SEO vs SEM in 2023

Metadata? SERP? Ad spend? Conversion demographics? Head spinning? There’s so many terms and numbers to track when you’re looking at the performance of your websites and digital marketing campaigns. We’ll break down what the differences are between search engine optimization and search engine marketing. There’s a lot to consider, and it’s important you know what you’re looking at when evaluating what you are doing, or what you should be doing.

What is SEO?

SEO, from a high-level view is fairly simple to understand. The biggest question that’s being answered is “How trustworthy and relevant is this website in the area of ________?” But you also have to remember that it’s not your customers who are asking this question. It’s a cold, heartless, non-thinking algorithm that’s housed on thousands of Google servers around the world.

So pragmatically speaking, we’re really asking, “How trustworthy and relevant does Google think this website is?”

The answer to that question can be found in a number of checklist items, as well as a few vague points put out by Google. Is your site secured and encrypted? Is your site mobile responsive (note: this does not just mean that your site just works on mobile devices)? Does your site have content? Is your content relevant? Is your content current? When was your last update? How many other sites use your site as a resource? Are you adding value or using hard sales language?

SEO has more to do with you establishing an online presence and a reputation of credibility in the digital community than with anything else. Fortunately, it is not a pay-to-play environment, and anyone and everyone can have great SEO. That is a very different environment than the world of search engine marketing.

What is SEM?

SEM is also fairly easy to understand from a high level. Simply put, you’re erecting digital billboards that can only be seen when people search specific keywords. In this context, we’re going to focus on Google for the same reason as we did with SEO: they process roughly 90% of all online searches worldwide.

SEM, from a Google perspective, simply means you bid on keyword phrases in order to serve ads to those searches that include the keyword phrase you’re bidding on. As with any auction, the highest bid wins, and in this case, gets the top display spot on search results.

Here’s the thing about SEM…they are focused on those prospective customers who are already in the buying cycle, and are likely looking to make a purchase, or commit to a provider right now (or at least quickly, relative to the sales cycle time of your product/service).

And that’s great, because those are precisely the people who actively click on ads. In a recent study, 65% of people ready to buy chose to click on paid ads vs organic results. We’ll talk about bidding strategies in a later blog, but these visitors are generally using active search phrases vs passive ones (i.e. “where to buy widgets in Denver” vs “what do widgets cost”).

The other thing to realize about SEM is that you can see results quickly, and I mean really quickly. Whereas an SEO campaign may take months to mature and bear fruit, SEM campaigns can get you new customers in hours. Not only that, but with a properly executed campaign, the average return on ad spend (ROAS) is up to 4:1.

So which one is right for me?

Here’s the answer you weren’t hoping for…both. They both have different objectives, and different value points. They both help your business, but in different ways with different audiences.

A quick breakdown:


  • Long-term, brings in more traffic.
  • Grows sales funnel
  • It often will have a better return on investment over the long-term
  • Highly sustainable
  • It has a broader reach


  • Gives you more control over the results you achieve.
  • It allows you to achieve results faster and enables you to measure success.
  • PPC provides you with real-time feedback.
  • Unlike SEO practices that are updated or changed from time to time, SEM tactics are more stable and predictable. Even if there are updates, they won’t have a significant impact on your paid ads.
  • PPC agencies in Denver will help guide you to set your daily budget depending on what you want you to achieve and how much you are willing to spend.  The good news is that you can begin with a very small budget – and measure results – and expand from there at whatever pace you want.

Still not sure?

So there you have it…a beginner’s guide to SEO vs SEM. There’s still an entire universe of learning to do before being an expert in either arena. That’s why it’s so important to reach out to an agency with a verifiable track record of getting results in both areas. If not to have them set up campaigns for you, at least to walk you through what the heck you’re looking at.

MediaWorks Digital is a hometown agency focused exclusively on helping small businesses in Denver, Aurora, Arvada, Golden, Lakewood, Colorado Springs, and across Colorado. We specialize in effective web design, development, search engine optimization, search engine marketing, and content marketing. Value is always a priority, and we don’t rely on one-sized-fits all web packages, quirky gimmicks, or hard sales. We are a partner in small-business success. Contact us today to see how we can help.