lead to serious penalties. There must be a job behind, that is clear, and the normal thing is that this work achieves some results in a reasonable period of time (weeks), and little by little, it advances.

However, we must assume that the positioning may be worked for months and even years, and the objective is not achieved (positioning a page for a search in the TOP10) because the competitors have been positioned there for a long time or have resources greater than the U.S. In that case, you have to look for other types of solutions.

If you optimize the campaign correctly in SEM, you will appear on the first page almost instantly, and even in the first position. It’s easy; as long as you invest in the campaign, you will have visibility. And if you bid a lot, you can get out first. However, it is not just a matter of bidding hard but of structuring the campaign and optimizing it correctly in the long run. With SEM, it is possible to go out first and pay less than the second. Although in hypercompetitive environments, the logical thing is that it is better positioned as it is pushed.

Changes in rankings

  • SEO: there are no great fluctuations in terms of its position in ranking results.
  • SEM: dance of positions can be constant.

In SEO, as a general rule, there is not a great dance of positions in the rankings since hundreds of factors are considered, and it is difficult for a single signal to produce important changes. Big changes usually come when search engine algorithms implement modifications that affect the weighting of some signals. This usually happens a few times each year. Therefore, if a website is very well positioned, it is difficult to overcome it in a short space of time.

One of the main ranking factors is the age of the domain, but also the freshness of the content. So, on the one hand, older websites have certain benefits. On the other hand, more recent articles tend to be more relevant than older ones.

In SEM, on the contrary, fluctuations with constants, since if any of the competitors modify their bid or makes changes in the campaign or on the web, the ranking of the ads is modified, which depends on a mathematical formula that you have in it counts the bid and a quality factor that is calculated in real-time for each search.


  • SEO: increasingly difficult to measure.
  • SEMeasy to monitor. 

Suppose we use a web analytics tool such as Google Analytics. In that case, we will have realized that since Google cares about privacy in searches, identifying as ‘ Not provided ‘ the keywords that users search in Google having a logged-in session is more difficult to know the queries or keywords for which we are getting traffic.

To measure the metrics related to SEO positioning, we can use the tools for Webmasters offered by search engines, in the case of Google, Search Console. This tool gives us certain information about the positions and keywords that have generated clicks, but the information is incomplete, making any SEO work difficult.

In SEM, thanks to the tools provided by advertising platforms such as Google AdWords, we can have all the data and statistics of keywords and metrics related to a campaign. We can also completely have this information by easily identifying the keywords for which we get more visits, conversions, and Google Analytics.

The initial investment in AdWords can be really interesting to know what words are searched, bringing traffic to our website and which ones convert the best.

What strategy to choose, SEO or SEM?

If you want immediate visibility, SEM is the best option. You will appear in the TOP area of ​​the search results, surpassing the SEO results. At the same time, an organic SEO campaign could take weeks or months to reach the first page of Google.

As an SEO and SEM Agency, we suggest you analyze your business ( contact us without obligation ) to see which of them will be more effective for you. However, in most situations, the combination of both is what will provide you with short, medium, and short results.

Within this mixed strategy, for SEO, you can choose to start trying to position those keywords that, for example, have a higher CPC (Cost per Click) on platforms such as Google AdWords and those with a local scope. So you can periodically analyze the results and check if those keywords have been positioned by SEO to stop bidding on them in AdWords. In this way,  you will have visibility in search engines, and apart you can progressively reduce direct costs.

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