For a term that’s been around since 2001, there are still a great many people asking “what is SEM?”
It would seem that this should be an easy question to answer. After all, SEM has had nearly two decades to settle its definition. And yet, the question is still asked.
The term search engine marketing was popularized in 2001 by Danny Sullivan, then editor-in-chief of Search Engine Land. Danny wanted SEM to describe all search engine marketing initiatives, both organic and paid. Even today, you’ll occasionally see SEM used as a one-size-fits-all term for any marketing involving search engines.
Industry professionals and publications also throw around the term search marketing with ease. This might sound like the same thing, but it isn’t.
And of course, there is also the venerable search engine optimization (SEO) to consider. SEM, Search Marketing, SEO …
With all these terms, no wonder there is still confusion.
SEM stands for search engine marketing. As it is commonly used today, SEM describes only the money-backed portion of marketing through a search engine.
SEM involves buying PPC (pay-per-click) ads that display on a search engine results page (SERP for short). Ads may be placed through Google Ads, Bing Ads, or other search engines.
You know you’re doing SEM if …
When you give a search engine money to appear on their SERP, you’re doing SEM.
Common SEM concerns are cost per click and cost per acquisition (CPC and CPA). These indicate how much money is being spent on search advertising, and whether the return is worth it.
Some other important terms used in the world of SEM include:
SEM is the area where search engines make most of their money. As a result, paid search advertising takes precision so that ad dollars aren’t wasted. That makes SEM a marketing specialty of rapid change, one of the more exciting frontiers in search.
The short answer is no. SEM and SEO are now two different roles.
The longer answer is: “Not anymore, but it’s complicated.”
When Danny Sullivan created SEM back in 2001, he used it as a catch-all to describe all efforts that encouraged website traffic from search engine results pages — including paid and organic search initiatives. According to Danny then, both SEO and PPC folks worked in search engine marketing. Simple. Clear. This definition was accepted by the industry at the time.
Yet in the 18 years since, the common understanding of the term SEM has shifted.
What caused this change? A few possible causes include Wikipedia’s page on SEM being entirely skewed toward paid efforts; Yahoo’s push of their PPC solution; and the general alphabet soup of confusing marketing acronyms.
Whatever the reason, the answer to the question “what is SEM” has definitively changed. SEM now means paid.
That clearly includes pay per click, local search ads, product listing ads, and all advertising efforts with regard to search engines.
In place of SEM as an umbrella term, the industry coined the phrase “search marketing.”
Again the definition of search marketing is:
“Search marketing is the process of gaining traffic and visibility from search engines through both paid and unpaid efforts.”
You may recognize that definition as Danny’s original meaning for SEM.
The scope of what we do as search marketers has grown. So should our definitions.
Search marketing, in my view, now has to include more than just organic SEO and paid SEM in the major search engines. It also involves video, server issues, site performance, voice, YouTube, Amazon, and the list goes on.
One thing is certain — the search industry continues to develop. So too will the language we use to describe it.
If you find yourself asking what is SEM 10 years from now and discover the answer has changed once again, at least you won’t be surprised.