Organic Vs Paid Marketing

SEO vs. SEM – Tradeoffs Between Organic & Paid Results

Aaron Levenstadt CEO & Founder at Pedestal Search

Aaron Levenstadt CEO & Founder

March 29, 2022 | 5 Min Read

Article updated on August 11, 2022

SEO, SEA, and SEM are all digital marketing acronyms surrounding search engines. Let’s start this article by clarifying the difference between SEO, SEA and SEM in digital marketing.

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. It refers to any tactic taken by a website owner to earn more favorable organic  rankings in search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo.

SEA stands for Search Engine Advertising. It refers to any paid advertising initiative taken on a search engine. Most SEA is completed on a pay per click (PPC) basis. In other words, the advertiser only pays for each click their ad receives.

SEM stands for Search Engine Marketing. It refers to any online marketing strategy related to search engines. SEM is essentially an umbrella term for both SEO and SEA.

While most medium and large businesses run SEO and SEA efforts in tandem, smaller companies with tighter budgets often have to choose one or the other.

Below we’ll outline the tradeoffs between both marketing campaigns and importance of SEO and SEM so you can decide which strategy makes the most sense for your business. Let’s dive in.

Is There a Connection Between SEO and SEA?

We must stress this last point – there is no direct link between Google’s paid and unpaid algorithms. At first glance, the amount you spend on Google Ads (formerly, Google Adwords) has no bearing on your organic rank. 

SEO and SEA are decoupled in this respect. However, an indirect benefit may exist. The increase in traffic generated from paid ads can translate into improved organic rank via an increased click-through-rate (CTR) within the natural section of the rankings.

SEA drives traffic to your site, increasing your SEO in that respect. 

Also, numerous studies have shown that when an organic and paid result from the same website also targets the same search query or keyword, traffic increases exponentially. You can read more about this phenomenon in our recent article, Why SEO + PPC Fuels More Growth When Done Together.

In this important sense, SEO and SEA are lightly connected. And it is in your interest to work with an experienced digital marketing team that understands both.

If you’re still a bit unsure about the difference between the digital marketing strategies, here’s an SEO vs SEM infographic.

seo vs sem infographic

Tradeoffs Between SEO and SEA?

The process for optimizing organic search (i.e. getting your site higher in the unpaid rank) can take time. Google’s organic algorithm looks at a lot of factors to rank your website on a given query. If you follow SEO best practices, Google will often award you points that leapfrog you over your competitors. 

For a detailed list of Google’s ranking factors, read our recent article, How to Conduct an eCommerce SEO Audit. 

On the other hand, SEA sends your site to the top right away (assuming you have set up your Ads account optimally). In the SEA world, there is no waiting for Google to take notice of your efforts and to then re-index your website. In this sense, SEA is akin to the “expedited shipping” option where you have to pay a bit more but you move to the top quicker.

The price per visitor varies widely based on a number of factors including competition, expected traffic, and relevance between your keywords, ad copy, and the target landing page. Should your SEA consultant optimally set up your account, you will likely pay less per visitor than your competitors and earn a more favorable placement in SERPs.

SEO and SEM strategy

When to Focus on SEO

If you’re ready and willing to play the long game, SEO usually has the best return on investment (ROI). It is considered one of (if not THE) most important inbound marketing strategy in 2022.

For example, 88% of local searches result in a call or store visit within 24 hours.

“Why?”, you may ask.

Simply put, the user is already actively seeking out your services. They are often in a ‘buy’ mindset and willing to read your content and research your products’ services.

By comparison, other digital marketing tactics like social media advertising interrupt a user when their mind is NOT focused on purchasing. They’re simply scrolling through Facebook, Instagram, or another social media site to catch up with friends or distract themselves. They aren’t thinking about buying a pair of shoes, for example.

But when someone types into a search engine ‘men’s red tennis shoes’, they are actively thinking about the buying process. This results in a significantly higher conversion rate.

But that said, SEO is an advanced marketing strategy that requires significant financial and time commitments. A new website can take anywhere from six to 16 months before it begins ranking favorably on search engines, thus resulting in strong ROI.

So, to answer the question, businesses with long-term vision and the investment available to sustain them for long enough to begin ranking well would likely benefit from an SEO strategy. Should a business not have time or money on their side, they may want to consider SEA.

When to Focus on SEA

SEA may not have the impressive CTRs and ROIs that organic search tactics flaunt. However, SEA has one unique benefit: if you pay, you can play.

The way SEA works is fairly simple—at least from a broad perspective. 

Essentially, in a normal search campaign, you choose a selection of ‘search terms’ you’d like to bid on. Depending on the terms and other conditions you’ll pay an amount for every click you receive from your ads.

SEA is a simple and effective way of jumping right to the very top of SERPs for the exact keywords you want to show up for. You don’t even have to prove your Experience, Authority, and Trustworthiness (E-A-T)! 

That’s not to say quality standards don’t exist. Google has numerous checks and balances to ensure the ads you’re posting are related to the search queries you’re bidding on. Most notably, if Google Ads deems your ads irrelevant to the search queries you’re bidding on, you’ll be charged a significantly higher cost per click (CPC). 

Almost all businesses would benefit from at the very least a small SEA campaign. However, the companies that would benefit most are startups or companies with low-SEO rank. 

Perhaps the most common train of thought is to invest heavily in SEA at the beginning while you begin link building, improve your website’s E-A-T, and increase your rank.

After you’ve gained traction on organic search, you can begin to wean off your paid advertising.

Combining SEO and SEA Marketing

SEO & SEA work best when done together.

Specifically, SEO & SEA can help increase CTR when done together and improve keyword research and performance.

It’s been proven that CTRs increase exponentially when companies monopolize Page One SERP results. For example, here at Pedestal Search we bid on our own brand name. We also rank first organically for our brand name and have a Google My Business listing for our name. 

In the screenshot below, you can see our advertisement in red, our organic search result in purple, and our GMB listing in yellow. Combined, we are monopolizing the first page of Google. This is the true power of SEM marketing.

A screenshot of a Google search for 'Pedestal Search'. The screen one shows page one monopolization.

Organic search also benefits paid search marketing by acting as a testing ground to see how your website will perform for different keywords. If you bid on a specific keyword and have a decent or good conversion rate, you should begin investing in earning organic rank on the same keywords.

Time to Reap the Benefits of SEO

At the same time, we optimize naturally for keywords that clients request. And, we adjust our SEO campaign based on the feedback we get from Google Ads. Once our SEO efforts gain traction, we recommend clients wean off paid results and start reaping the benefits of SEO.

There is no better bargain in digital marketing than being found for free, but it takes time to achieve. In the interim, it’s okay to pay a bit to drive traffic and improve your knowledge. In time, the lessons learned from these efforts will translate into organic traffic. 

Traffic that flows freely on the most important keywords for your business. As an additional benefit, enjoy being right at the top.

In time, the lessons learned from these efforts will translate into organic traffic. Traffic that flows freely on the most important keywords for your business. Additionally, you get to rank on the terms that matter most, while learning about what keywords to pivot around naturally.


Is Google Adwords SEO or SEM?

Google Adwords requires you to pay in order to appear on search engine results pages. In this sense, it is not SEO and should be considered SEM, or to be more precise, SEA. (Search engine advertising)

Can you pay Google to rank higher?

There is no way to pay Google to appear in organic search results. Paid campaigns, however, can show your ads above search results for your target keywords. In addition, Google will display a small text beside your results to inform visitors that you are not appearing organically and that this is a paid advertisement.

What is paid SEO?

The focus of SEO is on organic search, but you can also use advertising services like Google Adwords to rank your ads higher than organic results. As long as you pay for the service, this is called SEA (search engine advertising). Once you stop paying for paid ads, your results won’t appear on SERPs.



Aaron Levenstadt CEO & Founder at Pedestal Search

Aaron Levenstadt

CEO & Founder

Aaron Levenstadt completed his degree in Statistical & Data Science at Stanford University. That focus has given him an unparalleled data-driven approach to search engine digital marketing. Prior to founding Pedestal Search, Aaron worked at Google at the company’s headquarters in Mountain View California. At Google he worked on the Organic Search, Paid Search and Google Analytics products, which equipped him with extensive knowledge of the mechanisms driving Google’s algorithm and other internet search engines.