Digital Deathmatch: SEO vs. SEM

By Eva Zielinski | Digital Marketing Strategist

In the ever-changing universe of digital marketing, you have probably come across the popular acronyms SEO & SEM. These terms have a common goal: to confuse you! Ok, not really, but it might seem like it. It’s actually pretty easy. The common goal between both methods is to achieve strong online visibility. Even though they appear similar, each method has several key differences and functions in marketing your business online. To better assist you in understanding the roles each must play in modern digital marketing strategy, we’ve compiled some information to help you determine which marketing method is best for your business and your budget!


For starters, what is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)? Simply put, it is a method to drive traffic to a site organically from search engines. Organic traffic is cultivated through algorithm-based unpaid methods such as, establishing a presence across social media platforms, optimizing and regularly updating your website with unique, search engine-friendly content, claiming your business on popular online listings, and reputation management. SEO is like a 401k account. It takes time to build, but when done right, will be very lucrative with compounding gains in the future.

While SEO is essential and a highly effective digital marketing strategy, it does take time to see results. Google is a complex but highly intelligent search engine that grants authority to websites that have a strong and optimized online presence. To gain authority with Google and rank in search results, it takes consistent maintenance and patience. In short, SEO can’t be bought, it must be earned.

Most SEO providers offer rudimentary/surface services such as listings management, free or basic website layouts and reviews monitoring. At Smart Harbor, we like to take it a step further to provide our clients with websites that are SEO-friendly on the front and back end while also providing new content to keep up with Google’s algorithm to gain authority. We also provide social media and email marketing services to assist you in keeping your clients engaged and informed.


Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is a different approach compared to SEO but ultimately shares the common goal of obtaining website traffic. While SEO is the process of earning traffic, SEM centers around buying traffic. SEM is also commonly referred to as “Paid Search”: Paid Search Ads, Paid Search Advertising, Social Media Marketing (SMM), Pay Per Click (PPC) and Cost Per Click (CPC).  In other words, you only pay when a potential customer clicks on your ad, so you can easily gauge your ROI. In short, SEM is like playing the digital lottery and it is a pay to play formula! SEM is like day trading with penny stocks. When you invest, there will always be plenty of fluctuation and inconsistent results, but you will get instant results (both good and bad).

If you want to try SEM, we recommend waiting until you have a solid SEO presence. Why? If you are advertising and driving people to your website, you want to keep them on your site with engaging and educating content. The worst thing you could do is pay for ads that don’t keep your visitors on your site. If you want to try SEM on a beginner’s level, you could try testing the waters with Facebook Ads. These are an excellent starter method for SEM efforts, because they give you the ability to target a precise audience. The Ads Manager platform on Facebook also allows you to start or stop a campaign based on your schedule and customize your image and messaging!

If you feel that you want to take your SEM efforts to a more aggressive level, Google Ads are another popular option. Google Ads are far more complex to manage, but they do give you the ability to bid on keywords in order to drive traffic to your website. There are many ways to adjust your campaign on the Google Ads Manager and you can be more aggressive to earn traffic depending on how much of your marketing budget you want to invest.

Whether you decide to utilize one or both methods for your online presence, a Smart Harbor digital strategist can assist you every step of the way!