Family Tree: How Are SEO and SEM Related?

Christy Walters


May 9, 2022 (Updated: May 4, 2023)

laptop and cell phone on white table with google open on the screen

Ranking and appearing on search engine results pages (SERPs) is a primary goal for digital marketing. Search engines are often the first locations people consult when trying to find new products or services, or get answers to their questions. You can get your information listed on these services through both paid and organic methods. That’s where search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) cross paths. Today, we’re discussing how the two marketing tactics work together to grab audience attention on SERPs.

What Is SEO?

SEO is the practice of continually optimizing your website and content to rank high for organic search results. SEO has four primary categories to focus your efforts on improving ranking. They include:

  • On-page SEO: Optimizing a website or content around a keyword to target audience search queries.
  • Off-page SEO: Collecting authority signals from other websites through tactics like building backlinks
  • Technical SEO: Concerning the ease of index for your websites and content, including things like site architecture and page loading speed
  • User interaction: Watching behaviors like how long people stay on your pages and interact with them

What Is SEM?

SEM is trickier to define than SEO. You may get a different answer depending on who you ask. According to Semrush, Danny Sullivan, of Search Engine Land and Google, first started using the term SEM in 2001 to describe both SEO and pay-per-click (PPC) advertisements to get traffic from search engines. As SEO became its own strategy, the definition adapted to focus on just the paid side of marketing for search engines. Like SEO, SEM also has subcategories that define it, like:

  • Bidding: Paid ads rely on bidding on specific ranking keywords at a price. The highest bidder appears at the top of the search ads.
  • Quality scores: This Google Ads metric helps the service determine how good of a match your ad is for a particular query. A higher quality score can actually get you a discount on your ad price, but it’s not used at auction time to determine ad rank.
  • Ad copy: Good ad copy leads to better click-through rates, which helps search engines increase your quality score. Poor ad copy can do the opposite, making each click more expensive.

Factors To Consider When Using SEO vs. SEM

When deciding whether to use an SEO or SEM strategy, or combine the two, consider the following factors:

Result Time

maverick and goose from top gun on the tarmac saying "I feel the need the need for speed" about seo and sem

Image via Tenor by @GraceWoolsey

SEO alone can take a long time to see results, a few months at minimum and years at maximum. This happens because your content has to go through the crawling, indexing, and query matching process for organic traffic. And that’s not even considering the competition. When coupled with SEM, you can usually see results much faster. If you start a PPC ad campaign in the morning, you could see results as early as the afternoon.

That doesn’t mean SEM is better because it works faster. It also doesn’t mean you simply click “start” on a PPC campaign and you don’t have to look at it again. Like with SEO, you still have to tweak paid campaigns over their lifecycle to get the best, most targeted results. But if your major goal is to see quick results, a SEM strategy may be your preference.


The words organic and free are not synonyms. Despite what some people think, just because SEO isn’t a paid tactic, it isn’t free. There are many behind-the-scenes costs to using SEO, like paying your writing, design, and strategy teams, or subscribing to tools and services to help with keyword research. These things all cost money, even if you’re not paying directly for the traffic or content placement. It may be easier to justify these expenses, even on a smaller budget, because you can use them in other ways throughout your organization beyond SEO.

In a strictly SEM campaign, you pay money upfront, which might lead to an initial flood of traffic or results. But once you stop paying, that all goes away. You haven’t built content that can stand on its own and continue to generate leads and sales. That’s why doing both SEO and SEM may work best. Compare it to renting vs. buying a house. When you buy, you spend more money over time, but you get to keep all the time, cash, and work you put in. When you rent and the lease is up, you own nothing.


SEO is best for content that focuses on informational and evergreen topics that have a high search volume. These topics often answer questions or solve problems with research, tips, or information. Choosing keywords for SEM focuses on audience segmentation and competition. For example, when picking PPC keywords, you may consider the geographic location of your audience and on what keywords your competitors bid. They may focus more on your industry, products, or services rather than on content topics.

To learn more about your competitors’ content and keyword choice, request your free content analysis report from CopyPress. This report shows how your content compares to your closest industry rivals. It also tells you what keywords to add to your strategy to better target your audience through both SEO and SEM strategies. Find prime opportunities where the two intersect so you can get the most reach and the best return on your investment from either strategy.

“CopyPress gives us the ability to work with more dealership groups. We are able to provide unique and fresh content for an ever growing customer base. We know that when we need an influx of content to keep our clients ahead of the game in the automotive landscape, CopyPress can handle these requests with ease.”

Kevin Doory

Director of SEO at Auto Revo

Author Image - Christy Walters
Christy Walters

CopyPress writer

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