Search Engine Marketing Defined & Where SEO Fits In

Over the past few years, there has been some confusion on what exactly is included under the search engine marketing (SEM) umbrella in terms of marketing tactics. One marketer may say that SEM covers the act of marketing a website via any search marketing activities, while another may say it only refers to paid search marketing activities. This is obviously a huge contradiction and is not only confusing for green marketers, but for seasoned clients seeking to profit from marketing projects.

The only solution to understanding this confusing acronym is to break down the difference in paid versus organic search marketing activities and determine where the split occurred.

The term search engine marketing (SEM) became popular in 2001 as an umbrella term for paid and organic search activities. Today, many marketers define it as the discipline of promoting websites in search engine results pages (SERPs) and gaining website traffic though paid advertising. Obviously, this new definition excludes organic search marketing efforts or search engine optimization (SEO): the discipline of increasing website traffic by improving a website’s organic ranking and visibility in SERPs.

With these two modern definitions clearly separating paid and organic search marketing, why is there still confusion about the divide between SEM and SEO? The names themselves don’t clearly emphasis paid vs organic, and that could be where the problem lies.

More About Search Engine Marketing

As stated above, SEM promotes website traffic through paid advertising or in other words, the process of purchasing ads on search engines to gain website traffic; also referred to as paid search. These ads live at the top and bottom of SERPs and can be identified by the “ad” bubble to the left of the website URL.

sem google search

Google Ads is the most popular paid search platform by far, but other top contenders are Bing Ads and Yahoo Gemini, which make up a combined 10% of search market share in the United States.

  • Google: 88.6%
  • Bing: 6.01%
  • Yahoo: 4.09%

How SEM Works

Every time a user clicks on your ad in the SERPs, the advertiser pays a small fee. Hence the popular term pay-per-click advertising (PPC) is often associated with SEM.

Ads show up in search results by bidding on certain keywords or keyword phases. The number of other advertisers bidding on the same keywords as you, where you ads actually show up in search results, and how relevant Google deems your content all determine the cost of consumer clicks. PPC ads can show up on other platforms besides Google, such as Amazon ads or Facebook ads.

Related: Facebook Ads vs Google Ads: What’s the Difference?

More About Search Engine Optimization

The goal of SEO is to increase quality traffic to your website by ensuring your organic listings show up at the top of page search results (right under the ads).

seo google search

SEO experts do this by understanding how search engines like Google operate and how people actually search for things.

How SEO Works

SEO is heavily dependent on Google’s algorithm and the user experience. Not only do SEO experts want to make sure the content they are providing to consumers is relevant and high-quality, they must also contend with what Google considers high-quality content, including backlinks from other websites, domain authority, keyword optimization, site speed, meta data, and a whole bunch of other elements that formulate a website’s rank in the SERPs.

A big appeal of SEO is that these listings are essentially free, and consumers trust Google to list the most relevant websites first in their search results. SEO is also great for small businesses looking to push traffic to their website on a budget and aren’t able to compete against competitors for top ad slots.

Related: Ecommerce SEO Tips for Easy Organic Wins

History & Evolution of Search Engine Marketing

The term search engine marketing became popular in 2001 and was used as an umbrella term for “The act of marketing a website via search engines, whether this be improving rank in organic listings, purchasing paid listings or a combination of these and other search engine-related activities.”

According to this definition, search engine marketing is a term that refers both to paid search and SEO. However, with the rise and complications of organic search engine optimization, SEO has really become its own specialty and marketing tactic separate from paid search.

Related: 9 SEO Experts Offer Their Best SEO Tips

The original SEM definition doesn’t imply that organic and paid search are the same thing, nonetheless, over the two decades since SEM was coined, the acronym has become synonymous with paid search and PPC which definitely doesn’t include SEO. However, both paid search and organic search still market a website via search engines. The more popular umbrella term incorporating SEM and SEO has therefore evolved into just search marketing.

It’s unclear why there was a shift from search engine marketing to search marketing, other than the theory that SEM was misused by non-experts and seemingly credible sources like Wikipedia. The Wikipedia definition is, “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 through the use of paid placement, contextual advertising, and paid inclusion.”

There is no mention of SEO in this definition and it’s one of the first results in Google when searching SEM or search marketing. If SEM was to evolve into only paid search, then it was necessary to remove SEO as being a part of SEM and create a new umbrella term. Also, what about PPC? It’s another common acronym mentioned in this article and often associated with SEM.

Differences Between SEM, SEO, & PPC Today

If we move forward under the notion that SEM only refers to paid search, which many argue today, then the difference between SEM, SEO, and PPC are fairly simple.

  • SEM earns traffic to your website via paid search listings. It is the process of purchasing these ads/listings on search engines.
  • SEO earns traffic to your website via unpaid/free listings. It is the process of optimizing a website so it will appear in prominent positions in the organic results of search engines.
  • PPC stands for pay-per-click ads. Advertisers pay a fee each time a user clicks on one of these ads. These ads can be the same paid search listings referred to in the SEM definition as well as digital banner ads sold under a pay-per-click structure.

Putting everything together: search marketing is the most common term now used to refer to gaining traffic to a website via paid search listings and organic listings. Therefore, search marketing refers to both SEM and SEO.

SEM refers to paid search listings also known as pay-per-click ads at the top and bottom of SERPs. SEM, paid search, and PPC are often used interchangeably. The goal of SEO, on the other hand, is to increase quality traffic to your website by making sure your organic listings show up top of page when users search for keywords relevant to your company. Organic listings are unpaid/free listings.

PPC is synonymous with SEM when referring to pay-per-click ads in search results. When PPC is simply referring to cost structure and talking about display advertising or facebook retargeting, it does not necessarily fall under SEM as it does not “promote websites in search engine results pages.”

Now that you have a clearer understanding of the differences between SEM (paid) and SEO (organic), it’s time for your team and expert project manager to get everyone in the loop and building lead generating search marketing campaigns. is a cloud-based project management software with the features you need, including a real-time dashboard and useful online Gantt charts. Try it today with this 30-day free trial.

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