SEO vs SEM vs PPC: Understanding Search Marketing Terms

Just a quick post. Maybe you have come across people from search agencies who tell you “we do both SEO and SEM”. Sounds fine, right? Maybe, but if we dig deeper into the meaning of these acronyms, we could start asking what’s the difference between SEO and SEM.


First, let’s look at how I would define both terms:

SEO (Search Engine Optimization)
The use of various techniques to improve a web site’s natural ranking on search engines in order to attract more visitors.

SEM (Search Engine Marketing)
The process of marketing a website using search engines either through improving natural rankings or paying for clicks or both.

Therefore, when someone says “we do both SEO and SEM”, he actually means “we do (organic search marketing) and (organic + pay per click search marketing)”. Still, this sounds all right, except that when you mention SEM, it’s is enough to cover both organic and pay per click search marketing.

Search Engine Marketing should be the parent category whose subsets include both SEO and Pay Per Click and should not refer only to the latter.

Why do I mention this? It’s because the use of these acronyms without properly understanding their meaning sets a misleading notion of what do each of these terms really mean. When Danny Sullivan mentioned this, I totally agree with his thoughts. Perhaps we can blame Yahoo! partly because when Overture was then renamed Yahoo! Search Marketing, people thought that search marketing was all about paid search, something that Yahoo! Search Marketing was all about.