To stand out and gain visibility online, a strong original digital presence is essential. This guide will answer the contentious question: SEO VS SEM: which tool should you be using?

A strong, noticeable digital presence starts with your visibility online.

81% of users find their desired online destination through a search engine, according to the Forrester research company.

Therefore, if your customer can’t find you through a search engine inquiry, your business doesn’t exist to them. To stay competitive, you must always be working at improving your level of visibility. To increase your level of visibility requires optimising your Paid and Organic Search – two vastly different, yet highly effective marketing approaches. 

  SEO_vs_SEM_which_should_you_be_using   The success of any business online greatly depends on the amount of traffic it can direct to its sites through these search approaches.

70% of traffic that is generated for any website will come from a search engine. This means that 70% of your customers arrive directly from one medium – Search Engines.

Always remember that the search engine’s number one priority is to return the BEST results for the user conducting the search – these results will not necessarily be the best results for the company paying for the ads. Hence, you must create content that has the core purpose of presenting the customer with a solution. Google and Bing will recognise this, and reward you for the quality of information provided.    

What is the difference between SEO and SEM?

SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) and SEM (Search Engine Marketing) – also known as Google Adwords, Paid or PPC (Pay Per Click) – share the same method of generating traffic to your site.

The key difference is that SEM is paid marketing, while SEO is financially free.

This guide considers that SEO does not require a monetary investment; instead, it requires the investment of your time – to consistently optimise for your chosen search engine. SEM enables you to display ads in the sponsored results section of each search engine’s results page. The amount paid is based on how valuable your chosen keyword is. You only pay when a viewer clicks through from your ad to your website- not when the link is displayed. SEO_vs_SEM_SEM_Tools   When using SEM, you are paying for advertising space for specific keywords on search results pages. These PPC ads are shown at the top of the Search Engine Results Page (SERP) with a green tag labelled ‘Ad’. Below these initial search results, are organic search headings – these take up the majority of the first results page. SEO requires you to build traffic to achieve high rankings in the organic (non-paid) search results section – the listings are displayed underneath sponsored results. You will need to follow SEO best practices (Google Specification Checklist) on your website to try to get your site displayed on these pages more prominently and more often. It may take time to reach the top of the “natural” results, but depending on your goals and your optimisation ability – it can prove to be a good investment.   SEO_Vs_SEM_Seo_tools  

SEO not only involves optimising your website and content to rank higher in organic search results for targeted keywords on Google; it’s also about being an authority on the problem at hand and the solution you provide.

Google and Bing look at how people interact with your site – tracking their actions, such as click-through rates, bounce rates and quality of information provided (plus hundreds of other factors).

So which approach is better? It depends on your needs and budget.

If you want more traffic fast and are willing to pay for it, then PPC is right for you. But if you’re operating on a smaller budget, it may make more sense to invest time in chasing high search rankings through SEO.    



  Marketers need to know each medium’s strengths and limitations for effective keyword rankings across all niche topics. These conditions depend heavily on your content goals: Are you promoting new products? Does your service require educating the customer? Is there a large barrier to entry? Is your product name synonymous with the market? etc.  

  1. How large is your advertising budget?

When faced with the choice of SEO and SEM, you must first decide what size advertising budget your business can support. You are able to set your daily spend to your own specifications – with $5-$10 a day a good recommended starting total. If you don’t have the budget to commit to advertising on this scale, you should opt for SEO where you only need to invest your time. However, it is highly recommended that you periodically test PPC methods, as they could provide substantial returns on investment, and the following benefits: Faster testing: To improve the volume of conversions, multiple variances of design and structure on your site should be tested. Google index your site faster when using PPC, to deliver you faster results. Protection from SEO updates: SEO algorithms change periodically. Therefore, SEO content needs to be consistently updated and optimised. SEM usually has a steadier stream of visitors because of its unchanging visibility, as these updates do not affect your search ranking.  

  1. What is the average CPC (cost per click) in your industry?

The fee incurred when a user visits your site is called your cost per click. SEM platforms allow users to bid for single keywords that vary in price depending on the amount of traffic for that keyword.  General searches for common keywords, such as ‘auto insurance’ at $28.55 per click, have a much higher average CPC.   Tools such as SEMrush provide numerous keyword CPCs by finding similar search terms to the keyword you’re researching. This feature, combined with a competitor analysis, will highlight niches that might have larger search volumes for a lower CPC.   seo_vs_sem_search_keyword_curve  

  1. How competitive are the SERPs in your niche?

You will need to determine the competitive environment for your keywords by researching your SERP saturation. Google’s External Keyword Research Tool will gauge your levels of organic competition, as well as the number of advertisers bidding for your keywords and the average CPCs. Certain industries with larger firms and authority websites suffer from keyword saturation. For such highly trafficked keyword industries, it may be more productive to invest in SEM – to score higher in niche keywords. To overtake these sites can require an advanced knowledge of SEO and large investments of time; below are some guidelines on when it is best to launch a productive SEO campaign to boost your visibility.    


  Google garners more than 3.5 Billion searches per day, with 200 million searches in Australia alone.

SEO, on average, accounts for 7/10 results on the first SERP, with a user drop-off rate of 90% after the first page.

If you plan an SEO campaign around ranking on this first page, your content will reflect an invaluable audience-centric approach.   SEO_vs_sem_seo_success_factors  

So when and why should you use SEO techniques to take advantage of this massive intent-driven market?


  1. For Consistent results

SEO often has a longer lifespan than paid ads. This is because you do not need a budget to sustain your ranking. Getting to the top of the SERPs requires research and time to provide articles worthy of solving the audience’s problems. However, once you get there, sustained traffic is a by-product of user’s preferences for organic search.

Organic results are 8.5x more likely to be clicked on than paid search results.

If you keep up with your SEO campaign, working to maintain and improve results, you can cement yourself at a high position of authority within your industry without having to invest money.   seo_vs_sem_targeting_page_phrase  

  1. To build an authority-driven site

An ‘authority website’ is an established resource centre for a particular niche (WordStream). It acts as a reference and ‘go to’ site for information on the niche it addresses. An authority website, once recognised, will sustainably drive traffic based on user navigation history on your site. To dominate a market in your given field requires clever content powered by smart SEO planning.  

  1. To increase the value of your website

Your website is your brand and your digital showroom all wrapped into one – it is your virtual real estate. If you’re planning to drive more customers to your site, you need to generate value in return for their visit. To do so you will need to focus on quality and consistency of traffic generated, page rank, search engine rankings over a period of time and link popularity.   SEO is a powerful tool when used to generate brand awareness across a variety of business-related topics. Updating your site regularly with blogs or FAQs will prove your business as experts in your field.    


  Ad platforms make it easy for marketers to target the exact audiences that provide the best return on investment. Paid search results are 1.5x more likely to convert click throughs from their given SERP – with speed and accuracy that rivals direct social media advertising. Easily measured and trackable, SEM provides a solid base for brands wanting their name to be synonymous with specific keywords. Variances in keyword search volume will impact costs and your ROI, so it is important to select your keywords carefully.   seo_vs_sem_search_heatmap  

So when and why should you use SEM to boost your brand and elevate your visibility in the market?


  1. When you desire immediate results

SEM delivers results fast, as once your PPC campaign is approved & you have won the bid for your keyword, your ads will immediately be displayed at the top of the SERP. Depending on the volume of the search word, you could potentially reach tens of thousands of users. SEM traffic is almost instantaneous, which makes it great for promoting product launches, squeeze pages, CPA marketing, event promotion, joint venture projects and low price points offers.  

  1. To target highly specific traffic

SEM allows you to narrow down your prospects to reach specific demographics and audiences. Unlike SEO, PPC platforms, like social media sites, allow highly focused persona searches (e.g. age, gender, income bracket, education level and marital status) to see your ad.  


SEM effectively streamlines your budget, so content only appears to relevant audiences. This is great for including specific people that are currently in the market, omitting portions of audiences that would otherwise click on your ad without converting.


  1. When Promoting a time-sensitive offer

Marketing products or services that have an expiration date can prove difficult, especially given the noise of online marketing. Generating traffic through an SEO campaign produces delayed results. The expedience of PPC makes it perfect for promoting offers that last less than a week – generating traffic (if the keyword is trending) instantly.




  1. To dominate SERPs for your keyword category

The prominent position granted to PPC results means up to 50% of search traffic goes to the top 3 sponsored links. If you are absent from the paid ads in your given industry, you are conceding those clicks to your competitors. Provided you want to maximise your click through share of keywords, engaging in PPC is a necessity.





The answer: It depends. But if you can, use both.

Search Engine Marketing is a great way to jump-start your business’ digital marketing efforts with instant traffic. Certify your PPC by getting the right search engine training. Google offers Adwords, Analytics and Network training for free. So you can learn directly from those that index you.

Your SEM objective is to increase your rate of clicks by paying for these ads. Higher ROI from your search marketing is achieved through research, feedback and multi-variate testing. This feedback generates content-response insight for your brand. You may have to forego a loss in return for visibility – but make sure you manage your existing Adwords rigorously when doing so.

You should always use Search Engine Optimisation – regardless of if you use Adwords.

Consistently optimise your website as “best practice”. The benefits of having a great site extend beyond Google’s indexing, as it will force you to focus on the customer’s experience and journey through your site.

Consumer-centric businesses generate results by analysing target audiences first. Products or services produced, fill these consumer markets. Your website needs to do the same. You should optimise your site, if not for search engines, then for quality of user experience. Keep your website structure simple by using customer feedback and an outside perspective.

Therefore, it is imperative that SEO does not cancel out SEM. Paid results need SEO to rank higher within their ad space. Your search engine tools, when used together, should dominate your keyword market and your industry. So don’t ask which should you be using, but how you can use them effectively together.



This guide has now prepared you to tackle your competition through improved search engine content production. Your efforts should not end here, as you will need to regularly analyse and update your SEO and SEM if you’re running them together. However, if you want to take advantage of SEO – but are absent the time, or if you wish to invest in SEM – but it is proving too technical to run, we at Sydney Digital Marketing specialise in Organic and Paid Search.


Our team of copywriters are on the cusp of changing SEO updates, and are Google Adwords certified. This means that we can help you reach the top of the SERP for both rankings. This is a crucial time for visibility and brand awareness. Make yourself known to your customer, and become their go-to source for industry leading information on products and services.


Dominate your Search Engine results, start a conversation with us today.