How Wikipedia Turned PPC / Paid Search Into SEM

What’s search engine marketing? If you ask Wikipedia, it’s currently defined as the act of buying listings on search engines. That’s not how SEM started out being defined. It’s still not how I define it, though that might change, as my Does SEM = SEO + CPC Still Add Up? article explains. But in this piece, how did SEM end up this way on Wikipedia? Come along and see how small changes snowballed into an entirely new meaning.

June 2005: Wikipedia Starts Out Wrong

The first Wikipedia page for search engine marketing was made on June 25, 2005. It said:

Search Engine Marketing is a marketing method to promote a website in search engine results pages. It is similar to Search engine optimization

It went on to list SEM “products” as being Google AdWords and Yahoo Search Marketing, so it was wrong out-of-the box, to me.

December 2005: Wikipedia Gets It Right

By December 2005, the definition had grown to be more inclusive and specific:

In Internet marketing, search engine marketing, or SEM, is a set of marketing methods to promote a website  in search engine results pages. The three main methods are:

* Search engine optimization, or improving rankings for relevant keywords in search results by adjusting the website structure and content.

* Search engine advertising, or paying the search engine company for a guaranteed high ranking or an ad displayed aside the results.

* Paid inclusion, or paying the search engine company for a guarantee that the website is included in the search.

June 2007: Alternative Definition Introduced

That was pretty on target. Then further edits happened, but the idea that SEM was an umbrella term remained strong until June 7, 2007 when the part bolded below was added to the definition:

Search engine marketing, or SEM, is a form of Internet marketing that seeks to promote websites  by increasing their visibility in the search engine results pages (SERPs). According to the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization, SEM methods include: search engine optimization, paid placement, and paid inclusion.[1Other sources, including the New York Times define SEM as the practice of buying paid search listings, different from SEO which seeks to obtain better free search listings.[2][3]

That was added by Jonathan Hochman, who is a contributor here, a nice guy and a knowledgeable search marketer — not to mention a senior Wikipedia editor. So Jonathan screwed-up?

But Sources Say…

I’m fairly certainly Jonathan will come along to comment here, but I think he was actually trying to ensure the article was accurate. At this point, clearly some people were defining SEM to mean paid search. One of the sources to cite this was a New York Times article from 2006 that wrote:

Search marketing is epitomized by the text ads that appear next to results from online searches; marketers buy the rights for their ads to appear on-screen when computer users type in key words. There is also search engine optimization, which tries to determine how to elevate a client’s Web site in the listings when computer users look for a subject or topic.

But this is also a flaw with Wikipedia. It seems to prefer sources such as the mainstream media to “prove” the “facts” it records even if the media gets it wrong. And many search marketers reading that New York Times article in 2006 would have been scratching their heads over that definition. Despite this, an alternative definition of SEM gained coequal weight to a different definition that many in the industry had long used.

The other source cited to support the alternative definition was written by two long time search marketers, Bill Wise and Dave Pasternack. It was an article they wrote in 2005, which said:

Search engine marketing involves click costs. Search engine optimization works through free traffic. Those two facts are the basis of a popular myth: that it’s easier to get good ROI through SEO than it is to get the same ROI through SEM.

On the one hand, that’s more proof that the industry itself was conflicted. But then again, it was “proof” written by two people who worked for an exclusively paid search agency. And proof that, if you read the comments, still gets many disagreements today:

I disagree with both the comment above and the way many people refer to paid search as “SEM”.

Before write about anything, check concepts first.  Check the SEMPO glossary and learn. Don’t try to recreate things.

SEM Search engine marketing.. Right? SEO and PPC fall under SEM Right? You either pay for placement or get the placement organically..

In the end, the change caused SEM to have two different definitions — one that SEM was inclusive of SEO, the long-time definition that was sourced to the industry’s oldest and largest group — and one that excluded SEO, based on a mainstream media article and a column by two people who worked solely within paid search.

May 2009: SEM Changed To Exclude SEO

Again, mentioning an alternative definition is fair enough. But that’s not what stuck. In May 2009, we got this change:

Search engine marketing, or SEM, is a form of Internet marketing that seeks to promote websites  by increasing their visibility in search engine result pages (SERPs) through the use of paid placement, contextual advertising, and paid inclusion.[1]. The Pay Per Click (PPC) lead Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, also includes search engine optimization within its remit, but SEO is accepted by the industry as being a separate discipline with most sources, including the New York Times defining SEM as ‘the practice of buying paid search listings’.[2][3]

Woah. That’s a dramatic change, and one made anonymously, by an author known only by their IP address,

Single-handedly, this person tossed aside the primary definition that had long been used for SEM. Without any new documentation, it now was asserted that SEO was accepted as exclusive from SEM by “most sources.”

Today: SEM Still Excludes SEO; Inclusive Definition An “Alternative”

Some of the damage was reversed in July 2009, when we got this revision:

Search engine marketing, or SEM, is a form of Internet marketing that seeks to promote websites  by increasing their visibility in search engine result pages (SERPs) through the use of paid placement, contextual advertising, and paid inclusion.[1]. The industry peak body Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO), includes search engine optimization (SEO) within its reporting, and SEO is also included the industry definitions of SEM by Forrester Research, eMarketer, Search Engine Watch, and industry expert Danny Sullivan.[2]. The New York Times defines SEM as ‘the practice of buying paid search listings’.[3][4]

The undocumented “most sources” part was removed. A ton of support was given to the idea that SEM includes SEO, with organizations, publications and even yours truly being cited. And yet, the primary definition remained as changed in May 2009: SEM was paid search only. The definition remains that way to the time of this article.

Related Topics: Channel: Strategy | SEM Industry: General | Stats: History


About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • Jonathan Hochman

    The reason I introduced the alternative definition in 2007 is that some people were trying to delete the article, and the best argument against deletion was to show that even the New York Times used the term. I wrote what they said with full fidelity, even though I personally didn’t agree with it.

    Wikipedia is not a thought leader; it’s a thought follower. Whatever reliable people say, Wikipedia repeats. There is still a lot of confusion about SEM means, so the article reflects that.

    In any event, I just took another look at the article and tried to patch up the lead. You readers are welcome to help. If you want to make changes, please use footnoted references where appropriate. You might like the Cite for Wiki Firefox add-on that automatically generates Wikipedia footnote code from any web page.

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