IndustryWhat is SEM? Depends on Who You Ask

What is SEM? Depends on Who You Ask

Early on, search engine marketing (SEM) was originally defined as the umbrella under which both paid and organic search would fall. Over the years, however, "search engine marketing" has come to mean different things, depending on who you ask.

Please note: There is now an updated version of this article, published in 2017: What is SEM?

In the early 2000s, search engine marketing (SEM) was originally defined as the umbrella under which both paid and organic search would fall. This made perfect sense, as marketing naturally incorporates a wide array of tactics, including advertising.

Over the years, however, the term “search engine marketing” has come to mean different things, depending on who you ask.

What is SEM Comparison

When an industry can’t come to common consensus about what a high-profile term really means, how can the business and brands shopping for, purchasing, and relying upon the performance of, these services possibly make informed decisions?

Why is There No Consensus on the Definition of SEM?

The definition of SEM is surprisingly different, even contradictory according to the search engines, within the industry, and throughout the business marketplace.

Soon after the term SEM came onto the digital scene, it became synonymous with paid search, at least to some authorities and many professionals working in the industry.

An entire industry has been built under the context of SEM as the practice of paid search. Yet, to others, SEM is still defined as a broader topic, incorporating SEO, paid search, and other techniques to impact search engine visibility.


Wikipedia definition of SEM a comprehensive approach to increasing visibility of websites in search engine results pages (SERPs) through optimization and advertising, including search engine optimization (SEO), pay-per-click (PPC), and even includes SMM (social media marketing).

Search Engine Marketing


SEMPO defines SEM as:

A form of internet marketing that seeks to promote websites by increasing their visibility in search engine result pages (SERPs). SEM methods include: search engine optimization (SEO), paid placement, contextual advertising, digital asset optimization, and paid inclusion.

SEM Definition

Search Engine Watch

Search Engine Watch defines SEM as both paid and organic search. However, SEM posts, training, and ads are frequently related to paid search.

Search Engine Marketing Definition

Search Engine Land

There are two posts on Search Engine Land that define SEM slightly differently.

It’s unclear which was posted first. However the first post defines “search marketing” as paid and unpaid.

What is Search Marketing

The second post, however, defines the acronym SEM, short for “search engine marketing” as being paid search. It does reference the legacy of SEM as paid and unpaid, stating that the acronym has been adopted by many to refer solely as paid search. They reinforce the separation in site navigation, presenting advertising topics only under SEM.

SEM navigation

What is SEM and Paid Search Marketing

CIO recognizes SEM as a combination of paid advertising, search engine optimized design, marketing copy, involvement with the online community, and keywords.

What is Search Engine Marketing

The inability of the industry to come to terms on a definitive understanding of what SEM really is has drawn unsuspecting victims into thinking they are getting something they are not.

Let’s be honest. SEM services rarely incorporate SEO. In the wake of Google algorithm updates, Penguin, Panda and Hummingbird, many have shifted from offering SEO services to focus on paid search via search engine marketing services.

How Do the Search Engines Define SEM?


Bing appears to view SEM as paid search as demonstrated on the landing page below, where “search marketing” links directly to a page to get users started on Bing Ads.

Bing Search Marketing

However, Bing Webmaster Archive offers the following answer to the question “What is SEM?”

SEM encompasses all of the various ways site owners can use search engines to attract more traffic to their websites. SEM is all about helping users of search engines find your website. SEM is comprised of two major parts: SEO and Pay-Per-Click (PPC) advertising.


In a “Learn with Google” online vocabulary reference Google defines SEM as:

The use of online advertising on search engine results pages to help visitors find your website. SEM often uses pay-per-click (PPC), a bidding model that charges advertisers only when someone clicks on their ad (also referred to as cost-per-click, or CPC).”

Yet, a 2013 Google Analytics Blog “Organic Search Engine Marketing” addresses ways to measure ways to measure organic search engine marketing.

Organic Search Engine Marketing

Search Engines Promote SEM as Paid Search

While SEM definitions are accompanied by editorial that appear to promote SEM as a combination of paid and organic, a search results on Google or Bing predominantly present search engine marketing as paid advertising campaigns.

How Do Industry Professionals, Businesses, Brands Define SEM?

No surprise, industry professionals and the clients they serve also have varying perceptions on the definition of SEM.

Below is how professionals in the industry answered the following two questions:

  • When you hear SEM do you think of organic or paid search?
  • What do you think most marketers and businesses think of when they hear SEM?

“SEM = Paid only” according to Bruce Clay, President of Bruce Clay Inc., a leading authority in search that provides search engine services, tools and training.

“Businesses are split, considering SEM to be either PPC or (PPC + SEO),” Clay said. “I do not think anyone considers SEM to include social. Those in the Internet marketing industry probably think mostly PPC.”

“When I think of SEM, I think of paid search or PPC,” said Bill Hartzer, senior SEO strategist at Globe Runner SEO, who is also an industry speaker and blogger. “When referring to organic search it really is SEO. From what I recall, this distinction began around 2005 or 2006.”

“I generally think organic or a combination,” said Krista Neher, marketing strategist, author of “Social Media Field Guide”, professional trainer, and founder of “Boot Camp Digital”. “I think most businesses probably don’t know what SEM stands for. I train thousands of businesses a year, and most of them think of search engine marketing as organically getting traffic from search engines.”

“I tend to think of both organic and paid since the acronym stands for ‘search engine marketing,” said Adam Proehl, founding partner of NordicClick Interactive, industry speaker and trainer. “It varies across the board for business and marketers I come across. I’d say (anecdotally) that about 50 percent think of it as paid. About 25 percent think of it as both. Another 20 percent confuse it with SEO and the last 5 percent has absolutely no idea.”

“To me, SEM covers the whole gamut of marketing via search engines, both organic and paid”, said Mark Traphagen, senior director of online marketing at Stone Temple. “The best SEM strategies are built around coordination between the two sides.”

“I used to only think of organic, because I live in an editorial-based public relations world. But today I look at it as a blended force of paid and organic working together and tag teaming the branding, marketing and influencing online public relations,” said Lisa Buyer, author of “Social PR Secrets”, industry speaker, coach, and trainer. “Most businesses are still figuring out what SEM means. I think most look at it as some sort of Internet marketing or digital marketing probably skewed towards the paid side.”

“I think of organic, expanded,” said Kristine Schachinger, CEO of The Vetters, industry speaker and consultant; who added that she thought it could cover PPC and expanded marketing services covered in organic search. “I think businesses say “SE…What?” Oh, you rank stuff on browsers, right?”

“I think most in ‘the biz’ think paid when referring to SEM,” said Elmer Boutin, associate director of search strategy at Rockfish, and marketing and IT blogger. “I think it’s both paid and organic. The idea is to use search engines to market your products or services. To do it best involves both paid and organic in many circumstances.”

So there you have it. Search engines, leading authorities, and industry professionals fail to agree on the definition of “search engine marketing”.

What is the Correct Definition of SEM?

As illustrated above, there is a great variety of interpretations of SEM across the industry. It’s no wonder that businesses and brands are confused, challenged, and frustrated when attempting to communicate effectively and make informed decisions about how to allocate resources.

There appears to be no right or wrong answer.

But, shouldn’t there be just one definition of SEM? What’s your definition of SEM?


The 2023 B2B Superpowers Index

whitepaper | Analytics The 2023 B2B Superpowers Index

Data Analytics in Marketing

whitepaper | Analytics Data Analytics in Marketing

The Third-Party Data Deprecation Playbook

whitepaper | Digital Marketing The Third-Party Data Deprecation Playbook

Utilizing Email To Stop Fraud-eCommerce Client Fraud Case Study

whitepaper | Digital Marketing Utilizing Email To Stop Fraud-eCommerce Client Fraud Case Study