Mentioned resource: Guide to hiring a marketing firm


Hey there I’m John Doherty and I’m the founder and CEO of Credo where we help great companies get introduced fast to the best pre-vetted digital marketing firms. 

Today we’re going to talk about SEO vs SEM. Now, this shouldn’t be a debate but people love to debate it and which is more effective, and today I’m going to show you the differences and when you should use each.

There are pros and cons to both, and I think you should be informed so that you can make the right decision for your business.

I’ve been in SEO and digital marketing for a decade now.

I got my start when helping to run a company from Switzerland, and then got my first full time SEO job in Philadelphia in late 2010 before moving on to New York and marketing agency Distilled in 2011.

Since then I’ve run in-house teams at Zillow and my own company here at Credo for the last five years where we’ve generated over $125,000,000 (yes, million) in leads since 2015.

The myth about SEO vs SEM

There’s a myth out there that SEO and SEM are diametrically opposed, or even that you shouldn’t build a brand on top of one of those channels because what if something monumental shifts in the algorithms and you lose your business overnight?

Besides the fact that this doesn’t really happen (and it is more likely to happen in SEO than in SEM, but is still a vanishingly small chance unless you’re doing some shady shit), the two can work hand in hand so well and when they do, it’s a symbiotic relationship of beauty and dollars.


Now you might be wondering some of these things and have these challenges or frustrations:

You keep hearing about what your competitors are doing for (channel)  and are wondering why you’re not doing anything in that area (FOMO)

  • You’re constantly being approached by people via cold email offering to sell you things, and you’re not sure if you should take them up on it or not
  • You’re not sure which one to invest in first.


After you finish watching this video, you’ll have a much better understanding of:

  • The difference between SEO and SEM
  • What each is best for and when to use it
  • How to think about investing in each of them.

As an entrepreneur myself, running a company bootstrapped from my own consulting work, I’ve built a rubric over the years to think about marketing investment.

We’re going to talk about five specific things today.

  1. First, let’s define SEO. SEO is search engine optimization, which is the art of increasing website traffic by ranking better for more keywords in search engines, usually focused on Google. SEO is a combination of technical, content, and link building/promotion.
  2. SEM, or as it is often known “PPC” or “pay per click”, is the advertising you see in search engines. While SEM (search engine marketing) would ideally encompass all parts of search engine marketing, it’s used to just refer to the paid side. These are the ads you see that are bought via an auction system and you pay for the clicks you get to your site.
  3. Everything is an investment. You always  have to spend something when doing anything. As my old CEO Will Critchlow from Distilled used to say, you have three things you can spend and you can only pick two – expertise, time, or money. 
  4. Invest in the one you know. When I get asked which one to invest in first, once we’ve established that everything costs something, I ask them which one they know best. That is usually the best one to invest in because you know how to manage it yourself and how to hire for it. This is usually the channel that allows you to reach a certain level of success where you can then invest in new channels you don’t know as well.
  5. Hire for the rest. If you watched my previous video, you know that I think you should start all channels yourself before you invest in hiring someone or a firm. 


Today we talked about the difference between SEO and SEM and when to invest in each. It’s not a straight forward answer, but now you have a rubric to use:

  1. SEO is Search Engine Optimization, or how you rank your website in the search engines to drive relevant traffic.
  2. SEM, or PPC, is search engine advertising that usually involves paying for individual clicks to your website.
  3. Everything is an investment, and you have to spend two of these three – time, expertise, money.
  4. Invest in the channel you know first.
  5. Hire for the others once you’ve started them and achieved benchmarks.

If this was helpful to you, you should download our free guide to hiring a marketing firm.