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SEM. PPC. Paid Search. What’s the Difference?

By Snap Agency April 28, 2016

Seriously, what’s the difference? Why do people use multiple terms to describe the same thing? It almost feels like a situation created to intentionally cause confusion; and who knows, that could absolutely be the case. But what do people really mean when they throw these terms around?


Search Engine Marketing, positioning your brand in front of search engine users based on search queries that you target as keywords. That’s pretty straightforward, right? Wrong! It absolutely isn’t. Typically us digital folks separate SEO (or organic search) into its own category, but some people lump paid search AND organic search under the umbrella term SEM. Is that confusing enough? SEM feels like a more accessible term for running search engine ads in AdWords and Bing Ads, but in fact it may make more sense to take the approach of using this term to encompass paid and organic social. Why am I changing my tune? Historically, I’ve always felt SEM to be the better term, but the reason I’m changing my mind is…


Pay Per Click, the concept of paying for advertising in the form of clicks rather than impressions, views, or conversions. PPC is, at its core, a very simple term to describe the concept. Advertisers pay for every click by giving bids to Google AdWords or Bing Ads (or Yahoo Ads if you’re feeling particularly rebellious and innovative) in search engines when running ads, so this is pretty cut and dry. Separating SEM to be a blanket term for PPC and SEO would be amazing in that we would no longer have three terms that people use to describe the exact same thing. This seems to be the path of least resistance, as searches for PPC management outweigh searches for SEM management, but the fact remains that people still throw both terms around there. Let’s just make it PPC, people.

Paid Search

Utilizing search engines with paid advertising rather than organic listings. This one is tough to argue with as it is also incredibly accurate and describes the concept we are going for here well. This term is less involved in the conversation as it has the feel of something that is more of an industry term rather than what people in need of AdWords / Bing Ads management are looking for. Unfortunately, it would be all too simple to just have two terms we use for search—Organic Search and Paid Search. Much too simple, right?


PPC & SEM Search Trends


This chart above is from Google Trends. The red line is supposed to represent interest in SEM; the blue line is PPC. Is SEM winning the conversation? However, according to a recent exploration into SpyFu (a third-party keyword research tool), the average monthly searches for these keywords in the U.S. is as follows:

  • PPC: 110K
  • SEM: 22K
  • Paid Search: 1K

Can we just let the searches decide, and drop this whole thing? Using multiple terms for the same concept does a few things: makes the process seem more complicated/harder to understand for the layperson, causes content (sales and educational) to be less centralized and therefore harder to find as content will typically use only one of these keywords. If you’re looking for resources on SEM, you will find those pieces, but there could be the exact piece of content you need out there using PPC as it’s main keyword. Standardizing our definition of what exactly we do when utilizing channels like Google AdWords and Bing Ads will make this a much less confusing field and get content on the subject to be more focused instead of having agencies like ourselves developing content for each keyword (ppc, sem, paid search, etc). Digital agencies tend to be at the forefront of content development as we want to rank for keywords that are important to our businesses, if we adopt a unified definition of what advertising in search engines should be called everyone will benefit from it.