The world of search marketing has evolved rapidly, and as is often the case with rapidly evolving technology, that made for a fair amount of confusion – even among people in the industry.

So, if you occasionally get confused, know two things:
(1) You’re not alone.
(2) We’re here to help by shining a bright light into these exciting, though occasionally murky waters.

Here’s a breakdown:


SEM stands for search engine marketing, so you would think that it means the exact same thing as SEM, right? Well, actually, while that would be reasonable, it would also be wrong. When you see search engine marketing written out, it refers to the entire world of search. But the abbreviation SEM refers to paid search only. Who decided that the acronym would take on a more specific meaning than the fully spelled out term represented by that acronym? We don’t know. But, if we find that person, we promise we’ll ask them.


Although some people immediately think of the Sociedad Española de Ornitología, or perhaps Southeastern Ohio, SEO in our world stands for search engine optimization, which is the practice of improving webpage placement on pages by updating and optimizing components of a website such as navigation, site content, and architecture. In the early days, SEO was very much about keywords, which often made for some truly horrendous writing. Thankfully, SEO is now much more sophisticated and focuses more on how the site is built. Since SEM refers to the whole world of search marketing, SEO is technically one facet of SEM, but the terms are not interchangeable.

Organic Search

When people search for things and get back the results, the top few are likely to be paid or “sponsored” listings. But everything else – that’s organic search.

Paid Search

Paid ad placements within search engines are referred to, quite appropriately, as paid search.


This stands for pay per click, which is a model of search engine advertising in which you only pay when customers actually click, as opposed to paying for impressions.


If you’re running a PPC campaign, your CPC, or cost per click, is the rate you actually pay for each click.


Google’s platform for managing paid search ads. AdWords is also the platform for paid campaigns on the Google Display Network, Google Shopping, and YouTube.

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