SEO vs SEM: Which Is Right for Your SaaS Business

Written by: Elena Daskalova
Sep / 27 / 2023

When talking about the differences between SEO vs SEM, many say that it’s not really right to compare them, as SEO is part of SEM. And that’s correct, but it still makes sense to perform this comparison, especially for the SaaS industry.

When running a SaaS business and offering a product or solution, it’s important to work on your online visibility. That may include performing extensive keyword research to spot the most relevant SaaS-related queries, creating content for the target audience, covering the buyer journey stages, working on the website’s overall quality, and gaining traffic from organic search as a result. 

At the same time, SEM is short for Search Engine Marketing, and it’s focused on gaining traffic and visibility from both online and paid searches. This surely proves the point that SEO is part of SEM, but here is a crucial thing that sets a huge difference between the two approaches:

You can do SEO without focusing on paid search and still gain long-term results, while SEM only works when you pay for the campaign. 

Also, SEO ensures your SaaS website receives relevant traffic from search engines. SEM only drives traffic while paying for it, and the numbers may decline once the campaign is over. 

Surely, you still need SEO knowledge to run a successful SEM campaign. 

If your question is what to choose between SEO vs SEM, we are here to help you figure this out and do the best for your SaaS product.

SEO vs SEM difference
You can easily spot the difference between SEM and SEO in this image. The first result from SEMRush is from SEM, as it has the “sponsored” note, too, while the second one from Pepper Content organically ranks in the first position right after the promoted result.

Key Differences: SEO vs SEM in Digital Marketing

SEO covers all your efforts to bring organic traffic to your website from search engines. The goal is to rank as high as possible, offering great optimization but also quality and helpful content your website visitors enjoy consuming. 

SEM relies on the pay-per-click (PPC) approach, which means you promote the content for specific keywords through advertising platforms and hope it delivers the wanted results. 

Still, our experience shows SEO can deliver exceptional results and drive revenue without promoting anything.

Also, there are many other differences you must know:

SEO vs SEM: The SaaS Cost

While SEO delivers free traffic from search engines, it doesn’t mean it can be done for free. In order to leverage on-page SEO, off-page SEO, technical SEO, and content marketing, you need to invest both time and money in those steps. It’s an ongoing effort, meaning you don’t optimize once and wait for a miracle to happen with a few blog posts targeting relevant keywords. 

SEO requires using quality analytics and SEO tools in order to spot the opportunities and precisely tailor the strategy. As a SaaS business, you can hire an in-house team with at least two SEO experts and a few content writers, as well as an off-page specialist to work on your strategy. Another choice is hiring an SEO agency, as their teams consist of experienced people who are focused on delivering results to the clients. 

The SEO cost, in general, can be a monthly payment for the agency or the salaries and toolset for the in-house SEO team. 

On the other hand, SEM also requires experienced marketers with huge SEO knowledge. The additional cost is related to the campaigns. In general, SEM costs less if you compare on short periods, but for 12, 18, or 24 months (or even more), SEO wins the game.


The SEO results are durable and deliver long-term value to the SaaS company. SEM is more for a monthly boost, which means the campaign’s success won’t always continue after it ends. 

The Time to Get Results

Before you invest time and money in SEO or SEM, you must know that SEM brings immediate results. SEO, on the other hand, needs a few months until search engines recognize the signals and value. So, for the initial results, you may need to wait three to six months. 

Knowing this difference, SEM brings quick traffic, which is best if you want to promote a page, product, or some short-time offer. But if you want to deliver lifelong value and educate your customers through your knowledge hub, then SEO is what you need. 

Your SEO efforts will result in evergreen content that gives a high value to all potential customers, no matter their awareness stage. 

So, for quick promotions for limited offers SEM will do its magic, while the compounding value requires more work and effort.

Improving EEAT for SaaS

EEAT for SaaS is an essential part, as it showcases experience, expertise, authority, and trustworthiness. And we must say, you can’t just promote those things and make the people trust you. It takes a lot of hard work, especially in SaaS, to improve these components. And it can be perfectly done by targeting the right keywords, questions, and queries and surely delivering helpful content for the target audience. 

Most searchers trust organic rankings because they think quality is rewarded with great search engine positions. SEM ensures the promoted page gets on the top positions, no matter what’s on it, and most users have already learned that sponsored doesn’t mean good or valuable. 

As Google upgrades the content quality guidelines and search algorithms, only trustworthy websites providing expertise and authority can be rewarded with such high positions.

So, the trustworthiness difference between SEO and SEM is huge, and the decision for your SaaS business depends on what you need most right now. 

Required Skills for SEO vs SEM in SaaS

When it comes to SEM, you need to focus on simply setting up a campaign, testing a few keywords, and launching the promotion. While we don’t say it’s easy, it doesn’t require a lot of knowledge and expertise to create and set a campaign and do your business while occasionally tracking the success rate.

But SEO, it requires a batch of skills that usually one person can’t really cover. First, you need extensive knowledge of how search engines work and remember, Google isn’t the only search engine to target. Next, learning how to use two or three SEO and analytics tools is essential so you can set KPIs and track down the performance. 

An SEO expert knows how to perform a technical SEO audit, content audit, and general SEO audit. Additionally, you need to hire content marketing experts who will spot the eventual content gaps and improvement opportunities, create an ongoing content strategy, and delegate content tasks to the writers. 

Things get even more specific for SaaS, as it’s a competitive industry with so many products and businesses already ranking for industry-relevant keywords. While the combination of SEO with a dash of SEM may work perfectly, put the main focus on SEO, as SaaS needs ongoing traffic flow and value.

SEO vs SEM Advantages and Disadvantages

We can’t really claim that SEO is everything, and SEM is a bad guy here since it all depends on the specific SaaS needs and pre-defined short-term and long-term goals and expectations. 

But surely, we can create a list of advantages and disadvantages when it comes to both approaches so it would be easier for you to decide what’s better for your SaaS goals.

SEO for SaaS Advantages

Let’s sum up the SEO benefits and advantages:

  • Offering long-term value and ROI
  • Building trust between SaaS brand and target audience
  • Creating quality content that delivers value
  • SaaS content can be repurposed when needed
  • Targeting relevant long-tail search queries
  • Answering questions and targeting pain points
  • Mapping the buyer journey and optimizing it
  • It’s more about skills than expenses
  • Targeting keywords with preferred search intent
  • Mapping the keywords to the right SaaS page
  • Regular re-optimization can largely improve the overall performance

SEO for SaaS Disadvantages

Now it’s time to check on what can be the biggest disadvantage when it comes to SEO:

  • SEO requires extensive knowledge
  • The in-house team can be a huge expense to handle
  • It takes 3-6 months before we see results
  • Search engine updates can affect the strategy
  • Even the best SEOs in the game must focus on lifelong learning

SaaS SEM Advantages

SEM is surely useful for specific situations, and here are the main advantages of it:

  • Great for short-term lead generation
  • Easily trackable metrics thanks to Google Ads
  • Simple campaign launching and tracking
  • Targeting commercial keywords easily
  • Reaching positions that SEO may not accomplish ever
  • Highly targeted campaigns for new launches or upgrades

SaaS SEM Disadvantages

  • Visitors may avoid ad results on search engines
  • Higher cost in long-term budget planning
  • Deliverables may not meet expectations
  • SEM highly depends on marketing budget than skills

So, knowing these things, it may be easier to decide what fits better in your ongoing SaaS marketing plan. 

Combining SEO and SEM for SaaS Success Synergy

SaaS is a highly competitive industry, and your business may struggle to gain the online exposure it deserves. So, you’re allowed to tactically combine both SEO and SEM, as SEO delivers long-term value and durable results, but SEM may give you the initial boost you need to attract targeted traffic and encourage lead generation and conversion. 

As a SaaS owner or marketer, you don’t need to exclude the one to focus on the other completely. It all depends on the marketing budget, the skills, available tools, and ongoing strategy. 

If you compare the SaaS business to a pizza to create an analogy of how both SEO and SEM are used, it would be like this: 

SEO is the process of making pizza. You carefully choose the ingredients you’ll use to create a solid foundation. Adding toppings is like optimizing the website for relevant keywords to make it tasty according to the audience’s expectations. In this case, SEM is the sauces you add once the pizza is done to improve the taste and make it even more delicious – but you charge for those sauces as they don’t go in the basic order. 

Or even better SEO vs SEM example:

SEO is making the pizza at home, with ingredients of your choice, to completely satisfy your taste. SEM, on the other hand, is like ordering a delivery pizza with preferred ingredients (but you don’t have control over what brand they use or how they source them) and having it at your home in less than an hour. 

Both options are great, but you should know what’s better for you or find the perfect balance between them in order to accomplish the expected success for your SaaS product/service.

Final Thoughts on SEO vs SEM for SaaS

As we covered many different aspects in this article, it becomes easier for you to decide what’s better for your SaaS business. Or maybe you at least have an idea of how to balance between both approaches for the most optimal results. 

Anyway, learning the key difference between SEO and SEM can help you determine each value and focus on what’s really important for your marketing strategy at the moment.

About the Author

Picture of Elena Daskalova

Elena Daskalova

Experienced content writer with a focus on SaaS content marketing and copywriting. With a passion for crafting compelling stories, paired with expertise, delivers narratives that drive customer engagement and growth.