• seoandalucia

    Hi Danny, perhaps the differentiation stems from the fact that, while both optimisation and marketing are paid services, there’s really not a great deal of science behind placing an ad, which is, in general terms, what SEM is. Mind you SEM can get any website, however poorly structured, into top page results, as soon as payment starts. Can the same be expected from SEO? Further, can any SEM guarantee top page results once paid advertisement stops? I think your equalling SEO and PR is right on the money.

  • http://www.highrankings.com/seo-services Jill Whalen

    Yes, it’s been very annoying to hear so many people referring to paid search as SEM, and yes, it’s come from people who one would have thoug would know better.

    I used to call paid search just PPC until a few years ago when Andrew Goodman explained to me that PPC doesn’t encompass it all and I should really call it paid search instead. That made perfect sense.

    I think SEA would work, but I’m not sure people would adopt a new acronym at this point. The thing is, those who do paid search can still call themselves an SEM, just as SEOs can call themselves SEMs. While I mostly do SEO, I still consider myself a search marketer who does search marketing. It doesn’t matter if I do paid search or not.

    Doesn’t seem that confusing to me, I think we just have to continue to educate everyone about the correct use of the words as we’ve been doing for awhile.

  • gredmond1

    How about this? PSA (Paid Search Advertiser)

    Or, moving away from the overall profession and starting to break this down into specific individual expertise with some appropriate hierarchies:
    SAE (Search Advertising Expert)
    SAP (Search Advertising Professional)
    SAT (Search Advertising Technologist)
    SAN (Search Advertising Newbie) for those less inclined.
    SAD (search Advertising Dullard) for those who bore you with their infinite stupidity on the subject

  • dbomestar

    I must confest, I was confused few times when people were using SEM for paid search however the old definition of SEM is most logical and I don’t see how SEM can be the same as PPC/Paid Search. It would be great to push new “SEA” acronym as it would clear up some things. I vote for SEO + SEA = SEM
    Hopefully more people would accept it.
    Or maybe SEPA? Search Engine Paid Advertising? lol :)

  • http://commonplaces.com Harry

    I don’t really agree with the first comment. Landing page quality and structure is factored into Google’s quality score, so I don’t think you can say that site quality is completely irrelevant. In addition, writing text ads that will compel the user to click is both an art and a science.

    Regarding the article, I definitely agree that both SEO and CPC make up SEM, but I would even add Local SEO to the equation, because the tactics can be somewhat different, and because it is so critical to small, local businesses. Therefore, I say SEO + CPC + Local Optimization = SEM.

  • http://www.wirestone.com kgamache

    I have always referred to SEM as a combination of SEO and PPC or paid search. I think there needs to be an acronym for those of us that are tasked with managing both Organic optimization and search engine advertising. I like SEA to refer to Search Engine Advertising, but I would not look forward to trying to optimize for that acronym versus PPC or CPC. Also, to Harry’s point, SEM needs to maintain a nebulous definition for all the marketing efforts that are used to market services/products via the SERP. Social media optimization for the SERPs?
    So to wrap up, SEM needs to refer to the general marketing efforts for the purpose of appearing, in some form, on the Search Engine Results Page.

  • MarciDesign


    Thank you so much for writing this article it means a lot to those of us who work in the SEM and SEO Industry.

    Marci :))

  • http://www.bgtheory.com Brad Geddes

    I’m a fan of SEM = CPC + SEO.

    SEM = marketing. Marketing is about promoting goods and services. Ranking organically is promoting goods. Are SEO’s not marketers?

    However, per the above comment – if you start adding local to that equation as it’s different – don’t you then need to add video, images, and product search as those items sometimes shows on the search page as well?

    At least with the sunset of paid inclusion on Yahoo – this definition is a little easier as that was paying for organic listings with a different set of optimization rules.

    Maybe I’m just stubborn or I’ve been doing this too long – but SEO = organic results. CPC/PPC = Paid search. SEM is about visibility on a search page regardless of the algo used to place the information there.

  • http://www.rimmkaufman.com George Michie

    Danny, I suspect the industry will continue to evolve faster than the language we use to describe it. As more agencies move beyond paid search to offer services in attribution management, display advertising/re-targeting, contextual advertising, etc, anything beginning with “Search” is inherently limited.

    Indeed, the range of different services offered by agencies is anything but standard, which makes descriptive monikers tough.

    Search Marketing in all its glorious forms is but one piece of the online marketing world, and its becoming increasingly difficult to figure out where one piece ends and the next begins.

  • http://www.doyoualoha.com mkematt

    Thank you for publicly bringing this to light! As a Search Marketing (notice my wording here) professional, I have never understood how or why the acronym SEM became synonymous with Paid Search (PPC). As someone who has been in this industry for going on 12 years, this is how I feel the acronyms should be represented:

    SEM = umbrella acronym for “Search Marketing” or “Search Engine Marketing” – encompasses organic search (SEO), paid search (PPC) and possibly social media (SMO) – all three are becoming intricately tied together

    SEO = represents “Organic Search” or “Search Engine Optimization”

    PPC = represents “Paid Search” or “Pay-per-Click Advertising”

    SMO = represents “Social Media” or “Social Media Optimization”

    That’s it! DONE!

  • http://www.thomascreekconcepts.com/ Tom Hale

    With this kind of diverse opinion among Top Pundits, imagine the confusion in the market.

    Especially small business.


  • http://www.absem.com absem_limited

    I have been a PPC professional for 6 years but I agree with mkematt SEM=PPC+SEO+SMM or SMO. I have never used SEM=PPC because it is not.

    End goal for both PPC and SEO is to get results on Search Engines to Market a website i.e. SEM or Search Engine Marketing. If SEM=PPC only then why bother doing SEO at all?

    Here is some logical reasoning for people who think SEM=PPC to give them some food for thought:

    Companies pay for PPC professionals to ensure their ad shows on search engines and in return brings targeted traffic that would convert = “marketing”.

    Same companies hire SEO professionals to ensure their website shows on search engines only this time the “text ad” is in the form of carefully crafted titles, descriptions, & URLs and in return brings targeted traffic that would convert = “marketing” as well.

    Common denominators being Search Engines AND Marketing. Both cost money, one more than the other does not mean the more expensive one is what is called Search Engine Marketing and make SEO “that thing you do…”

    Also with recent changes and social media updates being shown in search results, SMO or SMM is also coming under the umbrella of SEM.

    This is a great post Danny.

  • http://www.netmagellan.com/ Ash Nallawalla

    I lost many subscribers when I blogged http://www.netmagellan.com/why-do-marketers-still-use-the-term-sem-to-refer-to-ppc-798.html and can only take solace in the fact that Yahoo Search Marketing will be gone, along with its “SEM = PPC” proponents.

    I used the latest SMX-West SEM session as an example of an event that had no PPC coverage in it.

  • http://AlanCh AlanCh

    I find my students get so mixed up trying to segregate SEO and on-SERP advertising that in my books I cover SEO in one chapter and SE ads in the chapter on advertising – though, naturally, I start the SEO chapter with an intro that explains why I have divided them such.

    An added advantage with this is that the Adwords and Adsense concepts & operation are so similar it is easier to cover them as part of ‘advertising’.

    But yes, SEO + CPC does = SEM

  • http://www.sweetspotmarketing.com kevinpike

    …since you asked for comments Danny. Yes, you are correct.

    SEO = SEO
    PPC = PPC
    SEO + PPC = SEM

    Opposite of you, I started in PPC and migrated to SEO & I still see it the same way.

  • http://www.hugoguzman.com hugoguzman

    Hey Danny! You actually got on me for referring to paid search as “SEM” a few years back over at Sphinn. I tried to tell you that even though your logic was correct, it was too late to change the perspective in corporate America (which is why I used the term in that manner, to speak to that audience in their language).

    Agencies and many marketing stakeholders at Fortune 1000s always use the term “SEM” when referring to paid search.

    It might not be right, but it’s become the standard meaning in those circles.

  • http://jeffreyanichols.com jeffreynichols

    Google Quality Score forces SEM to include SEO.

  • ann_donnelly

    Who decides what these things mean? Many SEOs just manipulate the popularly searched terms to come up for content of things they offer. (I’m sometimes guilty of that.) To me SEM should mean Search Engine Marketing — all methods of marketing using search (search engines and other search apps) – so PPC, SEO and maybe even some social media things. I normally swear by what Wilipedia says, but in this case I don’t agree!

  • http://www.onlinematters.com Arthur Coleman

    100% in agreement and it’s how we use the term on our web site and in OnlineMatters service offerings (ouch! we have it right on the services offerings but I just looked at our glossary and we define it as paid search. I’ll change THAT today). Ontology to be clear is as follows

    SEO = SEO
    PPC = PPC
    Paid Search = All forms of paid search – PPC, banner, content network, CPL, CPA whether through exchanges, networks or direct deals with publishers
    SEM =SEO + PPC

  • http://www.adammoro.com/blog adammoro

    I think you hit the nail on the head with the logic that PPC professionals were looking for an acronym to label themselves with (even though I never thought SEO made sense to describe a person either, until Google used the term “Search Engine Optimizer” on their SEO page).

    I admit that when I first got into Search, I confused the terms in that I synonymized SEM with PPC (never CPC, however, as I always considered CPC a metric/component of PPC advertising). But sure, SEO is a form of marketing, no? So why wouldn’t it be considered a sub-discipline of Search Engine Marketing? My vote is for SEM to remain an umbrella term for SEO and PPC.

    Did I use enough acronyms in my comment? :)

  • Ironshef

    I am definitely in the SEM = paid search + SEO camp. Although, similar to hugoguzman I have been guilty in the past of lazily (adjective for me, not hugo) using SEM to refer to paid search when speaking with certain audiences.

    I’m not a fan of referring to paid search marketing as PPC, since PPC is the cost model not the activity. I also don’t like saying “paid search marketing” every time I want to communicate the concept. Quite frankly, I don’t think I really like SEO anymore either. I’m not optimizing the search engines. They are optimizing themselves. I’m optimizing websites to achieve better organic listings.

    So, I vote for the following:

    PSM = paid search marketing/paid search marketers

    OSM = organic search marketing/organic search marketers

    Obviously, neither is novel; but, they feel more accurate.


    SEM = PSM + OSM

  • Ironshef

    lazily = adverb…duh.

  • http://www.cowboom.com lihall

    Speaking purely from an ecommerce marketing perspective, I consider SEM to mean paid search PPC, and SEO to be the organic/natural flavor. This stems more from the functional areas within an ecommerce marketing organization that are responsible for each piece. SEM/PPC costs hard marketing dollars, and is therefore measured and tweaked on a daily basis. SEO is part art and part science, and requires good website structure in addition to a strong PR campaign and presence. These dollars are more “soft dollars” which cannot be directly attributed to specific ROI on a daily basis the way a paid keyword can. I wonder if you asked this question on an ecommerce forum instead of search engine forum, if the comments would differ. I need to differentiate paid search PPC from comparison shopping PPC, which is why “SEM” is a handy shortcut.

  • Francis Petty

    Hi Danny,
    I consider Search Engine Marketing to be the umbrella of Search Engine Optimization and Search Engine Advertising. So SEM =SEO+SEA. Just like every definition of marketing includes advertising.
    I think Search Marketers, and Online Marketers in general, should acknowledge they act as evangelists in many oportunities leading people into the online world and teaching them how these different marketing activities are named. They should bare that burden with responsibility and should do their best to disambiguate terms, just like you are doing with this article. Considering this, YSM has been an epic FAIL.
    CPC and PPC are acronyms that exceed SEM just like CPA so I would not consider them able to stand for SEA.
    I agree to some extent with Ironshef, but i wouldn´t go on to rename SEA, that has still to be used and promoted as a term, and SEO that is definitively questionable but already positioned in the minds of our target audience.

  • http://www.neodia.com raphaelric

    Hi Danny,
    If follow your writing from Paris through originalsignal.com
    Stick to your beliefs: in France, we have the same confusion between SEM and SEA. Of course, SEM = search = SEA+SEO. I have already converted 1000 to 2000 peoples through the training seminars I give in Paris :-) The fight is even harder in France as we have translations (SE0= referencement naturel, referencement organique, SEA=referencement publicitaire, achat de mots cles, liens sponsorises, liens publicitaires, SEM=marketing dans les outils de recherche). We will win on the long term as people from ad agencies who know nothing about SEO, will be outdated soon. They arrived late on the “search” market and or no experts…. and very often do a poor consulting job: the actual point is less terminology than arbitrage…. Very often when they confuse SEA and SEM, they also overweight the SEM budget compared to the SEO budget thus increasing average cost of acquisition.

    BTW: as affiliate marketing pionner, I think you must not confuse PPC and SEA.
    PCC = banner ppc campaigns (Valueclick like) + SEA + contextual advertising (like google Adsense, which is also billed by google adwords but is not the same traffic at all as the one from SEA) and other forms of performance based campains.

  • Stupidscript

    I noticed the shift, but it doesn’t seem like a big deal, to me.

    Really, it comes down to “confusion”, as in “who will be confused by using SEM to mean ‘paid search'”? IMHO, nobody gets confused by it, because those of us who know include SEO in the mix, and those who don’t … don’t. Simple. The context of the discussion very quickly provides the definition.

    For example, if I’m speaking with a client, and they start talking about SEM, I know they are referring to the paid search elements of their marketing. If they start talking about SEO, then they are talking about the non-paid search elements. If they start talking about SEM and are including SEO in that reference, then the conversation will clearly reflect that.

    After all, it’s just nomenclature. It’s not like the differences between what professionals call something and what consumers call it has any real bearing on that thing’s validity.

    And I realize that it has been a long time since anyone discussed it as a serious marketing framework, but let’s not forget about PPM in all of this … neither SEO nor PPC … but 100% SEM.

  • Stupidscript

    PS: I’m noticing more and more articles in the mainstream media that use SERP as an acronym for “Search Engine Results Page”, instead of the traditional “Search Engine Results Position”, too. We should probably gird our loins.

  • http://twitter.com/webnextsolution Webnext Solutions

    I myself was so hurted with this non-sense going all round. People are really misguided through wrong use of the term SEM – even google adwords learning center says ”Search engine marketing (SEM) is the process of promoting and marketing a website through paid listings (advertisements) on search engines”. But at the same time they say “Although SEM refers to placing ads just on search engines, online advertising as a whole is much broader. The possibilities of online advertising include placing ads on nearly any type of website or page a user might browse, such as news, blogs, reviews, entertainment, online magazines, and marketplaces. In AdWords, these other sites make up the Google Display Network”

    So basically they say search engine advertising as online advertising and that is also worng because online advertising includes not only search engines nowadays, they incude the social media sites too.

    I was myself thinking of a correct differenciation. Even the same probelm is going to exist for term SMM that is social media marketing.


    SEM (Search Engine Marketing) = SEO (Search Engine Optimization) + SEA (Search Engine Advertising)


    SEM (Search Engine Marketing) = SEO (Search Engine Optimization) + PPC (Pay Per Click Advertising Through Search Engines)


    SMM (Social Media Marketing) = SMO (Social Media Optimization) + SMA (Social Media Advertising)


    SMM (Social Media Marketing) = SMO (Social Media Optimization) + PPC (Pay Per Click Advertising Through Social Media Sites)

    NOW I think SEM is not limited to search engines becasue even when we do social media marketing it finally gives more visiblity in search engines and so social media benefits in search engine visibilty.


    Vaibhav Jain (Internet Marketing Professional)
    Founder / Director – WEBNEXT SOLUTIONS
    URL : http://www.webnextsolutions.com

  • http://twitter.com/webnextsolution Webnext Solutions

    Although This nonsense hurts me but still sometimes it make me feel to use SEM as paid method and come up with a new umbrella term and for this reason still my domain is under developed. Currrently it shows SEM as paid method but right now I am under thinking process that what way to go and as soon as I decide the domain http://www.webnextsolutions.com will be fully developed and functional.

    I am really serious about it’s correct use

    Vaibhav Jain
    Webnext Solutions

  • http://twitter.com/webnextsolution Webnext Solutions

    Send me your suggestions – what you think ?

  • http://twitter.com/AgentsOfValue AgentsOfValue

    This is an eye-opener post by Danny Sullivan! SEM and SEO are usually used as two different terms when they should belong in one group. SEM and SEO are cousins in real life, right?

    There’s this agent in our company who wrote an article about search engine marketing. His article was well-written. There was no mistake in grammar but there were loads of mistakes in facts. He really thought SEO primarily refers to link building techniques while SEM is the online marketing practices outside SEO. Thanks for this article – and when this agent of ours stumbled upon this blog, everything was cleared since then.