Are SEO, SEM, and PPC The Same Thing?

by | Marketing, SEM, SEO

Are SEO, SEM, and PPC The Same Thing?

Like every industry, digital marketing has its share of acronyms. SEO, SEM, and PPC tend to be the highest on the list.

If you’ve been online for a bit, you’ve probably seen these acronyms over and over again. You might even have a vague understanding of what each of them means.

  • SEO – search engine optimization
  • SEM – search engine marketing
  • PPC – pay per click

All are meant to help you get your message out online. And all do a good job of bringing business through your doors – if they are utilized in the correct manner.

The problem is in the interpretation. Even people who have been in the business for years use these terms in different ways.

Results are everything. But if you think you’re hiring a company to do one thing, and they do something else because you aren’t speaking the right language, that’s where challenges arise.

If you’re building your business using digital marketing methods, having a general understanding of the language will help you build the marketing plan you truly desire. To do that, let’s start with the three most talked about acronyms in digital marketing: SEO, SEM, and PPC.


In a logical sense, it seems as if SEM would be at the top of the food chain. Search engine marketing appears to be a global concept, one that would refer to how you market your business online.

That’s incorrect.

Instead, SEM refers to all paid digital marketing. That would make PPC a part of SEM, but not the other way around. Both SEM and PPC are:

  • Paid programs
  • Controlled by setting up a budget
  • Are the primary moneymakers for a lot of platforms online

While PPC is considered to be the largest and most in-demand way of advertising online, it isn’t the only way.


How do those differ from SEO? Search engine optimization is the process of getting into the search engines organically instead of through a paid platform. The process involves creating sites and pages with enough high-quality content on them that Google ranks them well on their own merits.

SEO is content-driven. By far, the best way to utilize SEO is to create high-quality content that shares good information with your viewers, and is worded in such a way as to attract attention in the search engines. This includes both the content humans read on the page, as well as the coded language developers use to create the page.

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Which do you need most?

Paid advertising versus organic marketing is one of the most widely debated topics in the digital marketing industry. Is one better than the other? Should you put all your resources on one?

You need both!

That may seem like a digital marketers’ way to expand your marketing plan and make you increase the amount you spend. Let’s examine why the two work together and how they are indispensable to any business trying to grow their sales.

SEM and SEO work separately and together

Paid search and organic marketing are two different ways to reach out to your target audience. One isn’t better than the other. They both have their strengths and weaknesses.

Paid search is good at driving specific traffic to a landing page on your site, and can do so with some of the best demographics in marketing. But paid search is “pay to play,” meaning if you turn it off, the traffic goes away.

SEM is designed to reach out to people that aren’t familiar with your brand. Your ads are where they are. They entice them to click. They provide just enough information to lead them to the next stop on the road to becoming a paid customer or client.

Google is set up to give the most coveted space in search engine rank to players that pay for the space.

At best, your organic listing will display further down the page.

That alone is a great reason to pay – you can ensure your message is the very first message a searcher sees.

Now let’s change the scenario a bit. Let’s say a searcher is aware of your brand and is out searching and comparing.

They type in a keyword that leads them to a page with your PPC ad at the top of the results. They’re familiar with you, so they continue glancing down the page.

With organic search results, you can appear again and again. And again!

And when a searcher notices it’s your site all over that first page of results, they start assuming you must be the key player with what they’re searching for.

SEO and SEM work well separately, but together, they can be an unstoppable plan for you to bring in sales and grow your business.

SEO and SEM are two sides of the marketing coin

For some, they assume they can throw money at one side, and eventually stop it because the other is working well. For example, if you pay for ads while you build organically, eventually you can stop paid advertising and drive all your business through organic.

The trouble is, the two types of advertising attract wildly different customers and clients.

If someone has never heard of you before, but is searching for what you offer, SEM is the way to get your name into their psyche and start building a relationship with them.

As people start to recognize your authority in your field, SEO is the perfect way to be where they are searching. It can quickly show you know what you’re talking about by being in every relatable search term a searcher types in.

Think full circle

Depending on what digital marketing firm you talk to, you might be pushed towards investing in one form of marketing over another.

An SEO firm will sell you on the importance of organic placement. They can show statistics that back up the claim it’s more important to be placed organically throughout every key term people search to find you. And they’d be right.

An SEM firm will sell you on the importance of using PPC ads to reach out to people trying to find you. It’s the perfect way to be where potential clients are. They also will be able to show you statistics on how their clients build strong businesses by delivering messages searchers want and need. They’d also be right.

Smart businesses understand the power of working SEO and SEM together.

You have all kinds of customers and clients at various stages of working with you.

It’s important to deliver the right message at the right time. To build your expertise up online and deliver it in a way that makes sense to who’s looking.

Can you say that about your digital marketing strategy?

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