SEM vs. SEO vs. PPC Defined: What’s the Difference?

As someone who likes to think he is organized – or, as someone who at least likes to organize things – I’ve attempted to treat digital marketing terms similarly.

The same can be said for now-Googler and search industry pioneer Danny Sullivan when he began routinely using the term “search engine marketing” in 2001 to describe the overarching niche within the digital marketing industry that focuses on search engines.

As my thinking went (and as Sullivan admits he intended), search engine marketing, or SEM, would be (and once was) a useful way to summarize and classify both the paid and non-paid initiatives that go into digital marketing via search engines.

That would mean both the pay-per-click advertisements, or PPC ads, and the organic search initiatives commonly referred to as search engine optimization, or SEO, would fall under that SEM blanket term.

SEM would be the category of marketing through search engines. The paid (PPC) and non-paid (SEO) channels of SEM would both fall under it in terms of hierarchy.

And, even when you consider the literal terminology in coordination with this idea of SEO and PPC falling under that SEM blanket, it almost makes sense.

But, much like the English language, pop culture, and the Cleveland Browns, it simply can’t work the way it’s supposed to.

There will always be exceptions to the rule (like the aforementioned conundrums above).

So, confusing it may be. But the search industry shapes itself, and it has not agreed with Mr. Sullivan over the years, adopting the term SEM to fit strictly into the paid search sphere.

It surely appears it’s there to stay, too.

Difference Between SEM & PPC

PPC is SEM.

That is, pay-per-click advertising (PPC) is the same as search engine marketing (SEM), or at least a vital part of it.

SEO is none of those things.

What likely evolved over time due to the multiple potentially confusing digital marketing acronyms, as well as the need to define specific paid initiatives outside of Google paid search, brought two heavily used cost-driven marketing terms to mean the same thing (leading to even more potential confusion from newbies).

I’ve always tried to make sense of the literal meaning of things, too, especially acronyms.

But from there, it’s easy to get even more lost in the idea.

While the breakdown of the abbreviation PPC is spot on — regardless if it’s called PPC, CPC, paid search, search ads – we know it is referring to paid search marketing, typically through search engines like Google and Bing.

Other terms and tactics used in digital marketing initiatives – especially those tied to search marketing tactics (both paid and organic) – may not be so simple and clearly defined, though.

Difference Between SEO & PPC

We know SEO is search engine optimization.

But, to echo the sentiments of search pioneer Mike Grehan, that never did make much sense.

Marketers aren’t optimizing search engines; we’re optimizing content and websites for search engines (secondly, right after optimizing them for humans) so they can better understand, access, and relay our property to the masses.

Again, acronyms don’t always make sense. So, naturally, this is a bit illogical.

Just like other things in life that don’t always add up, there are some acronyms that will never make sense either.

Like Humvee, which doesn’t stand for any words that start with U or E in them. (It actually stands for High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, and was spawned from the original acronym, HMMWV.)

We’ve also determined that PPC marketing is (at least now) the same as, or a very large part of, SEM.

  • Both are paid initiatives.
  • Both need budget.
  • Both make search engines like Google and other advertising platforms a lot of money.

But, while Wikipedia defines SEM as “a form of Internet marketing that involves the promotion of websites by increasing their visibility in search engine results pages (SERPs) primarily through paid advertising,” it’s not so quick to call them the same exact thing.

In fact, pay-per-click marketing has its own separate Wikipedia page than the topic of search engine marketing (despite there being plenty of discrepancies and confusion throughout the page).

The bottom line is this:

SEO is not a component of SEM.

And, while PPC is typically the largest and most demanding component of SEM, both PPC and SEM are paid initiatives that offer real-time data, ROI, and protected data that can only be accessed by advertisers of certain platforms.

Why It Matters

The most important reason for clarification around these important terms and abbreviations is consistency.

Too many novice marketers, or marketers who aren’t specialists in maximizing value through search, have adopted these industry definitions and crossed them, combined them, confused them, and used them in a way that only further diluted their true meaning.

And even well-seasoned marketers who simply didn’t agree with or possibly even completely understand the terms themselves help contribute to the turning tide as well.

Conferences have set up entire segments of their educational offering around the SEM naming convention when referring to strictly paid marketing efforts, but those efforts aren’t strictly done through search engines.

SEM, at least from this perspective, includes PPC ads on search engines but also on third-party platforms like Amazon and YouTube, as well as industry-focused platforms like Houzz, or Thumbtack, or Yelp. It also includes display ads and remarketing efforts.

And, as the opportunity to advertise on social media continues to grow, it tends to include paid advertising on those networks, too.

Keeping the definitions and their usage consistent is going to be the best way to keep the information organized in a way that makes sense for marketers.

It also helps us as marketers to convey our thoughts and ideas to clients and their stakeholders, our peers, or a friend who is curious about what exactly it is we do for a living.

Using the Marketing Right Terms for the Right People & Setting

When discussing digital marketing – specifically search marketing – and how it pertains to a brand or message, it’s important for marketers to use language that is digestible for clients and potential clients.

Needless to say, 8 out of 10 times, non-marketers already don’t know the difference between incredibly different key terms.

Like SEO and PPC (or SEM), when speaking to someone outside of the search marketing community, these terms need to be clearly defined at least once, and typically more than once, throughout the conversation.

We all have those new-business pitch stories where a client goes on throughout years of his or her life thinking SEO is responsible for paid search ads or that paid search ads were achieved through organic optimizations.

First, the terms must be understood on a level playing field. Hopefully, this post helps do that.

We now are in agreement that:

  • SEM and PPC refer to paid initiatives through search and other advertising platforms on the internet.
  • While SEO is the organic effort that goes into marketing through search engines.

Secondly, we must always consider who the audience is and the level of knowledge it has when it comes to digital marketing, particularly search marketing, while also ensuring we detail:

  • What each term means.
  • How it works.
  • How it relates to the audience’s goals.

Lastly, and most importantly, we must never assume someone on the other end of our conversation knows what we are referring to when we use important industry terms like SEO, PPC, or SEM.

We must be concise and explain exactly what is we are talking about. Ensure the group partaking in the conversation is in agreement.

On a bad day, someone else in the room may disagree and tell us we are wrong.

On a good day, though, we’ll get a room full of people all on the same page who are able to move forward and correctly use consistent terminology for some of the most important practices in digital marketing today.

Searchenginejournal.com

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About the Author: Sam Hollingsworth

Sam Hollingsworth is a native New Yorker currently leading all search efforts for Elevation Ten Thousand marketing agency as its Director of Search. Specializing in general SEO, content strategy, and social media, when Sam's not hard at work at the agency, he can be found at one of the many thoroughbred race tracks across the country (soon to go international), enjoying the great outdoors, and/or cheering on one of his favorite sports teams.