SEM or SEO, Which One Should You Do?

This post was guest blogged by Matthew Berman of Internet Business Daily.


Search engine marketing and search engine optimization are two great ways to increase traffic to your site. Search engine marketing is the sponsored results you see in Google, and many of the other search engines. Someone will buy keywords for a certain CPC (cost per click), so they always rank on the first page of search results. Sometimes it is just plain impossible to go after a keyword that has enormous competition. This is where SEM comes in handy.

On the other end of the spectrum is SEO (search engine optimization). This is the practice of optimizing your site’s layout, content, and linking to make it easier for search engines to find and classify the site. This is called organic ranking. You do not have to pay anything for the traffic Google sends you with regards to SEO.


Many people think they should focus the majority of their energy on either SEM or SEO, but rarely both. This is a serious mistake for webmasters. SEO and SEM need to go hand in hand. There are a few reasons for this.

For keywords you cannot rank highly for, either because the competition is too tough or you need instant results, SEM should be used. There’s only a few ways to get customers/users to a brand new site, and SEM is one of the best. You can buy targeted traffic that will either become loyal users (for content sites) or purchase products (for sites that sell products).

There’s one thing that SEM can be used for that most average webmasters do not know of: competitive research. Before deciding the keywords to target with SEO, you can use SEM to determine which keywords work best and which you should not waste your time with. Spend a little money before making your SEO strategy, and compete for better keywords.

This works the other way around as well. If you are just starting a SEM campaign and are unsure of the keywords you should spend money on, the incoming keywords to your site can be a huge indicator. Use your analytics software to determine the highest converting keywords on your site and save money on testing keywords that may not work.

These are two great ways to use data you already have to your advantage. Remember, SEO and SEM can be used together and should always be compared for keyword perfection.

71 thoughts on “SEM or SEO, Which One Should You Do?”

  1. David says:

    So using SEM means buying keywords from adword (or similar)that will generate enough traffic to become ranked high in search results because of the advertisement?

    1. Hey David,

      I am referring to using the data you already have to your advantage, either by using adwords data for SEO…or using SEO data for adwords.

      1. David says:

        I see, Thank You.

  2. Simon says:

    Totally agree with SEO and SEM need to go hand in hand.

    1. I agree with this as well. When used correctly.. both help eachother out. I personally cannot do one without the other.


    2. Not necessary, it depends on what is your goal and what you want to achieve. Anyway the post was nice and a good read (just with few things he mentioned that did not gave much weight but he should of).

      1. SEM and SEO together will always be more beneficial than just SEO.

        That being said, you may not have the budget for an SEM campaign, in which cause DIY SEO is the only choice.

        1. ms danielle says:

          with thorough research you can get very targeted traffic for a very small daily budget, and get a very high return. diy seo isn’t always the only choice depending on your market

        2. Wahlau.NET says:

          well said..this is why i am doing seo…will try sem

    3. Another benefit of using SEM with SEO…even if you rank for a keyword organically, having an SEM result on that page denies that spot from a competitor.

    4. ms danielle says:

      seo and ppc do go hand in hand for many types of online businesses. i also wrote about this same exact topic.
      many sites won’t need both, but if you’re looking to brand your site, or sell something, the quickest way to get in front of your target audience is through ppc.

    5. Yeah, I agree with Matthew’s thoughts. SEO and SEm should both be used as part of your strategy. There is no need to limit yourself to just one or the other.

  3. Ucuk says:

    Act as a beginner blogger like me, working with SEO or SEM makes me headache… but… I think it is a good start to work with “Make Money Online with John Chow dot Com” Manual.. John Chow make such a good explaination how to handle SEO by using his experience…

    1. Warrior Blog says:

      John Chow guide is very handy. I use a lot of technique he describe in there. πŸ˜‰

    2. John has a lot of good advice about making money, but he may not be the best person to ask about SEO, after all, his site is heavily filtered…

      1. ***V*** says:

        What do you mean by “his site is heavily filtered”?


        1. I heard something (I think it was on SEOmoz) about Google applying some manual penalties to John’s site. No idea how accurate this is but I *think* this is what the comment may be referring to.

  4. Warrior Blog says:

    I don’t do either of those too much… All I care about is content and a nice looking website to get traffic and get “sticky” traffic. 😎

    1. Totally agree about content being #1…but sometimes that isn’t enough to begin with. Plus, SEO helps people find your great content.

    2. You can have the worlds content, but if you are not able to do at least some seo tweaking, than all the copy-cats that will copy your content will rank higher in the serps (with your content, heh) and they will get the popularity and the baclinks (link bait) and their popularity will grow..and grow…while you will be still sticking with content (feeding the copy-cats)

      1. This rarely happens. I mean people scrape content all the time, but they don’t rank over the main site for it. There is one black hat technique that exploits a bug in Google that can make you drop out of the rankings, but that is not affected by what you do.

    3. Click Input says:

      You need to SEO at least.

      1. ***V*** says:

        You need a site at least, SEO is just icing on the cake.


  5. Ucuk says:

    I think, for a beginner like me, SEM is not a suitable for a start… Unless until i found the “magic” keyword (for sure it needs some effort to learn it..) then SEO is better for me since SEM needs me to pay something… πŸ˜‰ . It is not because of i am afraid of losing some money but I think i have to be smart… For John Chow, as he said, spending some money is always not a problem… but it wont be adapted easily for an ordinary person like me….

    1. You have to start somewhere…

      As a beginner, or someone with a low budget, you just have to watch your campaigns like a hawk and make sure they are returning your investment.

  6. What the author of this article is calling SEM, is actually PayPerClick or PPC. SEM is sort of an umbrella term that encompasses SEO, PPC, and other methods as well. While the wikipedia is not always right, in this case, they’re much closer than the author of this post.

      1. Dude, it’s not really arguable. What you’re talking about in this post is PPC. Sure PPC is part of SEM but so is SEO. PPC and SEO should definitely be used in conjunction with each other and really I think your post is fairly solid. Unfortunately, as someone who actually does SEO and PPC, it was tough to get past the misuse of the terms and makes you seem uninformed on the topic.

        1. ms danielle says:

          “paid search marketing” are we happy now? πŸ˜‰

    1. Ucuk says:

      Thanx Dude for the links… its helping me… πŸ™‚

    2. I see SEM Search Engine Marketing as any form of marketing activity that involves a search engine. Adwords, SEO all fall under this category.

      Something like TLA where you are gaining exposure outside of the search engines I just call online marketing.

      1. Agreed. Everyone pretty much has their idea of what SEM is. I agree with the commentor above.

        1. I advertise SEO and SEM services, but mainly just to capture users who don’t know what they’re searching for! πŸ˜€

        2. Everyone certainly does have their own definitions of SEM but what this post is talking about is strictly pay per click (PPC). That would be like someone referring to leaving a comment as blogging. Sure that plays a part in blogging but it’s just not the correct term to use, especially if you’re post is supposed to sound authoritative.

    3. I’m pretty sure if you ask industry professionals, 9 out of 10 will refer to SEM as PPC advertising.

      1. As somebody who operates a SEO/SEM company I must be that odd 1 then!

      2. I’m not sure which industry professionals you’re talking to but I wouldn’t hire them. Danny Sullivan put it a bit better in a comment further down but basically SEO is about organic or unpaid search. PPC is about paid search. SEM is about both organic and paid search. So yes, PPC is part of SEM but the terms are far from interchangeable. And that’s coming from an industry professional.

    4. Jack says:

      You are correct. PPC is PPC. The definition of SEM is not PPC. SEM encompasses a lot more. People who say they do SEM are usually doing more than or something different than PPC ( and often SEO as well, whether they admit it or not).

      This ( and the comments) is an overly simplistic view of SEM. Even if you are just talking about PPC, PPC itself has many services and platforms and is very ccomplex. Doing things the RIGHT way ( as in most efficient and cost productive) isn’t quite that simple.

      Ideally your overall SEM strategy includes SEO and possibly multiple PPC variations, depending on your niche.

      John Jackson.

  7. Christina says:

    They definitely go hand in hand and it’s hard to say which one is more important than the other. I also believe that SEM is a little easier to understand for the novice users, while SEO takes more knowleadge and it’s more time consuming

    1. ms danielle says:

      neither is more important until you weigh your goals. doing the research for ppc and building and maintaining hundreds of campaigns and thousands of keywords can also be time-consuming

  8. gardino says:

    Yup, it seems imposible to be #1 in google with more than 10 milion SERP, without SEM…. πŸ˜€

  9. Click Input says:

    SEM shouldn’t be used for everything, unless you are going to eventually make money off that traffic it brings.

    1. But isn’t that just marketing in general. It’s classed as marketing if you intend to get a ROI from it, otherwise it’s just PR?

      1. ms danielle says:

        if you’re spending on advertising, and you receive no return, it’s classified as a cost

  10. James says:

    I think SEO should be your number one goal, its by far the cheapest and if you have a good designer should be good to go. When I am running campaigns or trying to push something quick I will use SEM a little more.

    Good question though:)


    1. SEO is definitely not always cheaper then SEM….if you’re hiring someone to do it. Not everyone has SEO skills.

      I don’t really think the design has anything to do with SEO, the onpage text and tags are what help you, in addition to inbound links of course.

    2. I think quality content should be your #1 goal. SEO is rarely the cheapest option unless you place no value on your time. If you have to hire someone to do it for you, it’s even less likely SEO will be the cheapest option. It’s a, in my opinion, necessary tactic, but I don’t know that cheap would be an accurate description.

  11. Freezing Hot says:

    Also, you’ll see an increased CTR in your ads if paid search and seo or used. It should also be noted that SEO is a type of SEM. SEM can be paid search or organic search.

  12. David Savage says:

    I’ve never gotten into SEM, but I have been trying a lot of SEO. I’m considering opening an adwords account. Thanks for the info, John.

    1. First of all, pay attention to who this article was written by. Second of all, if you’ve been doing SEO, you’ve been doing part of SEM. You might not have been doing PPC or paid search but as mentioned in other comments, the terminology uses in this post was incorrect.

  13. KingJacob says:

    If you can afford it both but everyone should be doing some type of seo.

  14. Yes, the two go hand in hand. But the terms aren’t right. SEO is unpaid search. Paid search is, well, paid search. And SEM is the combination: paid and unpaid search.

    1. Thank you! That’s exactly what I’m talking about.

    2. ***V*** says:

      Thanks for clearing that up Danny.


  15. Martial says:

    Of course we do both but so much seo now is just link building

    1. Yeah, definitely a big part of it. You can hv the best onsite SEO in the world but if you don’t have the link love you’ll get no Google love πŸ™‚

  16. Word Hugger says:

    I prefer SEO all the way. I have never been fond of adwords.

    1. It really depends on your site and your goals. If you’re selling something or marketing an affiliate offer and you are not using PPC, you’re likely leaving money on the table. For many blogs, PPC probably wouldn’t be needed. I wouldn’t dismiss either without giving it a shot first.

      1. ms danielle says:

        spot on. prob 99% of blogs don’t need ppc, but john chow uses adwords to go to his make money page. it makes sense, as he knows his conversion numbers and can make money off that one page alone. it all just depends on your goals.

  17. Ginene says:

    It’s nice but not worth that much. If I had that much money I wouldn’t need to rent it. I personally like the Maybach Exelero better.
    Maybach Exelero

    1. I’m guessing this was meant for the post about the car?

  18. Shaun says:

    Hmm. I honestly can’t afford SEM right now, hence my focusing on SEO. πŸ™‚

  19. Nice description. I think that the financial limitation that Shaun mentions is more common for most blogger and thus the emphasis on SEM.

    1. ms danielle says:

      if you have something to offer where you can make a return on investment, then ppc should be part of your marketing plan. most blogs don’t have products to sell… but even so, you could copy cat john chow, create an ebook of how to make money posts, and if it is as good as his, you can drive traffic to your own make money page, and get a return on a specific niche market. but most bloggers aren’t jc. πŸ™‚ it’s only non-affordable (or a “cost”) if you have no product to create your return

  20. Ebay_Tips says:

    The cheaper solution: SEO.

  21. Ronald Allan says:

    hello, this is nice one post… i really dont know about sem , i only knew is seo. thank you for this…

    a big help for me…

  22. Aditya says:

    SEM will be a good option if you have too much spare money and you dont want to wait for long for good results

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