While researching search engine marketing (SEM), search engine optimization (SEO), and pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, you may have run into this explanation:

“SEM is paid search like Google PPC campaigns. Search engine optimization is the practice of optimizing your site for organic search.”

These statements are too simplistic and outdated to be 100 percent true. On the most basic level, SEM encompasses all things having to do with search providers such as Google, Bing and Yahoo. Meanwhile, SEO has historically been focused on optimizing a company’s website so that it ranks at the top of organic search results.

Other terms that fall into subsets of SEM, SEO, or both include:

  • PPC: This is a method of purchasing advertising (most often within search engines) where you pay for each person who clicks on your ad. This can also be referred to as CPC (or cost-per-click).
  • Search Engine Results Pages (SERP): These are the pages on Google, Yahoo, Bing or any other provider that displays after you search for a particular keyword or phrase. Although some incorrectly define SERPs as being only the organic portion of the page, they are a mix of all of the results displayed to users, and that includes paid and organic listings.


The SERP is the reason that the common distinctions made between SEO and SEM need to be reconsidered. Because your potential customer sees the entire search engine results page and is influenced by what results appear in both the paid and organic slots, you can’t view SEO and SEM as isolated entities.

Although it is important to understand the difference between organic and paid, it is no longer a question of one versus the other. They now must, more than ever before, work hand-in-hand if you want to ensure your business is found online by prospective customers.

How to improve search performance

To develop a strong search strategy, you have to look at factors that influence overall search performance including:

On-site factors

On-site (otherwise known as on-page) factors, such as optimized content, images, video, relevancy to the keywords, engagement, usability and page load time will influence both your quality score in paid search campaigns and ranking score in organic search. Your quality score helps determine your cost per click within these engines. Your ranking score helps determine how high you rank when people search for related terms.

To improve these on-site factors, you should always be asking yourself, “How likely is someone who is searching for keywords related to my business going to be interested in what I have to offer on the subject?” If that connection is clear and obvious, your site should perform better in paid and organic search.

Engine campaign settings

The keywords you bid on (and those you specifically exclude), the ads you write and the amount you set as your bid are critical in setting up a successful PPC campaign.

Constantly monitor your campaigns and bids, and use search term tools within the engines to understand what customers are actually searching for when they click on your link. This way you can determine which keyword combinations to add and exclude. For example, if you bid on the keyphrase “Mortgage Broker” you may or may not want potential customers who search for the longer phrase “International Mortgage Broker” or “Mortgage Broker Jobs.”

If your website is mobile-friendly, and you believe that people may be looking for your products or service while they’re on the go, make sure you set the appropriate bidding strategy for mobile devices as well as for dedicated mobile ads.

Each of the major search engines has developed and launched ways to enhance your paid search listings with additional levels of details and options to make the experience more relevant for the users. Review the various ad extensions that are available and determine which ones make sense for your company and your product or service.

Off-site influencers

Formerly an indicator exclusively for organic results, offsite factors can now play a role in both paid and organic performance. In a nutshell, off-site factors are how well your company’s site is regarded by reputable third-party websites. This can come in the way of relevant links to your site, reviews of your site and products or social media mentions, just to name a few.

These signals are critical to the success of a website in the organic rankings, but more and more of these third-party endorsements are making their way into paid search results. For example, Google’s Review Extensions or Social Media Extensions allow you to showcase your presence on Facebook or a series of positive reviews in your paid ad.

By combining paid and organic search marketing, you can create a strategy that encompasses the entire breadth of what search providers bring to the table. SEM, SEO, PPC — as a marketer or business owner, it’s important to know what these acronyms mean. But, in the end, it’s more important to know how to connect your company to the prospective customers who are out there, right now, looking for you.

To be successful in today’s online marketplace, a company must be findable in search engines. Ensuring that your site is fully optimized for both paid and organic search is a critical piece of the online marketing puzzle. Without it, you could be missing out on potential customers.

Get traffic moving your way

This post was originally published on June 11, 2015 and has been updated for relevance and accuracy

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