Why do marketers still use the term “SEM” to refer to PPC?

Ash Nallawalla

26 January 2010

Marketing, PPC, SEO

This is a longish response to Jill Whalen’s High Rankings Advisor: SEO Q&A Out the Wazoo – Issue No. 273. The question was “… what the differences are between SEM and SEO”. See Jill’s reply in the link above (and subscribe to her excellent newsletter).

Great reply Jill, about this annoyance we hear so often in user land. Yahoo can take some of the blame for perpetrating this “SEM=PPC” mindset, as they use that expression a lot, particularly when they deliver local seminars. Example.

I work in the corporate SEO space where big-name ad agencies just love to use the “SEM” expression, so, naturally, a lot of corporate people also use it.

I wonder how many of such people will go to the SMX West 2010 In-House SEM Exchange session expecting to hear about paid search. They will be sorely disappointed. :smile:

I like to explain that SEM = SEO + SEA + SMO (this elicits a blank stare). They usually get SEO. I say that Search Engine Advertising (SEA) includes PPC, CPM, etc (every type of ad a search engine accepts). SMO includes all social media optimisation tactics you can use to send  signals to search engines, e.g. citations, nofollows, ratings & reviews etc.

I am still met with scepticism and some people continue to use the SEM expression after I have explained the difference. I have tried to illustrate with a Google.com site: operator search (filtering out Groups, Books, etc) to show that there are about *two* Google-employee-authored documents on the web where the writer treats SEM as synonymous with PPC. More tellingly, the Google AdWords glossary only mentions PPC but not SEM.

For anyone out there who is still unclear, Search Engine Marketing (SEM) covers any concept about marketing through search engines, not simply paid search. Ad agencies, please stop fooling your clients. You can still milk them by using the correct terminology.

Ash Nallawalla

Search strategy consultant with experience in large, complex websites. Ash's Google+ profile

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  • Tony Tellijohn on 26 January 2010

    Oh how it joys me to see the word on this hopefully starting to spread–it has been a pet peeve of mine for years, and just in the last month or so I’ve started to feel like maybe I should cave and start calling my PPC campaigns SEM campaigns…

  • Terry Cox on 26 January 2010

    We preach that SEM = PPC + SEO + SMO as well, but I like using SEA instead of PPC. That makes sense.

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