SEM Vs. SEO: What’s Best For Your Startup


Digital marketing is an excellent strategy for offering your startup optimal visibility and propelling it to a scalable height. Online marketing is a conglomerate of several tools such as influencer marketing, email marketing, e-commerce marketing, search engine optimization (SEO), search engine marketing (SEM), and many more. 

Although used interchangeably in several contexts, SEO and SEM are two distinct fields in digital marketing. Nevertheless, both tools are excellent strategies for your startup’s explosive digital results. In addition, SEO and SEM are ideal for generating high-quality and quantitative traffic to your sites. 

Understanding the core difference between SEO and SEM is paramount in ensuring your startup embraces the right strategy for its digital marketing plan. This post elucidates more on SEO and SEM, their differences, how to incorporate them into your marketing strategy, and importantly, the perfect fit for your startup. 

What is SEO?

Search engine optimization is the process of structuring your website’s pages so that they are easily discoverable on Search Engines Results Pages (SERPs). Consequently, your pages receive more organic traffic. In addition, SEO improves your websites and, in return, gives visitors a seamless user experience. 

SEO-friendly websites tend to have higher indexing when the search engine’s web crawlers visit the site. As a result, a website will have a higher ranking on SERPs. 

Several tactics can help your startup have a higher ranking on SERPs. These techniques are further grouped into three categories: technical SEO, on and off-page elements. 

On-page SEO tactics include keyword research, content creation, optimizing keywords, image alt texts, and title tags. In return, SERPs can better understand a content page, giving it a higher ranking. On the other hand, off-page SEO enhances your website’s reputation by linking it to other quality pages. Backlinking and guest blogging are prevalent off-page SEO techniques to show search engines that your startup’s website is reliable, reputable, and genuine. 

Finally, technical SEO focuses on the non-content elements of your website to improve the user and search crawler experience. Your website’s speed, mobile-friendliness, indexing, structured data, and security are essential to have higher search rankings. All in all, combining the three SEO techniques enhances your chances on top-ranking pages. Not to mention, creating top-notch content that’s fresh, unique, and educational. 

What is SEM? 

Search engine marketing is an umbrella term for strategies that help your website garner attention on SERPs and increase your web traffic. SEM utilizes paid advertising to promote your startup’s sites through pay-per-click advertising. 

In a nutshell, you purchase advertising space on search engines. When your startup opts for SEM, you have to bid on specific keywords that are highly likely to be used in the search query. Then, your ads might be displayed at the top or bottom of SERPs. Whenever a user clicks on your Ad, you are liable to pay a certain amount of money. 

Still, it’s not as elementary as you might think. Most platforms for delivering paid search campaigns, including Google Ads, work on a bidding system. That is, there is a possibility your ad won’t appear. The keywords you bid on and your ad’s quality determines whether your ad will appear on top of searches. 

In addition, Google scrutinizes the landing page visitors will arrive at and evaluates your ad’s forecasted click-through rate. Therefore, it’s vital to ensure your landing page has relevant, authentic content and is easy to navigate to increase the chances of Google displaying your ad. 

SEM vs. SEO: the differences

The most apparent difference between SEM and SEO is that the former entails a monetary strategy, aiming to gain both organic and paid traffic. Conversely, SEO is a set of actions that enhance your websites to increase organic traffic without charge. Therefore, it’s reasonable to deduce that SEO is a strategy that shows results over time, while SEM might have instant feedback. 

Don’t get it wrong. This doesn’t imply that SEM is the perfect choice for your startup or a viable strategy for traffic. As discussed later in the post, you have to weigh several other factors. 

Other differences between these powerhouses for digital marketing include: 

  • SEO deals with organic listings on search engines, while SEM focuses on paid listings. 
  • SEM search placements include an ‘Ad’ tag below the placement, while SEO search results appear organic and don’t have any markings. 
  • SEM results only appear to select audiences. When you opt for SEM, you have to specify the target audience to receive your ads. On the other hand, SEO results are available to anyone, and you can’t choose who can view your search results. 
  • Also, on their appearance, SEM search results might incorporate ad extensions such as phone numbers and additional links, while SEO results only appear with featured snippets. 
  • It’s possible to turn SEM ads on and off, making it a perfect strategy for testing. You can alter your ad copy, target new audiences, and opt for another landing page to examine your tactics effectively. On the flip side, it’s almost impractical to test changes in SEO. 
  • Fortunately, SEO can have a more significant impact than SEM if your search results get on top, since the first organic result tends to receive a higher CTR (28.5%). Paid ads receive a lower CTR (10%). 
  • An SEO strategy evolves, leaving long-lasting results. On the contrary, your SEM strategy will be inactive once you turn off ads and stop paying for results to show. 

SEM vs. SEO: what’s best for your startup

Ultimately, and as already outlined, the perfect model for your startup comes down to your overall objectives. For example, do you intend for a massive launch with lots of sales, or are you prioritizing long-term results? As you can imagine, SEM will have the upper hand if you are looking for immediate results. Contrastingly, SEO might take time, but it optimizes your site’s credibility in the long run. 

Also, it would be best to scrutinize what other firms in your industry are opting for to drive more traffic to their sites and their performance in search marketing. Even better, it’s vital to scrutinize their keyword strategies and draft a plan to better their SERP placements. 

Note that keywords pricing differs in cost per click depending on the competition. If the cost-per-click is budget-friendly, SEM might be a favorable option. On the other hand, SEO is a more affordable strategy, but it still requires time and money to generate top-notch content. 

Patently, if you aren’t yet acquainted with your market segment and want to test your product/services, SEM is a viable option. However, if you are competent in your industry and aware of your customers’ needs and how to fulfill them, building a long-term SEO strategy will go a long way in bolstering your value. 

Final thoughts

There is no quick answer on the perfect choice for your startup when comparing SEO and SEM. Instead, you first have to build a tailored digital marketing strategy and weigh out several factors. 

Also, it would be best if you didn’t view both tools as adversaries and utilize them in a complementary manner. In most cases, harnessing the full potential of SEO and SEM is an effective marketing technique that can have a prodigious impact on your growing venture.