What Does Search Engine Marketing (SEM) Mean?

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) meaning: SEM describes the paid advertising appearing on a search engine results page. SEM involves buying PPC (pay-per-click) ads that display among the search engine results. Such ads may be placed through Google Ads, Microsoft Advertising (for Bing), or other search engines.

Google results with SEM ads

You know you’re doing SEM if…

When you give a search engine money to appear on their search engine results page, 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. As you begin to implement advertisements across search engines, consider how dynamic ads can supercharge your SEM campaigns.

Some other important terms used in the world of SEM include:

  • Retargeting
  • Geotargeting
  • Dayparting
  • Demographic targeting
  • Mobile targeting
  • and many more

Another part of defining SEM is understanding why SEM is important to search engines — it’s how search engines make most of their money.

As a result, they’re continually modifying/improving their advertising platforms. Paid search advertising takes precision so that your ad dollars aren’t wasted. That makes SEM a marketing specialty of rapid change, one of the more exciting frontiers in search.

Does “Search Engine Marketing” Include SEO?

What is SEM vs SEO meaning.

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 spoke about 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. (For a detailed history of the term SEM, see Danny’s recap from 2010.)

Whatever the reason, the answer to the question “what is SEM” has definitively changed. SEM now means paid.

Today when you head to Search Engine Land, you’ll find SEM defined this way:

“SEM (Search Engine Marketing) is the process of gaining website traffic by purchasing ads on search engines.”

That clearly includes pay per click, local search ads, product listing ads, and all advertising efforts with regard to search engines.

What about “Search Marketing”?


SEM means ads; search marketing includes SEM and SEO

In place of SEM as an umbrella term, the industry coined the phrase “search marketing” (without “engine”).

Again looking at SEL, 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.

Defining SEM for the Future

Raise your hand if you think “SEM” is done evolving. Anyone?

I see signs that SEM will expand in meaning in the future.

In 2019, search marketing conferences are including more than just search engine advertising within the track called “SEM.”

Exhibit A: SMX West

The last in-person SMX West conference divided the tracks into SEO (organic) and SEM (paid). So that division is clear. You can expect to learn about organic ranking in the SEO track. In the SEM track, sessions focus on PPC topics like improving a Google Ads campaign.

What’s striking is the addition of advertising platforms besides Google and Bing. Sessions in the SEM track also talk about:

  • Facebook
  • YouTube
  • Twitter
  • Amazon

SEM description at SMX West.

Exhibit B: Pubcon Las Vegas
I wondered if SMX was just an exception here. So I looked at another big marketing event, Pubcon.

It turns out that Pubcon’s “SEM” theme also covers more than just traditional search engines. Facebook advertising makes the cut. And there could be others that just aren’t mentioned in the summary description.

Pubcon SEM description.

At least in the context of conferences, SEM can mean any variety of online ad placement. (This is somewhat counter intuitive.)

No longer are sessions merely focused on Google and Bing. They cover non-search outlets that accept ads, too.

Will this lead to another shift in the definition of SEM? Or will another term entirely take over to encapsulate the always evolving and always exciting world of internet marketing?

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 a decade from now and discover that the answer has changed once again, at least you won’t be surprised.

Bruce Clay is founder and president of Bruce Clay Inc., a global digital marketing firm providing search engine optimization, pay-per-click, social media marketing, SEO-friendly web architecture, and SEO tools and education. Connect with him on LinkedIn or through the BruceClay.com website.

See Bruce's author page for links to connect on social media.

Comments (21)
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21 Replies to “What Does Search Engine Marketing (SEM) Mean?”

Thank you so much for this helpful article, it’s amazing and I learned much from this.

Thank you for explaining both the sides and telling us which is best among them. SEM requires money but SEO needs hard work.

Thanks for the great material. It was a really challenging question for awhile.

SEO is so interesting for me. Thank you for sharing this topic.

Thank you very much for the detailed information.

thanks for great information

thanks for this great and usefull information

References are so good, One thing I appreciate a lot, as a newbie I got clear cut Information and further references are more than helpful.

Indeed very very informative, I’ll note these tips and keep in mind while designing my SEM strategies.

Hi Bruce Clay,
Thanks for explaining the difference between SEO and SEM.
I started my carrier as digital marketing in past few months back. I think by reading your blog it gives boosting to my carrier to move forward. I know the market strategies are changing day by day by reading your blog I learned a lot.

You have very well described about the search engine marketing. I have been working in marketing for past 9 years, I don’t consider myself an expert because there is still so much to learn in marketing. Marketing ideas are born every day and it makes for an exciting career, I am known for my skills in SEO, Paid advertising, and PR.

Was confusing SEM and SEO over and over. Thanks for a brief explanation!

what an impressive article you cleared my mind about sem and seo Thanks Bruce clay

This is a good overview and explanation of search engine marketing. The thing that I like about search engine marketing is that unlike SEO it won’t take much time to see results in PPC.

Thanks for a lot of information. It is great for new beginner people.

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.

As it is commonly used today, SEM describes only the money-backed portion of marketing through a search engine.

At least in the context of conferences, SEM can mean any variety of online ad placement.

Thank you for explaining both the sides and telling us which is best among them. SEM requires money but SEO needs hard work.

Thanks for this information. I learned a lot about SEM and its usefulness.


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