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The Real Difference Between SEO, PPC and SEM

As someone who likes to keep things organised, I’ve attempted to keep marketing terms separate from each other. In doing this I have noticed that there are some terms that are seemingly used interchangeably to mean the same thing. This is none more evident than PPC, SEM and SEO.

Put simply SEM or Search Engine Marketing is used to describe the digital marketing niche that is focused on search engines, it is a useful term that summarises and classifies both paid and non-paid activities that go into digital marketing via search engines.

Therefore, both paid advertisements, including PPC ads, and the organic search activities under the term SEO would fall under the overarching SEM banner in terms of hierarchy.

Even when you consider the literal terminology in coordination with the idea that SEO and PPC falling under the SEM blanket, it kind of makes sense.

But, as with most things, just because it makes sense doesn’t mean that it’s going to work the way it is supposed to.  

As confusing as it may be, the entire search industry has itself shaped SEM to fit solely within the Paid search sphere and whilst the above explanations may differ, it appears that it will stay that way.

Difference Between SEM & PPC


That is to say that PPC advertising is the same as Search Engine Marketing, or at the very least is a vital part of SEM.

SEO isn’t one of those.

What has developed over time because of the multitude of confusing acronyms within digital marketing, as well as being driven by the need to define specific activities outside of Google paid search, resulting in two heavily cost-driven marketing terms meaning the same thing, which is leading to increased confusion from people entering the industry.

Despite the literal meaning of the acronyms used, it is easy to get lost in the ideas surrounding each term.

Whilst the breakdown and understanding of the abbreviation PPC is readily understood – regardless of whether it is PPC, CPC, paid search, search ads – it is easily recognised as being a reference to paid search marketing, often taken place through search engines such as Google and Bing, however this can be applied to anything where there is a search function such as Amazon.

However, the other terms and tactics that are used in digital marketing activities – in particular those that are ties to both paid and organic search marketing tactics – may not be as simple and clearly defined.

Difference Between SEO & PPC

We know SEO stands for search engine optimization.

But, echoing the sentiments of search pioneer Mike Grehan, that never made much sense.

As marketers we aren’t optimising the search engines, that is the job of engineers and more significantly AI and machine learning systems at companies like Google and Bing. Marketers are instead optimising content and websites for search engines (after optimising them for humans of course), so that websites can be better understood, accessed and relay our propositions to the searching masses.

Again, the acronyms don’t always make sense.

Just like the other things in life there are some acronyms that will just never make sense. 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, the acronym was spawned from the original acronym, HMMWV.)

PPC marketing is (at least for now) a very large part of SEM.

  • Both are paid for initiatives
  • Therefore, both need a budget to be allocated
  • They both make search engines and advertising platforms a huge amount of money.

So 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,” we need to not be so quick to call them the same exact thing.

How has the competitive landscape changed?

First off, find out whether your competitors have secured their competitive positions in recent months.

In fact PPC marketing has its own separate Wikipedia page that is separate to the search engine marketing topic, despite their being a significant amount of discrepancies and confusion throughout the pages.

The bottom line is this:

SEO is not a component of SEM.

So, whilst PPC is typically the largest and most demanding aspect of SEM, both PPC and SEM are paid advertising activities that offer real time data, ROI and protected data that can be accessed by advertisers on certain platforms.

Why It Matters

The most important reason for clarification around these important terms and abbreviations is consistency.

There are too many novice marketers, or marketers who aren’t specialists in maximizing value through search that 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.

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.

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