For brands to attract attention and drive visitors to their website, they need to optimize their website and content to influence how they appear on search engines. Optimization is a vital part of any brand’s digital marketing strategy and affects how fast a business grows. However, it may be challenging to manage this process if you don’t know the difference between SEM and SEO.

Using the two terms interchangeably would result in an unclear and ineffective strategy for improving your visibility; though they have the same goal, which is to grow a business, SEO and SEM are two different things.

SEM – search engine marketing

This strategy uses paid tactics to make a company more visible in search engine results pages. It is also called paid search or pay-per-click (PPC) marketing. Google Ads is the most popular provider for SEM campaigns. On the platform, brands can do keyword research and make campaigns that work the best with their product or service.

The advertisements you see at the top or bottom of SERPs are most likely ad placements from companies’ SEM campaigns. Every time a user clicks on the URL displayed, the brand is charged a fee.

SEO – search engine optimization

In contrast to the relatively straightforward process that is SEM, SEO is comprised of several strategies, all geared towards making a website rank organically and over time. There are two main types—on-page optimization and technical SEO. The former refers to everything that has to do with making content that will rank high on search engines. That includes keyword research, keyword optimization, and content creation.

Meanwhile, technical SEO improves the backend structure of a website. It deals with mobile-friendliness, site architecture, indexing, and other processes that help make it easy for visitors to retrieve information. That also includes link-building, writing metadata, and other off-page strategies for optimization.

Which is better for your company?

Ideally, your company will have the budget for both search engine marketing and optimization. However, you might sometimes need to prioritize one over the other. When deciding which strategy to lead with, one thing you could look at is your competition. Identify what your competitors are using and how it is working for them.

You could also start with an SEM campaign if you haven’t been in your industry for a long time. It helps you test your products and services against an already established market. 

If you’ve been in business for a few years, you could prioritize a long-term SEO strategy. You can also consider the typical buying cycle of your customers. Short cycles generally do better when paired with SEM, while demographics that love poring over information are served by SEO.

Other things to consider are the average cost-per-click in your industry, the age of your business, and the current status of your website. If you are a newcomer, you will benefit from putting yourself out there and employing paid search techniques. Meanwhile, if you have been around for a while, your website could probably use a revamp, making SEO the better option.


Both SEM and SEO are techniques used in search marketing, which encompasses a variety of activities that help a brand get traction on search engine results pages. Successful search marketing involving SEM, SEO, or both increases a company’s visibility and puts it on the first page of relevant searches.

If you’re looking to grow your brand’s presence online, consult us at Bolt Marketing. We provide search engine marketing and optimization services in London, Ontario. Contact us today and let’s talk about how to get started!

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