What Is the difference Between SEM, SEO, & PPC?

The terms SEO vs SEM vs PPC are often used incorrectly to describe these key digital marketing tactics. Here’s what they really mean.

In my day-to-day life, I work with a lot of people in business, and a statement I hear — all to often — goes something like this:

“SEM mean paid search marketing, like Google Ads campaigns.  SEO is the free stuff that requires optimizing your site for Organic Search”

And I hear this from a variety of people, from those who don’t work with or understand the intricacies of the online search world, to experienced marketers who really should know better.

The truth is these statements are too simplistic & outdated to be 100% true in either case.

To the true meaning of the acronyms.

SEM Means Search Engine Marketing

SEO SEM PPC Definition

This encompasses ALL things having to do with search providers such as Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc., both paid and organic.

This is the bigger picture search strategy, and is not limited to paid vs organic listings. Everything that is served through search engines, from paid ads to shopping ads to local results to reviews and beyond would fall under the category of SEM, or Search Engine Marketing.

SEO Means Search Engine Optimization

SEO Means Search Engine Optimization

Which is primarily focused on optimizing a company’s website presence, with both on-page (content, coding, speed, mobile friendliness, etc.) and off-page (inbound links, social signals, etc.) factors, so that it ranks well for organic searches.  

Although the O does stand for Optimization, the key “O” in this case leans much further into the Organic ranking and Organic traffic side. Although even that is not 100% the case any more, as companies need to optimize their online experiences to maximize their Paid Search campaigns.

PPC Means Pay Per Click (sometimes known as CPC / Cost Per Click).  

PPC Means Pay Per Click (sometimes known as CPC / Cost Per Click).

This is a method of buying click-based advertising. Although one of the biggest parts of PPC is paid search engine advertising, this can also apply to display ads including Ad Networks that sites often use to monetize their content. Basically, if you pay by the click (instead of based on impression served) it falls into the PPC category.

However, as noted above, most people think of PPC advertising as being primarily in the paid search space simply because that’s where 95% of the PPC marketing activity takes place.

SERP Means Search Engine Results Page

SERP Means Search Engine Results Page

SEM, as a whole, is a way of trying to optimize your brands resents on the SERPs, aka the Search Engine Results Pages.  

These are the pages on Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc. that display after you search for a particular keyword or phrase.  A

Although some – incorrectly – define SERPs as being only the organic portion of the page, these pages display to the end user with a mix of paid and organic listings, so they should be treated as a mix.

Taking other kinds of PPC (pay per click) advertising out of the mix, it is the Search Engine Results Page which is one of the main reasons why the differentiation between PPC, SEO & SEM needs to be reconsidered.  

Do Paid Search Ads Still Matter? Absolutely

Search Marketing Facts

Even though many people claim, when asked, that they ignore paid search ads, your potential customer will see the entire page and will be influenced – in one way or another – by what is on that page in both the paid and organic slots.  

In fact, a significant portion of your potential customers will not even realize (and many do not care) that there is a difference between the two sections. They don’t understand the difference between SEO vs SEM vs PPC either, and they have no reason to (if you do your job properly).

Others care so much; they purposefully aim for one section over another, depending on what they are searching for.

For example, when I’m searching for information, I usually skip the paid ads and go directly to the organic results as they tend to be much more relevant to my quest. 

However, if I’m in a shopping mood, I pay much closer attention to the paid ads, as they tend highlight sites that sell a particular product or service I’m interested in.  

Granted, I am an experienced digital marketer… so my behavior is probably not typical.

Some supporting facts:

  • People around the world search on Google about 5.6 billion times a day. That works out to about 67,000 searches per second.
  • It is estimated that 93% of internet usage starts with a search engine.
  • 95% of all searchers click on at least one of the links on the first results page.
  • Around 75% of users completely ignore the paid search ads and focus exclusively on the organic results. However, that does leave 25% of 5.6 billion searches each day that are reachable by paid search ads.
  • Paid search visits have a 50% higher conversion rate for e-commerce websites compared with visits from organic search, which is supported by the fact that nearly 2/3 of users who are searching with an intent to buy tend to click on paid search ads.
  • Finally, various studies have shown that companies with both a high ranking organic link AND paid link show a 40 – 65% increase in Click Rate on their paid ads.

Although it is important to understand the difference between Organic Search Results and Paid Search Results, it is no longer one versus the other.  It is now one AND the other.  They now must, more than ever before, work hand-in-hand toward achieving the end objective of Search Engine Marketing.

In addition, when you consider the ‘optimization’ elements in PPC campaigns such as relevancy score, search extensions, product data feeds; incorporate external influencers such as third party reviews, relevant links and social media indicators and THEN factor in the clear link between organic rankings and paid performance, these two practices known as “SEM” and “SEO” can no longer stand on their own.

Instead, we need to look at the factors that influence overall search performance.

Website Optimization Factors for SEM

Onsite (otherwise known as On-Page) factors, such as optimized content, images, video, relevancy to the keywords, engagement, usability, page load time, etc. can and will influence both your paid search and your organic search performance. That’s why this is a full SEM program, and not just – as many people believe, for SEO purposes.

The quality score in paid search campaigns is one of the factors that determines your cost per click within these search engines. Quality content will also help with your ranking score in organic search, which is one of the factors that helps determine how high you rank when people search for related terms.

What this means is that the search engines try to figure out how likely someone who is searching for particular keyword will find your content relevant. If that connection is clear and obvious, your site should perform better in paid and organic search than one that is not as clear and obvious.

Keyword Targeting

This boils down to what keywords you are trying to generate traffic, both through paid campaigns and organic campaigns. These factors are critical in setting up a successful PPC campaign, but they are also really important for understanding the structure of your site for a positive SEO result.

Constantly monitor your campaigns, bids as well as using Search Term tools within the engines to understand what customers are actually searching for when they click on your link to determine which keyword combinations to add and exclude. For example, if you bid on the keyphrase “Mortgage Broker” you may or may not want potential customers who search for the longer phrase “International Mortgage Broker” or “Mortgage Broker Jobs”.

If your website is mobile friendly and your company or product makes sense to be found by people on the go, make sure you set the appropriate bidding strategy for mobile devices – as well as dedicated mobile ads, if appropriate.

Each of the major search engines have developed and launched ways to enhance your paid search listings with additional levels of details and options to make the experience more relevant for the users.  Review the various ad extensions that are available and determine which ones make sense for your company and your product.

Offsite Influencers

Formerly an indicator exclusively for Organic results, offsite factors can now play a role in both paid and organic performance.  Offsite factors are – in a nutshell – how well your company’s site and/or product are regarded by reputable third party websites. 

This can come in the way of relevant links to your site, reviews of your site and/or products or social media mentions, just to name a few. 

However, I stress the word reputable (or quality) third party websites. Just amassing a large quantity of inbound links will not only do very little good in today’s search world. In fact, it will very likely harm your site’s ranking

These signals are critical to the success of a website in the organic rankings, but more and more of these third party endorsements are making their way into paid search results.

The Complete Search Picture

SEO vs SEM vs PPC Doesn't Matter, It's all Search Engine Marketing

By combining all of the factors of what we used to call PPC, SEM, and SEO, you can create a single Search Marketing Strategy (no acronym needed) which encompasses the entire breadth of what search providers brings to the table.

As a marketer or business owner, it’s important to know what these acronyms mean, but – in the end – it’s more important to know how to connect your company to the prospective customers who are out there, right now, looking for you.

SEO vs SEM vs PPC are just ways to describe a critical digital marketing strategy that is a must have in today’s search-heavy world.

No matter what you call it, to be successful in today’s online marketplace, a company must be found in search engines.  Ensuring that your site is fully optimized for both paid and organic search is a critical piece of the online marketing puzzle, and – without it – you could be missing out on hundreds, thousands or even hundreds of thousands of potential customers.

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