Moving from SEM to SEO

Moving into a new role at your company, or even at another company, is daunting. We know that firsthand because we both had over 4 years of paid search experiences before making the decision to move into SEO roles at Merkle.  

The transition wasn’t always easy. We’ve both learned a lot from our experiences, and we’re giving you the inside scoop, so if you’re moving to SEO from SEM, you can have a smooth transition (or maybe just learn a thing or two about the other side of search marketing).

Often, people outside of the search realm assume SEO and SEM are the same thing. They’re both search marketing, right? But that’s far from the truth. SEO (search engine optimization), is a whole different ballgame than the SEM (search engine marketing, aka PPC (pay-per-click) or paid search) world. 

The Two Most Notable Differences Between SEM and SEO

Google’s Role in the Relationship:

SEMs have a friendly and more direct relationship with Google, likely because it’s a paid channel. They generally have a Google representative who will help solve problems, suggest new features, such as alphas and betas for advertisers to participate in, and much more.

SEOs, on the other hand, have a very indirect relationship with Google, drawing learnings from thought leaders and a few authoritative Google employees who engage with the SEO community. 

Preparing for Change:

The changes that are made on both sides of search also differ. For SEOs, a large amount of interpretation is needed to understand evolving search engines. On the other hand, SEMs have a better understanding of what is changing in their ecosystem. Because SEOs don’t work directly with Google and don’t have a financial relationship, there’s a lot of “test and learn” and insights drawn from the data gleaned from Google and other search engines. On the other hand, SEMs have their own Google Ads blog dedicated to the changes happening in Google Ads. 


The SEM Skills that Can Be Carried Over to a Career in SEO 

Due to the similarities between the two channels, there are a handful of skills that do transfer over nicely from SEM to SEO. The top skillsets include keyword research, reporting, copyrighting, marketing knowledge, and agency operations.  

Keyword Research

Keyword research is a big one (and perhaps the most obvious). Having an understanding of keyword elements such as: search volume, keyword relevance, long-tail vs short-tail keywords, and branded vs. non-branded keywords will provide a leg up when transitioning channels. Furthermore, many of the available keyword research tools (such as SEMrush) are in fact used by both channels. After all, the main goal of both SEM and SEO is to rank higher for relevant keywords. 

SEMrush keyword overview

In addition to understanding how keywords work, another element that was extremely helpful was our awareness of how paid search works. This knowledge allowed us to understand the organization, auction system, and navigation of Google Ads. Even to this day, the organization of SEM’s keywords has sprinkled into how both of us organize our keywords when building out our SEO content strategies. 

Reporting and Tools

Reporting is another skill that crosses over from SEM to SEO. Most clients will want to see weekly or monthly reports from both channels. In SEM, there tend to be more metrics and data points to report on (such as cost-based metrics like cost per conversion (CPC) and total spend).

In search, you can’t talk about reporting without mentioning spreadsheets. With foundational spreadsheet skills in Excel and Google Sheets, you can use your reporting experience from SEM and apply it to SEO reports. Knowing how to use Excel aids with data analysis and manipulation, which is an integral part of keyword research. Lastly, knowing how to use other Google platforms, such as Google Analytics, Google Ads, and Google Data Studio eases the learning curve. 


Another skill set that can be easily transferred from SEM to SEO is copywriting. On the SEM side, you need to be succinct when writing ad copy, because there are strict character limits. You also have the advantage of A/B testing copy. This means you must get to the point quickly, which is something that is similarly sought after in SEO’s metadata. 

Marketing Knowledge

It is important to have a foundation of general marketing experience and knowledge. To maximize performance in both channels, you must understand user journeys, audience segmentation, keyword intent, and generally why and how consumers use search engines. 

Agency Operations

To make the transition easier, you’ll need to have a firm grasp of how advertising and digital marketing agencies operate. This includes having experience with client and agency relationships, project management, running status calls, general account management, business acumen, and putting the client’s needs first.

What Did We Have to Learn from Scratch?

Technical Hurdles

In our opinion, the principal hurdle of transitioning from SEM to SEO is the technical knowledge that is required. This includes SEO jargon:

  • How search engines crawl > render > index > rank sites
  • What factors search engines consider when crawling and ranking pages (such as robots.txt, robots meta tags, XML Sitemaps, and other metadata)
  • How websites operate and organize themselves

Essentially, understanding all the components that users are typically unaware of can be like drinking water from a firehose at the start. Grasping all of this is a learning curve that needs to be mastered before technical site audits are performed.

Crawl > Index > Rank


Another main difference is how much time it takes to see results from general optimizations. In SEM, adjusting bids, increasing budget, and pausing keywords result in near-immediate results (depending on budget and search volume). If you notice that you are ranking for an undesirable keyword, it’s as easy as adding a negative keyword and you can rest assured your site won’t rank for that query in the future.

However, in SEO, most optimizations are slow processes. The frequency with which your site is crawled by search engines and their interpretation of optimizations can both be roadblocks to seeing quick results. Another contributor to the delay is the actual work that needs to go into making the optimizations, which can sometimes be time-consuming to deploy and usually falls in the laps of developers who are also managing other internal priorities. Although SEO requires no media spend, it often requires more resources on the client side to implement changes to the site. 


Another point of differentiation is overall controllability. Each channel has more control in opposite areas. When it comes to SEM, there is more control in the targeting sect. SEM can leverage demographic targeting, can easily test or change ad copy, and has more control over what keywords to rank for, due to match types. In SEO, there is more control on the site once a user lands on it. SEO can help to optimize the user experience after they get to the site. Unlike SEM, whose main job is to get users to the site, SEO can often help keep users engaged during their experience.

Our Best Tips and Takeaways to Make the Move from SEM to SEO

Here are four tips for an easy transition: 

1. Be open about what you want to do and why you want it.

When you’re transparent about pursuing your wants and needs in your career, you can open doors to connect with people within the SEO community. Being open and honest about what you want may even help you realize that you can switch gears in your current role to focus on things that excite you. Additionally, you could learn SEO from those in or outside your organization through experiences such as: informational interviews, shadowing, internships, mentorship, or assisting your company’s SEO team, if you work in a multi-service agency.  

2. Read industry blogs and follow SEO experts.

Reading industry blogs such as the one on, Search Engine Land, or Search Engine Journal can help you get up-to-date news on the SEO industry, so you know what is changing. Top industry professionals such as John Mueller and Barry Schwartz, and top thought leaders at Merkle like Max Prin and Alexis Sanders are on Twitter and have interesting insights within the SEO community. You can check out additional thought leaders on Twitter and at the Technical SEO blog.

3. Take advantage of free resources.

Looking at existing websites by playing with free SEO tools and resources like those in or the free version of Screaming Frog, can help you to understand how websites work and give you a sense of how SEO can be incorporated into a website.

Bonus: take a look at, put on your SEO thinking cap, and see just how far you can get in the SEO challenges.

4. When in doubt, Google it.

It’s always best to get information straight from the horse’s mouth. Getting mixed opinions from the SEO community is common and you often need to weed through the noise and vet multiple sources to find answers.

Overall, we both had unique experiences in moving from one side of the search industry to the other. Hopefully this post has shown that moving roles from one side of search to the other can be both satisfying and a valuable learning experience.