There was a palpable hush in our aimClear rotunda office yesterday afternoon as, *gasp,* I finally caved personally to incorrect usage of of the initials “SEM” to humor our PPC client. Sadly in this wacky world of nearly indistinguishable acronyms, abbreviations and cryptic terms there’s a colloquial tragedy afoot. Even the New York Times got SEM wrong.

Noted industry journalist Danny Sullivan proposed the term “Search Engine Marketing” in 2001 to encompass the universe of activities associated with performing SEO, managing search engines’ paid listings, site submission to directories and developing online marketing strategies for businesses, organizations, and individuals. The moniker stuck and we’ve been using the label for years to describe the full spectrum of Internet marketing.

However over time, SEM has become synonymous with paid search. Bunk! It’s just not true! SEM stands for “Search Engine Marketing,” of which paid search is but one channel. I’m a purist and don’t take kindly to the dilution of our SEM industry terms. We’ve been teaching clients that SEM includes both SEO and PPC for years.  At least Wikipedia’s got it under control. Whatever the outcome, maybe we can all agree on definitions and start anew.

SEM Stands for “search engine marketing.” In the old days when search engine marketing was nascent, SEM meant “all things search engine” and later evolved to imply “all things Internet marketing.” Obviously Internet marketing has grown to include many channels other than search engines. Nobody would argue against the premise that Search engine marketing includes SEO.

Unfortunately, even salty-dog pros now commonly misuse “SEM” to mean paid search. SEM does not mean only PPC, content network Facebook ads and other paid search. SEM includes PPC as one of many Internet marketing channels. SEM also, to my mind, includes social media optimization (SMO) and other Internet marketing channels.

SEO means “search engine optimization.” SEO is the process of research and tactics to improve “the volume and quality of traffic to a website from search engines via “natural” (“organic” or “algorithmic”) search results (Wikipedia). No longer just about “engines,” the term “SEO” does somewhat of a disservice because the practice of SEO is now applied to any any Internet channel. For instance, we do keyword research to optimize social media profiles and online press releases.

Last spring at the Microsoft SES New York party, I had a chance conversation with Danny Sullivan over Thai pizza and dark beer. I was impressed by his reverence for our industry’s vernacular while discussing whether Facebook PPC belongs at search marketing conferences. Danny asked “where’s the search box?” “Where are people typing in queries?” “Search is different than contextual interrupt marketing Marty!”  He wanted to make sure  essential concepts did not get jumbled.

To to our staff’s disappointment I’ve personally caved and started to use the term “SEM” to define paid search, my heart’s not in it. Somehow the misuse of traditional vernacular makes me feel dirty and disrespectful. Call me romantic but, to me, SEM stands for search engine marketing, not PPC.

  • david

    marty always an interesting post, i think an issue around education is that SEM can mean paid marketing, thats adwords, facebook, doubleclick, sponsored links. I think the fact that people are associating the process with marketing is a great step, its not search engine magic, or search engine mystery…

    if people are starting to define between seo, long term improvement process, traffic volumes, right visitors etc…. and sem anything that is really that is paid or controlled.

    i think when people talk about Public Relations “PR” they talk about free PR and paid PR… i think its a similar objective view on the terms, im happy that people understand there is a difference, if we spend our time then correcting the client to say its actually contexually placed ads, im sorry but that would seem to piss most of my clients off. You just said contexually placed “ads” so you have control and its tied to certain elements such as budget and targeting. That is purely marketing thats not research or tactics as SEO is…

  • Todd Mintz

    Referring to paid search as “SEM” is like referring to BBQ Sauce as “Ketchup”…it’s just plain wrong and I don’t know how that myth has been perpetrated.

  • Andrey Milyan

    Hi Marty,

    Over at Search Marketing Standard magazine we’ve been struggling with the same issue, and I’m not talking about clients here. We usually have a number of contributors using PPC and SEM interchangeably. I have always been annoyed by this use of the acronym online and therefore try to force our writers to use them correctly in the magazine. Still, it has been an uphill battle.

  • Anthony

    @ Marty – I am with you; I get it. I believe one disconnects is when those on the inside of the industry try to explain it to those on the outside who don’t get it. We usually end up with phrases like “we do SEO and SEM” which is like saying “we sell ground beef and meat”.

    @ Andrey – If the “experts” are using the terms incorrectly, then what qualifies them to write on those topics? 🙂

  • David Szetela

    Pretty interesting. I have had conversations about this with the SES and SMX folks. To be pedantic: Search Engine Strategies connotes “everything the search engines do,” which necessarily and logically includes the main source of revenue, for Google and Yahoo, PPC advertising.

    SMX leaves out the Engine part, so Danny’s right (and perhaps uniquely-well-qualified) to view Facebook as non-search-marketing. But strictly speaking, PPC Content Network advertising, which comprises a big chunk of the search engines’ revenue, could be viewed as outside the inner circle, too. “Search Engine Land,” on the other hand, includes that pesky “Engine” part, potentially broadening its focus outside the SMX circle.

    My take: the market/people will decide. Remember “PC Industry” conferences? “Internet Industry” conferences? Both categories begat more-focused conferences and resources as the core grew and matured. Follow this to its logical conclusion, and 2-5 years from now there will be more finely-focused resources and conferences – like PPC Summit, the Marketing Sherpa Email and B2B conferences, etc. Maybe even “The (Tim Ash) Landing Page Optimization Conference,” and the “Jeff Rohrs Email Conversion Optimization Conference and Bacon Explosion Cook-off.”

    Meanwhie, let’s just get back to the business of helping to make our clients rich. The rest will pretty much take care of itslf.

  • Marty Weintraub

    @david: We sure would not want to piss any clients off :).
    @Todd Mintz: Yup like a fish on a bicycle
    @Andrey Milyan: Don’t give up and don’t give in, fight fight fight 🙂
    @David Szetela: Yup, “Let’s just get back to the business of helping to make our clients rich. The rest will pretty much take care of itslf.” You’re so totally correct.

  • John milton

    I agree with the article and above contents mentioned in this article, I have also found many people find SEM an PPC interchangeable. Which is very annoying i have almost spoke to everyone on this topic and explain but they still come up with the same question about SEM and PPC.

  • Marcus

    Why not use the word SEA (Search Engine Advertising) for PPC, SEO for what it stands for and SEM as a collaborator between them all (including SMO, SEA, SEO etc)? That is what we’re trying to communicate to our clients and whomever we talk to when they ask about SEM/SEA/PPC/SEO and other services.

    But, they still use the term “SEM” when asking for paid search. *Sighs* But we’re trying! 🙂

  • Paul

    YES! Finally someone who has spoken out on this subject. Darnit people, SEM is no more PPC then Advertising is TV! It’s an all encompassing categorical term! I thought about blogging on this very same issue myself!

  • Marty Weintraub

    @Paul: It’s the kind of topic that’s harder to get around to…I was finally just bugged enough 🙂

  • John Rasco

    As a former advertising person, former marketing director and now B2B search marketing agency head, all I can say is “Amen, brother.” PPC is advertising, basically classified advertising with metrics. Four out of five B2B prospects won’t click on ads, because they’re looking for information, qualifying prospective vendors and comparing offers.

    There was a comparison in Wikipedia saying that SEO is like PR, and “SEM” is like advertising. My viewpoint is that SEO is SEM…getting more people into the funnel of consideration. I don’t think SEO is at all as soft a marketing tool as PR, because it’s much more results driven and much more accountable.

  • David Lazar

    We have always said SEM stands for Search Engine Management and includes SEO and PPC as well as managing any other aspect of a search engine that may be used for marketing.

  • Will Larson

    What’s wrong with referring to bbq sauce as ketchup? If there’s a general agreement of terminology among those communicating then I don’t see the issue. As long as we strip the term “SEM” of its ties to the descriptive phrase “Search Engine Marketing” and redefine it as search engine ppc then don’t we have a solution?

    History is history. Terms evolve. Accept it.

  • Eric

    Thanks Marty! I agree with you 100%. Over the last 6 months all I’ve heard is SEM is PPC. And I’m always wondering if that’s what it was why don’t we just call call everything PPC! It was nice to see somebody else had the same frustration. SEM is a combination of SEO and Paid/PPC. Appreciate you stepping up and taking a stand.

    Eric Fransen

  • John Schmelig

    If SEO would just go away, we could keep on referring to PPC as SEM, and continue on our merry way.

  • Michael

    How funny – we just had this big discussion in our shop and I have been reschooled and need to update our website to reflect the newly acquired wisdom. I can evolve. The other topic of great debate was, “is it Social Media or Social Marketing”, when referring to our “Social Services” (hehe). I used the same argument that Paul suggests – that calling Social Marketing, Social Media is like calling Advertising, TV…just because that’s where it happens, doesn’t make it so.

  • Marty Weintraub

    @Michael: That’s cool. BTW, it’s “social media” and some marketing activities are cool, provided they serve the community’s users. Thanks for your comment.

  • John Saldi

    Great article. “Somehow the misuse of traditional vernacular makes me feel dirty and disrespectful. ” I totally agree with you. Good point.

  • john andrews

    Labels are tools and unless the client/marketplace needs them, this kind of discussion just supports some industry player’s agenda.

    SEO evolved as a specialty, requiring focus and dedication. You can’t absorb SEO into anything else… it will always be SEO as long as SEO is needed. Pay Per Click was a general concept, but in practice it’s a Google/Yahoo!/MSN program with custom interface and dedicated tools.

    “search engine marketing” was always a bad moniker… and now the owners are trying to make it worse. A little SEO, a little PPC, add some social media… SEM. Sorry… if you need a label for what you sell, don’t try and co-opt trades like SEO and paid search marketing. It’s disrespectful to those dedicated to the specialty.

    And therein lies the rub. If you want to be an industry leader, and have the industry adopt your terminology, you have to earn their respect and support. No “search marketer” has done that yet. As long as MakeMoneyOnline Internet Marketers and Negative Option CPA affiliates and Social Media tabloid publishers are granted “expert” status at SEM (or whatever) conferences, the SEO pros will balk at accepting that label.

    Clients need marketing, promotion, advertising, and PR. They always have. Sell them SEO, paid search marketing, Internet Marketing, Internet Advertising, online reputation management services, online promotion, or whatever else you want to sell them.

  • john andrews

    @Marty I wasn’t referring to you as someone pushing an agenda. I wrote this while the SMX conference was promoting a redefinition of SEM.

  • Marty Weintraub

    @john: No offense taken friend. I look up to your perspective on these types of things actually, and appreciate where you’re coming from.