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

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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).

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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).

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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MARKETING

5 tips for building customer trust during the supply chain crisis

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5 tips for building customer trust during the supply chain crisis

The supply chain crisis continues, partly caused by COVID-19, partly exacerbated by war in Europe, and beyond the capacity of marketers to solve. The Brooks Group is a sales management, training and consulting firm. “We work with sales organizations, primarily B2B, to help them equip their teams with effective processes and the right sales skills,” said VP of sales performance research Michelle Richardson.

We spoke to Richardson and her colleague Russ Sharer, director of strategic sales excellence, about some lessons they’re teaching sales organizations, not least in their recently published book “Agile & Resilient: Sales Leadership for the New Normal.” The advice is good for marketing organizations too.

Positive strategies to build trust. Richardson and Sharer are offering advice to their clients which they agree is good advice for marketing organizations too.

  1. Be transparent. “Make sure that when you are dealing with customers you are updated them along the way in terms of what’s happening,” said Richardson.”If you have product delays, let them know there are product delays – be clear in communicating that.”
  2. Be proactive. “Reach out when you have new information,” said Sharer. Some dealers find it difficult to have repeated conversations about problems with manufacturing or delivery. Sharer’s question for them: “If a manufacturer knew a delivery was delayed, when would you want to know?” The answer, of course, is immediately. “Well why wouldn’t you do the same for your customer? While it may be painful at that moment, you are building a reservoir of trust that will ultimately benefit you.”
  3. Build trust. “In order for someone to do business with you, they have to trust both the individual they’re dealing with and the organization too,” said Sharer.
  4. Have empathy. Not just with your customer, but with your employees. Dealing with frustrated customers day after day wears down employees on the front line. Sharer tells the story of a CEO who was asked to spend an hour or two taking customer calls to better understand the situation. His reponse? “’I’m not going down there. Do you know the kind of grief those people are taking?’That right there says a leadership vacuum as well as an issue.”
  5. Accept there’s a new normal. “I worked with a guy one time who joked, never confuse selling and delivery,” said Sharer. “Always get the order, then figure out how to fill it. That’s old school to me. If you make a commitment and miss it, people are just going to go somewhere else.
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Read next: How changes in logistics and the supply chain will impact customer experience

The state of the crisis. “Some of our clients are in the professional services business, but most of our customers have real physical products that they deliver – industrial manufacturing and distributing, medical devices, agro-chemicals,” said Sharer. “They’re seeing the supply chain issue up close.”

COVID is still driving many of the problems with ports in Shanghai and other parts of China still dysfunctional. “I wouldn’t put COVID in the past,” Sharer said. The situation in Ukraine is not yet causing supply shortages (with the exception of food — it’s a major grain exporter) but it is having an impact through fuel shortages causing additional price increases in transportation.

“The other piece,” said Richardson, “is that it adds uncertainty, unrest and upheaval, and that certainly can impact business’s outlook – how they view and mitigate risk.”


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Why we care. Delivering on commitments, or being transparent about it if you can’t, is an essential element of providing a great customer experience. Marketing, sales and customer success teams may be downstream from manufacturing, but supply chain issues can leave them in the lurch, like Wile E. Coyote, running on thin air.

The experience we’ve had as consumers over the last two or more years, increasingly buying online, has raised our expectations across the board — including when making considered, often expensive business purchases. B2B needs to learn how to live with supply chain challenges, many of which are not easily tractable. “I’d like to say this is going to be the last crisis,” said Sharer, “but I’d be willing to bet you it’s not.” We didn’t take the bet.

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About The Author

Kim Davis is the Editorial Director of MarTech. Born in London, but a New Yorker for over two decades, Kim started covering enterprise software ten years ago. His experience encompasses SaaS for the enterprise, digital- ad data-driven urban planning, and applications of SaaS, digital technology, and data in the marketing space. He first wrote about marketing technology as editor of Haymarket’s The Hub, a dedicated marketing tech website, which subsequently became a channel on the established direct marketing brand DMN. Kim joined DMN proper in 2016, as a senior editor, becoming Executive Editor, then Editor-in-Chief a position he held until January 2020. Prior to working in tech journalism, Kim was Associate Editor at a New York Times hyper-local news site, The Local: East Village, and has previously worked as an editor of an academic publication, and as a music journalist. He has written hundreds of New York restaurant reviews for a personal blog, and has been an occasional guest contributor to Eater.

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