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October 9, 2013

What Is SEM? Does SEM Include SEO?

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At a recent gathering of marketing professionals and people interested in learning about Digital marketing, I was surprised by the number of people asking me to confirm that their understanding of “SEM” was accurate.

While the term itself seems basic, this question isn’t a bad one as the definition has in fact changed in the dozen or so years since its coining.

SEM is often used to describe paid search marketing initiatives and yet you’ll often see uses that suggest it’s an umbrella term for all search marketing efforts, begging the question I’ve heard more than once: “Isn’t SEO a part of search engine marketing, too?”

Ah. That question.

Our answer? Read on.

What Is SEM?

Short for “search engine marketing,” SEM is usually used to describe the immediate, money-backed portion of search engine marketing that commonly takes the shape of PPC (pay-per-click)/CPC (cost-per-click) search engine results page ads in one form or another.

In fact, when you enter the SEM track at an online marketing conference like SMX, for instance, you can expect to learn about Google AdWords, Bing Ads, advertising paid by the click or by the acquisition (CPC and CPA), and other more specific areas of paid search advertising like retargeting, geotargeting and mobile targeting.

SEM and SEO bubbles2

Does “Search Engine Marketing” Include SEO?

When the term “search engine marketing” and the acronym SEM were popularized by Search Engine Land editor-in-chief, Danny Sullivan, in 2001 they were purposefully used as catch-all terms to describe all efforts that encouraged traffic gain via search engine results pages – including paid and organic initiatives. In other words, when the term was created in 2001 “SEM” referred to and included both paid search engine advertising and organic search engine optimization (SEO).

In the 12 years since its inception, the common use of the term SEM has shifted, and accordingly what the term communicates and essentially means has shifted, as well. While SEMPO  (the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization) still defines SEM as an all-encompassing term that includes both SEO and paid placement efforts, today Search Engine Land defines SEM as paid-exclusive (“the process of gaining traffic by purchasing ads on search engines”), Google defines SEM as “the use of online advertising on search engine results pages to help visitors find your website,” and SMX – the search marketing conference run by Third Door Media and Danny Sullivan – clearly draws a line in the sand with an agenda that labels organic optimization sessions as SEO-focused, and paid advertising sessions as SEM-focused.

So, does SEM include SEO? It really depends on who you talk to, but based on conversations with search industry professionals and based on the definitions of industry leaders like Google, SMX, and Search Engine Land – in 2013 the industry at large commonly defines SEM as a paid search-focused specialty of online marketing.

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13 responses to “What Is SEM? Does SEM Include SEO?”

  1. Chelsea Adams writes:

    Hi Prabhanshu,

    These days “link building” is largely all about inspiring natural inbound links by producing high-quality content that genuinely appeals to the needs/wants of your target market. You can’t buy links, and “you link to me I’ll link to you” requests are often considered SPAM and destined to land on deaf ears.

  2. Prabhanshu writes:

    Hi ,You have explain each and every concept of seo very easily. Could you pls suggest me some good tips on link building process.

  3. steven writes:

    very informative site, not very often person can come across site like this containing such a large volume of very original material. Thank you for sharing!

  4. Chelsea Adams writes:

    Yep, Richard, if you don’t count the money you pay your SEO (or yourself!) for time invested in organic optimization efforts, SEO indeed = organic/natural ranking, which indeed = free.

  5. Richard writes:

    My view is that SEM is paid search, most agencies seem to use SEO for paid and SEO for free (if free is indeed the write word for it)!

  6. Chelsea Adams writes:

    Correct — As the bulk of the industry as a whole uses it, SEO = organic; SEM = paid. It is important to note (and keep in mind) that it is this way because of the way the industry has adapted use of the “SEM” acronymn — not because that was always it’s intended meaning — and that the die-hards who still define SEM as including SEO aren’t necessarily wrong. While we take what I’ll call the SMX/Google stance and use SEM and SEO to refer to two different (yet codependent) factions of online marketing, the SEM acronym can have different connotations and implications, so always make sure you clarify that everyone in the room is using the acronym to mean the same thing.


  7. Saha William writes:

    Thanks Chelsea for clarifying the difference between SEO and SEM, what i got from this is that SEO is all about getting organic traffic and SEM is getting paid traffic to your site. I think this is correct concept that i’ve developed from here.

  8. Chelsea Adams writes:

    Glad you found the article helpful, Joel.

  9. nicola writes:

    if SEM includes SEO we should probably define also what is the difference between SEM and Digital/online marketing. it is never easy to let people understand all of these words ;)

  10. Chelsea Adams writes:


    Glad you found the article helpful, and yes — please do leverage the information/sources provided here when discussing SEM vs SEO and where they overlap with others.

    For me the importance of definitions is really rooted in the purpose of communication and making sure that everyone in the room is on the same page. In other words, if a client asks for SEM consulting it is still worthwhile to clarify what “SEM” means to the client; are they asking you to manage the PPC/CPC side of their business, or are they asking you to manage the part of their marketing that deals with getting their website viability in SERPs (which includes SEO, link building, social media connectivity, etc.)?

    It’s funny, because I think when you say “search engine marketing” to me it actually has a different connotation than the acronym “SEM” even though they are synonymous. For instance, if you say “I need help with my search engine marketing” my mind, as a consultant who’s active in the industry, automatically goes to all things optimization from SEO to PPC; when you say “I need help with my SEM” my mind as a consultant who’s active in the industry automatically goes to PPC/paid search initiatives. (Of course, in response to both questions my first actual response is “When you say SEM, what do you mean by that?”)

    On a tangential note — I can’t help but think of the words/phrase “bad,” “sick,” and “killing it” when talking about the semantics of “SEM.” “Bad,” “sick,” and “killing it” used to mean something else; they meant something was unpleasant or wrong or unwell or physically destroying the life of something else — they had negative connotations. Now, the implied meaning of “killing it,” “bad,” and “sick” have been changed by pop culture to mean awesome, really good or totally succeeding. They have positive connotations. It’s all about the context in which they’re used. If your grandma says “that dog is sick” the dog probably has an illness and the connotation is not good. If your 13 year old son says “these shoes are sick!” it means that he really likes them and the connotation is good.

    If enough people decide a word/phrase means something else and start using that phrase to mean something else it can effectively alter the meaning of that word in certain connotations. It doesn’t mean that the original definition of the word is wrong, per say, it just means that there is a new definition with universal meaning that we need to be aware of and able to adapt to in order to effectively communicate with each other.

    It’s interesting, and exactly what’s happening with “SEM.”

  11. Maryrose writes:

    I was participating on a Q&A about SEO and SEM and posed this very same question. I too described my understanding as that of Code Jerry; finding them not mutually exclusive.

    However, this post added much more clarity by knowing the evolution of both terms. I see definitions becoming important based on whether or not you have the funds to deploy “paid” anything. I say is only because I work with a lot of startups and entrepreneurs who have to rely on SEO only then slowly progress into adding SEM. I have definitely witnessed the positive impact in doing so too but agree that strategy is the underlying key factor.

    Thanks again for this! I hope you don’t mind me leveraging this when explaining it to others. :)

  12. Chelsea Adams writes:

    Hi, Cody!

    Regardless of what you end up calling it in the end (SEO + SEM + SMM or just one big fat SEM), I 100% agree that your paid and organic initiatives should work together to support one another. At just the tip of the paid + organic lovefest: Paid search can lend insurmountable keyword data to organic, plus having organic and paid listings near one another on a SERP page actually increases trust, and accordingly, CTR for your organic links.

    Working in silos is NEVER a good idea.

    Thanks for the comment! Sounds like you’re running a tight ship and sailing it in the right direction. *hat tip*

  13. Cody Jerry writes:

    In the auto industry I see a little bit of both. Some people consider SEM all encompassing, and others separate the two. I personally believe that SEO is a part of SEM.

    When you are developing your overall search engine marketing strategy you would discuss both paid and organic implementation, and how they work together. Separating the two strategies will increase the amount of work you do, and it won’t help you compound success.

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