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SEO VS SEM: Which One Should You Prioritize in Your Digital Marketing Plan? (2024 Guide)

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SEO VS SEM | One Search Pro Marketing

In the digital marketing landscape, two strategies often go head-to-head: Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM).

As a business trying to boost your online presence, it’s essential to have a solid understanding of how both techniques work, and how they can help us achieve our goals.

Both Google SEO and SEM have their own set of merits and limitations, which is why it’s crucial for us to consider them strategically.

Employing a combination of these techniques can not only help us increase brand awareness but also protect against competition within the challenging digital marketing space.

In this guide, you’ll learn the differences between SEO VS SEM and decide on the one (or both) marketing approach that will work best for your business.

The Basics of SEO: Understanding How It Works

Search Engine Optimization focuses on optimizing websites to obtain better rankings and traffic from organic search results.

This approach includes:

  • Improving site speed;
  • Using relevant keywords;
  • Optimizing meta tags;
  • Gaining high-quality backlinks;
  • And more.

Read more: SEO for Beginners Guide

Keyword Research

To achieve better results in organic search, keyword research is the starting point. This process helps identify relevant terms and phrases that potential customers are searching for.

For example, the search query “SEO services” has a monthly search volume of 700 in Malaysia.

Search Results on Ahrefs for Keyword "SEO Services" | SEO VS SEM | One Search Pro Marketing

If you rank well for this keyword, you can expect a surge in website visitors and conversions.

With a thorough understanding of search intent and carefully selected keywords, content can be crafted to meet the specific needs of users. This ensures that they find exactly what they were looking for.

To find these keywords, competitors are analyzed, keyword research tools are used, and industry knowledge is drawn upon.

On-Page Optimization

After identifying the keywords, the focus shifts to on-page optimization. This involves optimizing different elements of the web page such as titles, headings, URLs, and meta descriptions.

Related: How to Write Your Meta Title and Descriptions

For example, people searching for “what is SEO” want to learn. We can gauge this from the search results, which imply that they’re looking for an article that explains the topic.

Google Search Results for Query "What is SEO" | SEO VS SEM | One Search Pro Marketing

Conversely, people looking up “professional SEO services” want to shop. They are researching for service providers to subscribe to.

Google Search Results for Query "Professional SEO Services" | SEO VS SEM | One Search Pro Marketing

To keep search users happy, you must tailor your content to meet their search intent – a process known as aligning content with search intention.

You can do that by integrating partial and/or full targeted keywords within the content to enhance keyword relevance.

Other features, such as images and multimedia elements, are also optimized to ensure they are easily accessible and add value to the user experience.

Off-Page Optimization

Off-page optimization focuses on building the website’s authority and credibility through external factors. This primarily involves acquiring backlinks from reputable and relevant websites.

You can check the backlink profile of any page using any backlink checker tool.

Ahrefs' Backlink Checker Tool | SEO VS SEM | One Search Pro Marketing

By earning high-quality links from authoritative sites, you strengthen our website’s image in the eyes of search engines, resulting in improved rankings and visibility.

Furthermore, social media marketing, content marketing, and other web marketing tactics are employed to extend the reach of your brand online.

Technical SEO Factors

Technical SEO aspects are crucial in enhancing the website’s overall SEO performance. Concerns like website loading speed, mobile responsiveness, and site architecture are addressed.

Google Page Speed Info | SEO VS SEM | One Search Pro Marketing

These factors not only enhance the website’s search engine rankings but also provide users with a better experience.

The Basics of SEM: Understanding How It Works

Search Engine Marketing involves both organic and paid search strategies, with the aim of increasing traffic and visibility.

This can include running Pay-Per-Click (PPC) campaigns to advertise your products or services on search engines.

Pay-Per-Click Advertising

Pay-Per-Click (PPC) advertising is a significant aspect of SEM. This approach ensures that ads are only paid for when users click on them, which helps with managing the advertising budget more efficiently.

Say, every time people click this Google ad, Samsung pays a certain amount of money.

Sample Google Ad Targeted by Samsung | SEO VS SEM | One Search Pro Marketing

The primary goal is to create appealing and relevant ads that target specific keywords. This way, when users search for those keywords, the ads will appear at the top or alongside their search results.

By utilizing PPC advertising, ads can be made more noticeable and generate more traffic to the website.

Various ad formats, such as text, images, and video, can also be experimented with to cater to users at different stages of their decision-making process, providing a more personalized experience for potential customers.

Further Reading: SEM for Dummies Guide

Ad Campaigns

Creating effective ad campaigns is a crucial aspect of SEM. To do this, it is essential to have a clear understanding of the target audience, as this will aid in developing effective marketing messages and selecting the right ad placements.

The overall goal of the campaign, whether it is generating leads, increasing sales, or simply raising brand awareness, also needs to be considered.

After defining the target audience and objectives, ad campaigns can be created in the chosen advertising platform, such as Google Ads.

Setting Up a Google Ad | SEO VS SEM | One Search Pro Marketing

Ad copy and design can then be crafted, while monitoring the campaign’s performance and making adjustments as needed to maximize its effectiveness.


Competitive bidding is a crucial component of SEM. In platforms like Google Ads, ad placements are determined by an auction system, where advertisers bid on selected keywords.

In this setup, advertisers compete against one another for the same keywords, resulting in a ranking based on the highest bid and ad quality.

To optimize the bidding strategy, the maximum Cost-Per-Click (CPC) needs to be determined first – the amount paid for each click on the ads.

Bids can then be set accordingly, using various bidding strategies such as manual or automated bidding, depending on experience and objectives.

Google Ad Bidding Strategies | SEO VS SEM | One Search Pro Marketing
Source: Blue Winston

Remaining competitive in the bidding process while staying within budget is vital for SEM success. The campaign’s performance is monitored continuously, and adjustments are made to bids and targeting to ensure the best possible return on investment.

Understanding the Core Differences Between SEO VS SEM

Organic VS Paid Traffic

When it comes to online marketing, understanding the core differences between SEO and SEM is crucial. To begin with, one of the primary distinctions lies in the type of traffic they generate.

SEO is focused on enhancing a website’s visibility and ranking in organic search results.

This involves optimizing various aspects of the website, such as keywords, content, and site structure, to attract free traffic from search engines like Google and Bing.

In contrast, SEM, or Search Engine Marketing, aims to increase a website’s visibility and traffic through both organic and paid search strategies.

Examples of paid search include Google Ads and Microsoft Advertising, where businesses bid on keywords and pay for their ads to appear in search results.

Short-Term VS Long-Term Strategies

Another key difference between SEO and SEM is the time frame in which they yield results. SEO is a long-term strategy that demands consistent effort and patience.

As search engines continuously update their algorithms and ranking factors, it’s essential to stay updated and adapt your SEO strategies accordingly.

As a result, it may take months before a website starts ranking high in organic search results.

On the other hand, SEM can deliver immediate results through its paid search component. By investing in paid advertising campaigns, businesses can secure prominent ad placements and drive traffic to websites in a relatively short amount of time.

Low VS High-Cost Investments

Finally, the pricing models for SEO and SEM are significantly different. For SEO, the focus is on attracting organic traffic, which means there are no direct costs related to the clicks or impressions generated from search results.

However, implementing SEO best practices usually requires investing in tools, expertise, and potentially, hiring an SEO agency Malaysia or a consultant.

In contrast, the paid component of SEM operates on a Pay-Per-Click (PPC) model, where businesses are charged each time a user clicks on their advertisement in the search results.

Consequently, the costs in SEM can escalate quickly, particularly in competitive industries with high keyword bidding prices. Nonetheless, a successful PPC campaign can yield a substantial Return On Investment (ROI), making it a valuable short-term strategy for businesses.

Why Go For SEO?

Authority and Trust Building

One of the significant benefits of Search Engine Optimization is that it aids in establishing authority and trust for a website. When the site ranks higher in organic search results, it is perceived as more credible and dependable by potential customers.

As high-quality content is created, on-page factors are optimized, and backlinks from reputable websites are acquired, the website’s authority in the industry grows. This increased authority can lead to better customer trust and more conversions.

For example, One Search Pro caters to informational keyword searches that are relevant to the target audience.

Informational Keywords Ranked by One Search Pro Malaysia | SEO VS SEM | One Search Pro Marketing

However, it should be noted that building authority and trust through SEO is a gradual process. It requires consistent effort and commitment and is not an immediate solution.

This can sometimes pose a challenge for new businesses or those with limited resources to invest heavily in SEO.


SEO is often considered a cost-effective marketing strategy when compared to paid advertising, such as SEM. Although there are costs associated with creating and optimizing content and acquiring backlinks, the traffic generated through organic search is essentially free.

Once a website begins ranking higher for targeted keywords, a consistent stream of traffic can be gained without the need for ongoing ad spend. This can result in a higher ROI in the long run, making SEO a valuable investment.

However, the cost-effectiveness of SEO can vary depending on the industry and competition. In highly competitive markets, ranking higher for high-value keywords can be challenging, and seeing tangible results can take significant time and resources.

Moreover, since search engine algorithms change frequently, SEO strategies need to be continually adapted and changed, which can lead to increased costs.

In Summary: Implementing SEO correctly helps in building authority and trust for a website and is a cost-effective marketing strategy. However, it’s crucial to be aware of the challenges and invest in consistent efforts to achieve desired results.

Why Go For SEM?

Quick Results

One of the significant benefits of SEM is the capability to produce quick results. Unlike SEO, which can take months or even years to see significant improvements in rankings and traffic, SEM campaigns can be established and optimized within a few days or weeks.

With paid ads, a website can immediately appear on the first page of search engine results for targeted keywords.

For example, if you’re a small electronics store trying to rank organically for “buy new laptop“, chances of success are slim, as big companies like Acer, HP, and Dell have already established themselves.

Google Search Results for Query "Buy New Laptop" | SEO VS SEM | One Search Pro Marketing

In this case, SEM is probably your best bet.

However, it is crucial to remember that SEM results are temporary.

Once the advertising budget is no longer invested in, the website’s ads will disappear from the search results, and the traffic gained through this channel may be lost.

Therefore, while SEM provides fast results, it may not be the most sustainable long-term strategy.

Targeted Advertising

Another benefit of SEM is the high level of targeting it provides. Through platforms such as Google Ads, specific keywords, demographics, locations, and even times of day can be chosen to display ads.

Editing Target Audience Demographics for Google Ads | SEO VS SEM | One Search Pro Marketing

This enables reaching the desired audience with a higher level of precision, increasing the likelihood of converting them into customers. However, a highly targeted advertising approach can be both time-consuming and expensive.

Campaigns must be continuously analyzed and optimized to ensure that ads are reaching the right audience at the right cost. One big issue with targeted advertising is:

The moment you stop paying, traffic immediately goes down to zero.

Additionally, poor keyword choices or incorrect targeting settings can lead to wasted ad spend and lower returns on investment.

In Summary: While SEM offers significant benefits such as quick results and targeted advertising, it also poses challenges such as maintaining long-term growth and managing advertising budgets effectively.

Nevertheless, when used strategically alongside SEO efforts, SEM can be an essential component of a comprehensive digital marketing strategy for a business.

When to Focus on SEO?

You Have a Limited Budget

If you’re on a tight budget, focusing on SEO can be a more cost-effective strategy. Unlike SEM, which often relies on paid advertising, SEO concentrates on improving organic search results.

By optimizing your website’s content, structure, and technical aspects, you can climb up the search engine rankings without spending a dime on PPC ads.

You Have No Problem Ranking For Informational Keywords

Some keywords might provide more Return On Investment if you focus on SEO. When users search for informational keywords, they often seek answers to their questions or want to learn something new.

Keyword Researching to Target Informational Keywords | SEO VS SEM | One Search Pro Marketing

By creating high-quality content tailored to these keywords, you can attract this organic traffic.

Moreover, search engines like Google appreciate valuable content and are more likely to rank it higher in their results.

You Have Time to Play the Waiting Game

SEO takes time and involves a long-term commitment. It often takes months for the effects of SEO efforts to become apparent.

If you’re in a position where you can afford to wait for these results, focusing exclusively on SEO might be the right strategy.

Remember that patience is key when it comes to SEO, as search engine algorithms need time to index and rank your optimized content.

You Know Your Way Around Link Building

Link building is a critical component of SEO and contributes significantly to your website’s ranking in search results.

If your team has a knack for building high-quality, relevant backlinks, it can help improve your website’s domain authority and overall ranking.

Moreover, a robust link-building strategy allows you to establish your website as an authoritative source, which benefits both your SEO efforts and your brand’s reputation.

When to Focus on SEM?

You Don’t Worry About Ad Budget

If your business has a consistent ad budget, it can be beneficial to focus on Search Engine Marketing. This approach requires regular investment, as you pay for each click on your ads.

By having a consistent budget, you can better manage your SEM campaigns and adjust your bidding strategies as needed. A well-managed PPC campaign can drive immediate results, increasing traffic and conversions.

You Can Manage An Adwords Account

Managing a Google Ads (formerly known as AdWords) account can be time-consuming and require a certain level of expertise.

If you have experience with Google Ads or have someone on your team who does, focusing on PPC can be advantageous.

Understanding how to navigate the platform, create effective campaigns, and optimize keywords and bids is essential for your SEM campaigns’ success.

You Can Launch and Test Landing Pages

A crucial component of successful SEM campaigns is the ability to create, launch, and test landing pages.

When users click on your ad, they should land on a dedicated, optimized page that provides relevant information and encourages further engagement or conversion.

Sample A/B Testing for Landing Page | SEO VS SEM | One Search Pro Marketing
Source: Unbounce

By continually testing and tweaking landing pages, you can improve your conversion rates and the overall effectiveness of your SEM campaigns. With this capability, investing in SEM can be a smart move for your business.

Should Marketers Use SEO or SEM?

While both SEM and SEO aim to improve a website’s visibility in search engine results, they differ in terms of approach, cost, and time investment.

As a marketer, choosing between SEO and SEM can be challenging, and it ultimately comes down to the specific needs and goals of the business.

Factors such as budget, industry competition, and the desired timeline for seeing results can also play a significant role in the decision-making process. With so much at stake, making the right choice can be critical to the success of a marketing campaign.

That’s why we’ve narrowed down two major factors that you should consider as you make your decision.


When it comes to choosing between SEO and SEM, we believe that marketers should not limit themselves to one or the other. Instead, combining both can provide better results and encourage synergy between organic and paid search strategies.

By using both approaches, we can leverage the strengths of each to optimize our online visibility, attract more visitors, and drive website conversions.

For instance, the search query “gaming laptop” has 4 ads on Google Search Engine Results Page (SERP).

Google Search Results for Query "Gaming Laptop" | SEO VS SEM | One Search Pro Marketing

As a result, organic results receive fewer clicks as they are pushed down the page. The question is, how many fewer clicks do they receive?

For the keyword “gaming laptop“, paid results receive clicks for 15% of the total searches:

Keyword Metrics for "Gaming Laptop" on Ahrefs | SEO VS SEM | One Search Pro Marketing

Now we know SEM is an effective means of acquiring traffic for this keyword, but what about SEO?

Ranking for “gaming laptop” would be quite challenging, as it has a Difficulty score of 52 in Malaysia. This implies that numerous backlinks would likely be required to achieve a high ranking, and this is seldom a rapid process.

Now let’s take a look at the keyword “gaming laptop under rm3000”:

Keyword Metrics for "Gaming Laptop Under RM3000" on Ahrefs | SEO VS SEM | One Search Pro Marketing

Now, this keyword has a low Difficulty score, meaning that it may be an ideal choice for SEO to drive search traffic.

All in all, SEO can help us build a strong organic foundation, while SEM allows us to quickly capture targeted prospects with paid ads.

As we improve our organic rankings, we can gradually decrease our ad spend, thereby achieving a more cost-effective and sustainable marketing strategy.


Integrating SEO and SEM allows us to use the data and insights gained from one approach to inform and improve the other.

For example, we can analyze the keywords and ad copy that perform well in our SEM campaigns and apply that knowledge to optimize our SEO efforts.

Conversely, insights from our SEO performance, such as high-converting organic traffic, can inform our SEM targeting and bidding strategies.

Moreover, an integrated approach can lead to a unified and consistent brand message across both organic and paid search results. This consistent messaging can help to reinforce brand recognition and create trust among our target audience.

By effectively combining and integrating SEO and SEM, we can maximize our search engine presence, more efficiently allocate our marketing resources, and ultimately achieve quality results for our business.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Are the Main Differences Between SEO and SEM?

SEO focuses on improving your website’s organic search rankings through techniques such as keyword research, content creation, and link building. It targets to rank higher on Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) without paying for PPC ads.

On the contrary, SEM uses mostly paid strategies to drive traffic and higher rankings on SERPs, including running ads on platforms like Google Ads.

How do SEO and SEM Strategies Complement Each Other?

SEO is a long-term strategy for building website visibility and organic traffic.

While results can take some time, it fosters trust and credibility with search engines and users. On the other hand, SEM, through paid search ads, delivers quick results and instant visibility.

Rather than discussing SEO VS paid search, in actuality when combined, these two strategies can amplify your online presence to another level and attract more targeted traffic to your website.

Which Marketing Strategy Should I Choose: SEO or SEM?

Google ads VS SEO – which one should you go for?

The answer is simple. It ultimately boils down to the availability of your resources.

If you’re low on resources (budget, manpower, time, etc), managing both SEM and SEO concurrently will surely prove to be a challenge. Running the two at the same time will be too much for a one-man team to handle effectively, and as a result, both strategies will suffer.

If you have a team to manage both SEM and SEO, then it may be feasible to pursue both strategies. However, if you lack the necessary resources, it may be more beneficial to choose one approach over the other.

What Are the Benefits of Using Both SEO and SEM?

Using both SEO and SEM strategies brings a set of benefits, including increased visibility on search engines, attracting both organic and paid traffic, and targeting a wider audience.

Combining these two approaches allows you to capture more market share, create strong brand recognition, and achieve better overall online marketing results.

How Do Costs Compare Between SEO and SEM?

SEO can be cost-effective in the long run as it does not require long-term direct payment for ad placements. However, the exact SEO price Malaysia may involve additional costs such as hiring SEO experts or investing in tools and content creation.

Conversely, SEM involves ad budget allocation and requires continuous investment to maintain a strong presence on paid search results.

Although budgets can differ significantly, small and mid-sized companies typically allocate approximately $15,000 to $20,000 per month towards PPC campaigns. The average Cost-Per-Click (CPC) is around $2.59 (depending on the industry and ad network).

The cost of both strategies can vary, but they each have their financial benefits and trade-offs.

What Are the Long-Term Effects of SEO Compared to SEM?

SEO’s long-term effects include sustained organic visibility, increased rankings on SERPs, and building trust and credibility with search engines and users.

As your website’s authority increases, organic traffic growth will continue, even after your SEO efforts cease.

In contrast, SEM provides quick, immediate results in terms of paid traffic, but its effects end as soon as you stop investing in ad budgets.

What’s Next?

In conclusion, SEO and SEM are both essential digital marketing strategies that can help businesses increase their online visibility and drive more traffic to their websites.

The difference between SEM VS SEO lies in the method of achieving search engine ranking. SEO involves optimizing your website to rank better in organic search results, while SEM entails spending money to display your website at the top of SERPs.

That said, choosing the right strategy for your business depends on your specific goals and budget. That’s why it’s important to work with a reputable digital marketing agency that can help you develop a customized plan that meets your needs.

At One Search Pro, on top of SEO and Google Ads, we offer a wide range of services, including website design & development, social media marketing, content production, and creative branding services.

This all-in-one approach ensures that you get the most out of your digital presence and your online presence is well-represented across all platforms.

One Search Pro Marketing Agency as One of the Winners of the SME100 Award in Malaysia | SEO VS SEM | One Search Pro Marketing

If you’re searching for the leading digital marketing services in Malaysia, don’t hesitate to connect with us now! We are more than happy to help you leverage online platforms to expand your reach.

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