SEM vs SMM – What are they? What are the differences?

Differences between SEM and SMM, including comparisons to help you choose the right strategy for your business.

While SEM & SMM both depend on paid ads; they are a lot different from one another. Read on to understand more about how they are different from one another and the pros & cons of each!

Ever since the world started the shift to digital, marketing too has set foot into the digital realm for obvious reasons. Today, businesses get to identify their potential target group over the internet and devise digital marketing strategies to entice that identified traffic to their online business place and close deals or sell products.

Digital marketing is the present and the future of marketing which explains why it is a $496.08 billion industry! 

What keeps digital marketing exciting is the way it has evolved over the years. If you have a look at the changes that have happened in the industry in the past years, it is certain that digital marketing trends are constantly evolving.

Irrespective of the changes that have been happening, we at MCG believe some of the most important digital marketing strategies rely on 3 basic methods of marketing.

Ø  SMM- Social Media Marketing

Ø  SEO- Search Engine Optimization

Ø  SEM- Search Engine Marketing

These terms can be quite complex in their structure and function. And that is something we are going to address in this article.

This article will discuss in detail SEO, SEM & SMM and explain in detail how SEM is different from SMM.

To begin with let’s first have a look at what SEO, SEM & SMM mean and dig to the roots and understand them to their minute detail.

Let’s dive in.

What is SMM?

The acronym SMM stands for Social Media Marketing. According to Wikipedia, Social media marketing is the use of social media platforms and websites to promote a product or service.

Social Media traffic can be a game-changer for your business because of its sheer volume. In a recent survey, it was identified that about 3.8 billion people use social media. That’s almost half of the global population and that’s a market you don’t want to miss out on! 

The basic idea behind SMM is to identify & divert potential traffic from various social media platforms to your website/online marketplace. So how do you do it?

How does SMM work?

The basic operating principle behind SMM is to collaborate with the social media giants such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. and post organically, engage with your target market or run paid ads on them.

It is estimated that social media users spend 2.24 hours a day on various social media platforms. With 3.8 million people on social media, social media marketing is probably the easiest way to reach such a large audience.

Though social media ads can only serve a short-term goal you set, they can still drive in quality queries to your business. Contrary to popular belief, SMM isn’t as expensive as people claim it to be, and it is rather scalable.

What is SEO?

Which search engine do you use? Irrespective of the one you use, we bet you would never have looked past the first two search engine result pages (SERP) on any search engine? And that’s what SEO is all about, improving the ranking of your website so that it appears on the first SERP.

Search engine optimization works on improving the search engine ranking of your website to bring it up to the first SERP. This ensures that your website gets more visibility, which in turn drives more traffic to your website increasing the number of leads your business gets.

Sounds tempting right? But this doesn’t happen overnight.

It requires you to spend several hours planning the right SEO strategy for your business, implementing the best SEO friendly practices such as optimizing website performance, coming up with impeccable content, targeting the right keywords, improving user experience amongst other things.

Even if you hire an SEO professional, it would still take time before you can close your first deal from your website. This is where you need to start looking for alternatives to SEO to quickly market your business.

And SEM is that perfect alternative digital marketing professionals look at!

What is SEM?

Most people believe that SEM or Search Engine Marketing is the practice of running paid advertisements on search engines to place your website at the top of and on the side of search engine results pages to gain more visibility and prominence than the organic results.

However, this is only partly true. PPC or paid ads are 50% of search engine marketing. The other half is SEO! You see, SEM is an overarching term for SEO AND PPC.


For our webpage to occur on the top results, with PPC, we pay the search engine a sum. These paid results will come at the top of the SERP.

Let’s imagine that your business is into selling tires online. For your business website to rank for a potential keyword like buy tires online, best tires online, etc. would take time. But with PPC you run ad campaigns paying the search engine companies who in turn place your ads on the top of the SERPs.

So How does PPC work?

While we can go on and on about the technicalities of how SEM works, let’s keep it simple for now.

As said, with PPC what happens is that brands pay search engines money for their advertisements to appear as top search results on the search engine results page.

This is the working of PPC in a Nutshell… now let’s have a look at some common terms.

  • PPC Bids – Pay per Click Bids

With this pay per click model, you bid on a keyword.  When someone searches for that keyword, your ad pops up. Depending on how competitive the keyword is, bid value can increase or decrease.

  • Quality score

The quality score is Google’s way of finding out whether your ad is a good match for the keyword you bid. It uses a combination of click-through rate, the quality of your web page and your Google Ad account’s overall Quality Score. You are eligible for a “discount” if your webpage has a high-quality score.

  • Ad copy

Ad copy is a specific type of content curated to make the readers respond or take action. It is a combination of headline, main body, and a call to action written to form an ad. Good ad copy will ensure a high CTR which in-turn gives a better-quality score. In the end, you spend less.

Well, that’s SEM/PPC in a nut-shell.

Now that we have discussed SEO, SMM & SEM let’s have a look at the differences between them.

Before we jump into answering the million-dollar question difference between SEM & SMM, let’s have a look at how SEO is different from SEM.

How is SEO different from PPC? (Remember they’re both SEM!)

 The primary difference between SEO & PPC is that SEO targets organic searches reach through website optimization & PPC and Google or Bing Ads depend on organic and paid search. You can differentiate them by looking at the “ad” designation that is associated with a search result.

  • PPC yields faster results

The main difference is the speed with which your expected results surfaces. SEO takes a lot of planning & effort to be fruitful, especially if you are new to it and lack resources to do it.

It can take you anywhere between a few months to a year for your website to rank in SERPs, and you can never be certain on the time because it all depends on the SEO strategies you implement and the difficulty of the keywords you target. This is why it is important to hire an experienced SEO professional who can devise the right strategies to help you cut down the time span.

In the meantime, the other side of SEM, PPC methods show near instant results but are short-lived. Once you withdraw your budget, your traffic is gone.

  • PPC requires a budget

While traffic from SEO is considered to be free, it is something you earn for all the consistent efforts you put into content management, content marketing, investment in tools, and the time you spend for planning. So is it free? No, unfortunately not! 

PPC as you know requires a budget for every click you get. The higher the budget you have, the more traffic & clicks you’ll get.

  • SEO yields long term benefits while PPC yields short term benefits

Though SEO takes time, once your web pages rank on SERP all that you’ve to do is to work to maintain/improve the rank.

Summing up, a good strategy can be to use SEO as a foundation and to build over time, while you start getting immediate traffic from PPC. Once you start ranking for your pages organically and the right keywords, you can scale down your PPC efforts.

SEM vs SMM – The million-dollar question.

In short, the major difference between the two lies in where they attract customers. While SEM pulls traffic to your website/webpage by manipulating the search results on SERP, SMM pulls traffic from social media platforms.

Now let’s have a look at some of the other major differences between the two!

Ø  SMM runs visually pleasing advertisements on social media platforms such as Facebook. Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat etc. SEM manipulates the search results to make their client web page reach the user both paid and organically.

Ø  SMM ensures much higher visibility because of their large user base and the ads are shown to potential customers without any input or trigger from the user. But in the case of SEM, users have to search for a particular keyword or search phrase on a search engine for your webpage to be served.

Well, there you have it: the difference between SEM & SMM.

To give you a better idea on how to choose between SEM & SMM, let us also discuss their pros and cons.

Pros and Cons of SEM

The pros of SEM

  • Cost control: You can stick to your budget and limit your daily spending relying on the payment set up. You won’t have to worry about exceeding the budget in any case. You can also manage the keywords and target those keywords which give you better ROI.
  • Instant traffic (PPC): You will be surprised at the response of these ad campaigns once they are all finished and launched.
  • Better Targeting: The SEM ad campaigns can be optimised using different filters which includes location, network targeting, and placement. The money that you invest will bring the right quality traffic your business needs.


The cons

  • Complex and labour intensive: The campaigns demand a lot of manpower and planning to find the desired results on the P&L statement. SEO has a lot of moving parts and can be expensive in very competitive niches.
  • Competition: As in every field, competition is intense here as well. Those companies with a larger budget can easily take over the top positions on search results and lure greater traffic to their web pages.

Pros and Cons of SMM

The pros

  • Less Expensive: The low investment SMM companies demand makes it attractive for smaller companies as it will suit their budget.
  • Cater to a Bigger audience: SMM ensures that your ads reach a bigger audience than SEM. This explains why 92% of digital marketers highlight the importance of SMM.
  • Fast action and faster results: You can synchronize the social media account to the webpage and automate posts.
  • Easy to schedule campaigns: Scheduling ads on social media platforms is easier than you think. All you need is some basic understanding of the platform.


The cons

  • Time consuming: While scheduling social media ads takes only less than a minute, coming up with the content & design for the ad takes a lot of time. Experts suggest that you need to work a minimum of 9 hours on an ad to get the right results from SMM.
  • Chances of Generating fake or negative leads: Spammers, scammers, trolls and all other sorts of malicious individuals may harm your online reputation.

Now that we have discussed in detail how SEM & SMM are different, it’s up to you to devise a plan to make the most out of them both. Though they are both different, you can’t claim one to be better than the other as they serve different purposes.

Choosing the right method has to be based on your business & the industry you serve. Know that the key to successfully marketing your business using SEM & SMM is to identify where your potential customers spend time online.