Understanding the Difference Between SEM and Paid Advertising

By Jenie Mae Ate

January 10, 2024   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

Understanding the Difference Between SEM and Paid Advertising

Along your journey in the online market scheme, you will realise how similar traditional and digital marketing services are to each other. When there are paid advertisements in the physical market that are being aired on televisions and radio stations, there are also forms of paid advertising in the virtual market. These ads can be seen while scrolling through a social media platform. You have probably encountered several of these ads while streaming on YouTube or scrolling through your newsfeed on Facebook and Twitter. What you rarely notice is that there are also paid advertisements on the websites you visit.

Most of these online advertisements are interactive and attention-grabbing, some you can even move around using your fingertips. This is why these online advertisements become very effective over the internet where many people are visiting to kill their boredom or to find something to do. But did you know that paid online advertising is just one of the promotional strategies you can use for your online campaign?

What’s more surprising is that there are methods you can use that are absolutely free should you know how to do it yourself. Today, we will introduce to you what is known as search engine marketing (SEM) and how effective it is compared to paid advertising.

What is SEM?

What is SEM?
Photo: improveandgrow

As the name suggests, search engine marketing is an online marketing strategy that focuses on optimising the content of a website to have a better rank in search engine results which can be translated to better brand awareness and more customers or clients. SEM is one of the innovative ways to promote your products, services and even your whole website without the need for paid advertisements.

Applying the concept of SEM to your online campaign comes free. Although it is still recommended to consult an SEM company for more effective execution of search engine marketing. Since this option comes for free, you might be wondering how effective it could be. Thus, we will compare SEM to paid online advertising to see which of them will help your campaigns better.

Comparing SEM and Paid Online Advertising

Comparing SEM and Paid Online Advertising
Photo: wunderboom

When you are offered a choice between a paid and free digital marketing service, you might be quick to jump to the free service. However, you should look deeper into these two options to know which will work best for your online campaign and how to use them effectively. Hence, let us analyse these options using the criteria below:

  • Targeting a Market Segment
  • Measurability
  • Duration of the Strategy
  • Affordability

Targeting a Market Segment

One of the first things a marketer should do before implementing a marketing strategy is to target a market segment. Not all of the people out there will benefit from the product or services you are marketing. Furthermore, not everyone will be willing to invest their money in it or have the financial capability to buy what you are marketing. Thus, even in digital marketing services, targeting a market segment is crucial. Good thing that both of the strategies we are trying to discuss have their ways of targeting a market segment.

With paid online advertising, targeting a market segment works like a funnel. You will post an advertisement on a platform where many people can see it. From those crowds, you will incidentally find a prospective client or buyer that “by chance” scrolled through your advertisement. Although this contradicts the limitation of target audiences, it can be a good strategy since most people on social media claim that they find in the advertisements some of the products and services that they didn’t know they needed.

On the other hand, SEM works differently. In search engine marketing, the marketing specialist will identify the target audience ahead so that they can use the appropriate keywords that appeal to those audiences. Since SEM uses the algorithms of different search engines to bring a website closer to the target audience, it will be close to impossible to target a very large market size.

For instance, an SEM agency will use the keywords “bouquet of flowers”, “flower arrangement”, and “flower delivery” since many online users who are looking for an online florist are searching the internet using these keywords. However, you will not be able to target audiences who are not interested in these services since they will be less likely to type these keywords on the search bar.


Both paid online advertising and SEM services have their own measurability. This is good to know for company owners who are investing a huge sum of money in their digital marketing campaigns. The two strategies have durations once implemented.

In paid online advertising, the duration is the length of time your ad will run on social media platforms. On the other hand, an SEM company offers a time frame to assess whether the KPIs are reached.

Talking about KPIs, these are the biggest factors that make the two strategies measurable. In both strategies, you will set key performance indicators to keep track of your progress. Tools such as SEMRUSH can be used to measure whether you are hitting your KPIs or not.

Duration of the Strategy

This is a bit different from the duration of the project. Although setting a time frame is crucial to know whether the campaign is effective, the duration of the strategy comes longer than the given time frame. This is where SEM has better leverage. When the contract for your paid online advertisement ends, people will not see your advertisements anymore, which means that they will most likely forget about it.

Not to mention, online users who might be prospective customers but failed to run across the ads will not know of your brand. The effects of SEM can be observed even after the contract expires. This is because an SEM agency designs its clients’ websites not just to rank high on search engines but to also be user-friendly, these effects do not expire right away.


Last but not least in the list of criteria is affordability and this one matters more than you can imagine. Paid online ads are created by digital marketing companies and the payment for creating these interactive ads is different from the required payment to post them on social media platforms.

Instagram, Twitter and Facebook all have their own rates per click while YouTube and other streaming platforms have their rates vary depending on the length of your advertisement or whether it can be skipped or not. When you choose SEM, on the other hand, you will only need to pay the SEM agency you hire for the campaign.

In Conclusion

Paid digital advertising and SEM each have their own advantages. You can even find that the two will work best when applied together. Thus, it is still advisable to use paid advertisement alongside SEM to generate page visits and drive sales. However, it is also true that the effectiveness of digital marketing services may vary depending on the nature of your business and the behavior of your audiences. It is better to consult an experienced digital marketing company in Singapore to help you with your online campaign

Jenie Mae Ate

Jenie Mae Ate is a senior SEO copywriter at OOm Philippines. She specialises in formulating website content in line with various SEO techniques. She also writes blogs in various niches including digital marketing, interior design, fashion, and more.

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