Since when does SEM no longer include SEO???

It used to be that SEM was the umbrella term for paid and organic. Articles on search would begin with a sentence such as “Search engine marketing (SEM) comes in two types: paid (PPC) and organic (SEO).”. I used to abbreviate that as “SEM=PPC+SEO”.

But something changed in the past 3-12 months.

Now, most articles seem to explain SEM as “search marketing” and equate it only with paid search. You read sentences such as “SEO is going like this and that, whereas SEM (search marketing) is going … (wherever Google and Facebook are going)”.

That seems wrong on so many levels


What? Organic search is not “marketing”?

If PPC is Search Marketing, then what is SEO? An IT function?

That’s baloney.

The effort of prioritizing what keywords (i.e. audiences, buyers, markets) your site should rank for is a strategic marketing function. It is in line with marketing best practices to consider SEO a marketing function and investment. For example, books such as Marketing Champions include great reminders that marketing is ultimately about “identifying sources of new cash and helping to rake these in.”

What? PPC advertising = Marketing = Advertising?

Since when is Marketing equal with just advertising? Is that something that Google and Facebook put in people’s heads, i.e. that if they want to do search marketing then they have to pony up the cash for every visitor that clicks? Or is it the Madmen TV show that is to blame?

If PPC advertising isn’t embedded in a broader strategy and coordinated with organic search it will be the 60% of the online marketing budget that is wasted.

What? Search marketing stops at organic rank optimization and advertising?

You often hear of paid search marketing as the art of advertising (with help of agencies or search bid management tools) and organic search marketing as the art of improving rankings. Yet, these are only some of the ingredients in what should be proper search marketing.

Search marketing optimization requires much more, e.g. audience research, landing page design, landing page optimization, funnel optimization, and re-targeting.

Digital marketers are surprisingly silo’d. There are separate teams (and agencies) for organic vs. paid. The teams for website optimization are separate and so are the teams for email marketing. This silo’d specialization is probably to blame for the lack of an end-to-end view on optimization.

So what is a better term to use then?

I wonder whether the current trend may have risen just because of the visual appeal of the acronyms: SEO vs. SEM. Visually, they may seem as if they were referring to the two categories of search when you look from a distance. In contrast, the PPC vs. organic terms don’t have a visual relationship.

But there is no need for this abuse.

We can just simply go back to saying “paid vs. organic search” which are both aspects of search marketing.

3 Comments on “Since when does SEM no longer include SEO???

  1. Very good blog post Akin!

    I fully support your thoughts. Search engine marketing should be the umbrella term and search (Google) has got new interesting features in a year.

    I would like to define SEM like this: Search Engine Marketing includes different kind of methods to affect and improve visibility related to people, companies and social networks in different kind of search engine results.

    You can read my blog post here:

  2. Hi Petri,

    Thanks much for commenting and glad you agree.

    Your post ( is very well taken on all those facets of search incl. video, image, local/map, etc. etc. In your comment you also alude to social which reminds me that Tweets and other social feeds also show up as search results, i.e. become a component of companies’ search marketing efforts.. All the more reason that search engine marketing should be the umbrella term.

    I wonder whether to drop the word ‘engine” though. I guess the only reason to drop it would be the content networks. All other examples are still essentially search engines.


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