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There are two types of channels to grow your business online, search engine optimization(SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM). Both help to get traffic via search engines, but what is the difference between SEO vs SEM? The difference between SEO and SEM is subtle. SEO focuses on optimizing your website to appear higher in search results so you can capture more organic traffic. SEM focuses on using SEO and paid strategies, like pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, to bring more organic and paid traffic to your site.

With SEO, you can focus on bringing organic traffic to your website. In comparison, with SEM, you can focus on capturing both paid and organic traffic to the site.


How much do SEM and SEO cost?

  • Aggressiveness
  • Scale
  • Industry
  • And more

In most cases, though, your average mid-sized business will invest the following into SEO and SEM:

  • SEO: $750-$2000 / month
  • SEM: $9000-$10,000 / month

Keep in mind, your company may invest a different amount depending on your industry, goals, and overall marketing strategy. That doesn’t mean you should ignore these numbers. Instead, use them as a reference when building your budget.

How long do SEO and SEM take?

  • SEO: Around three to six months
  • SEM: Instant, or as soon as your ads launch

A variety of factors can affect your turnaround time for results.

For example, your SEM campaign may not deliver results right away. Instead, you may need a few weeks of advertising data to improve your targeting to increase your conversion rates. Or, your SEO campaign may need even more time due to building backlinks or fixing issues from an SEO audit.

Which is better, SEM or SEO?

SEO and SEM each offer benefits that your business shouldn’t ignore. Ideally, you should use both.

If you can only choose one, though, pick SEO.

SEO provides a reliable and effective strategy for earning website traffic, leads, and revenue. Plus, SEO is generally more cost-effective than SEM, which almost always uses paid advertising.

Even though digital advertising is economical when it comes to price, it can become costly when it’s your sole resource for driving traffic, leads, and sales.

For the best results, build an SEO strategy that includes SEM. This kind of approach gives your business a diverse and comprehensive approach to marketing yourself online, leading to more traffic, leads, and sales from multiple channels, including search, paid, and social.

Together, SEM and SEO work better.

When should I use SEO vs. SEM?

While SEO is the preferred choice in many cases, some situations benefit more from SEM vs. SEO.

For example, you should use SEO when:

  • You can wait three to six months to start seeing traffic, leads, and online sales
  • You want to use a digital marketing strategy that isn’t dependent on having a monthly ad spend
  • You have the time and resources (or your SEO agency does) to manage SEO proactively

In comparison, you should use SEM when:

  • You need to generate traffic, leads, or sales immediately
  • You want to have a presence in high-competition search results without the wait of SEO
  • You have the time, resources, and budget to manage your ads weekly

Overall, choosing between SEM and SEO depends on what you want and how fast you want it.

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