What does “SEM” really mean?

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My name is Taylor. Sometimes, people call me Tyler, although, it’s becoming less frequent as more Taylor’s roam the world. Sometimes, people call me “Mr. Taylor”, thinking I gave them my last name, not my first. Telemarketers call me Gene, that’s when I know I can hang up.

darwin-originWe name things for contextual reference. Naming things and organizing them for effective communication have been a human practice since, well, the beginning of the human race. Humans have always sought to create taxonomies for important topics. Even before Darwin’s “Origin of Species”, scientists and individuals had been classifying living organizations for millennia.

The power of semantics and taxonomies come when we all agree and can communicate, speaking a common language with common understandings of the words that make up that language. Digital business is a relatively new phenomenon to humans and, therefore, is still in the early stages of developing a stable lexicon.

To simplify all of that, digital definitions can morph or change at any time. Because of the Internet itself, our digital lexicon is being crowdsourced, resulting in a sometimes shifting digital language. With this in mind, let’s see how the term “SEM” has evolved over time and what it means to you as a digital citizen.

Did I miss a name change?

About a month ago, I read a research report that suggested SEM really just means “PPC”. Rather than SEO being a child term of SEM, SEM was a peer to SEO and a rather “different” beast. My first thought was “Whoaaaa, Nelly. SEM is not just paid search, it is all search marketing tactics, which includes both organic and paid search.”

I was thrown for a loop. Google searches on the topic didn’t seem to help, either. Did I miss an important change in our digital lexicon? Well, the answer is … sorta, but, no, not really.

SEM is No Longer An Umbrella – “Wait, what?”

I turn 40-something-ish in September. My kids constantly remind me how old I’m getting. It seems like yesterday that I was cruising bulletin boards at the insane speed of 56k (see “My [mis] adventures as a digital marketer“.) I built my first web page in 1994. 1994 PEOPLE! That seems like ages ago. I can’t tell you how many digital tactics I’ve seen come and go.

Search was always going to be a winner. We all knew that when Lycos and AltaVista came around. With Google, though, you now have an absolute category killer that turned the search market on its head. Google has made the world better in some ways, and for it, gets to define the market for search. Here’s what they say about SEM

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) – The use of online advertising on search engine results
pages to help visitors find your website.

I’d be willing to bet that if you started your internet career prior to Google, you refer to SEM as the umbrella term. You probably see SEO as being an SEM tactic, just as PPC and Paid Social are part of SEM. If you don’t think that way, it’s likely you did at one point. Google came along and decided to usurp terminology to make it easier for them to communicate their value. Today, because Google refers to SEO as organic search and SEM as paid search, so goes a lot of the crowd. But, not all.

The Digital To-ma-to vs To-mah-to Debate

Here are the top Google search results for “search engine marketing”. I marked which pages refer to SEM as an “umbrella” term and which use SEM as strictly paid search. The results are pretty surprising.

SEM top search rankings-01

It appears to be a wash, but, some pretty heavy players (including SEMPO) still refer to SEM as the umbrella term.

Danny Sullivan (@dannysullivan) of Search Engine Land acknowledges that in 2001, he advocated an umbrella term for search marketing as a whole …

I pushed for an umbrella term to cover search marketing activities … My suggestion was that there should be an umbrella term, “search engine marketing,” that covered both major activities: SEO + PPC. (From “2001 in Review“)

Danny has recently reacted to the latest definitions of SEM:

These days, I still push that SEM = SEO + PPC. But to some, that’s been bastardized into SEM = PPC. Wikipedia’s poor entry on search engine marketing doesn’t help, on this front. I think it’s important to have an umbrella term because a good search marketer does want to consider both things . Also, while I like the acronym SEM, I tend to just say “search marketing” rather than “search engine marketing” now.

So, whether you use SEM as the umbrella term or not, you’re in good company either way. Notice all the variants of opinion even when searching for infographics using “SEO vs SEM” …


At some point, one of the definitions is going to win out and the market will clarify the lexicon. With that said, one has to wonder who wrote the “learn with Google” document and whether SEM = PPC is really what Google has in mind.

What do you think?

So, who cares about all of this? I do. And, we all should care. Digital marketers need to have a consistent lexicon, especially given the rapidity of change we experience.

Drop me a comment and let me know how you define SEM. You could choose one of these options, or make up your own.

  1. I thought SEM was an umbrella term
  2. I thought SEM was just about PPC
  3. I thought SEM was just about PPC, but, I also remember when it was an umbrella
  4. I still think SEM should represent the umbrella. What else do we call the portfolio of search tactics?
  5. I don’t really care about any of this

There are also a few takeaways from this debate that we should come to grips with.

  1. Don’t assume that term your digital cohorts use means what you think it means. Remember, our digital lexicon is still settling, introducing the possibility of miscommunication, inefficiency, and even contention among normally friendly peers.
  2. Be flexible and don’t judge too quickly. You may be in the minority when someone uses a term you think is incorrect.
  3. Always follow up with probing questions when digital terminology is tossed out to avoid debates about semantics.

Someday, we’ll all get along and everyone will pronounce “tomato” (not to-mah-to!) exactly the same way.



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  1. Ashley Verrill says

    I thought SEM was an umbrella term, BUT to be honest… I don’t care all that much what we call it. As long as we’re great at it. (-:

  2. Janna Finch says

    I built my first website in the mid-90s, too (RIP Geocities) and consider SEM an umbrella term. I don’t think I’ve even heard/seen it used to mean PPC only, but I could have blinders on.

  3. Robert E Bellovin says

    I really liked the quote you included from Danny Sullivan. “SEM = SEO + PPC” There is more to SEM than just PPC!

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