The Name Game: Does SEM = Paid Search? Does Search + Social = Inbound Marketing?


Do we need an umbrella term to encompass the activities of search marketing and social media marketing? Perhaps. But as I’ve seen various people wonder about this recently, it reminds me of the push years ago for an umbrella term to cover SEO and paid search. Today, we still lack agreement about that term, SEM. Is another umbrella term doomed to failure?

SEO / Search Engine Optimization

I’d say there’s pretty widespread agreement that search engine optimization — SEO — stands for the act of gaining from the “free” or “natural” or “organic” or “editorial” listings that search engines provide.

Who coined the term? Some have mistakenly attributed that to me. It wasn’t. Bob Heyman has probably staked the strongest claim to it, saying he started using it back in 1995. I recall first using it around 1997.

Regardless who coined it, as I said, there’s been pretty good agreement about it within the search marketing industry. Of course, outside the industry, there are plenty of people who assume SEO means generating traffic through link spamming or black magic trickery.

That’s unfortunate, but it’s much different than a split within the SEO industry (to the degree we can define one) on the definition.

CPC/ PPC / Paid Search

From around 1998 onward, more and more opportunities to buy paid search listings became available. As these were often sold on a cost-per-click or paid-per-click basis, buying them was often referred to as doing CPC or PPC.

Occasionally, some would talk about doing “search engine advertising,” though the acronym of SEA never really caught on. In the past few years, I’ve heard plenty of people talk about “paid search.”

I’ve also heard plenty of people talk about doing SEM, or search engine marketing, as if that was a term that meant doing only paid search.

It wasn’t that way, originally.

SEM: Search Engine Marketing As Umbrella Term

I didn’t coin SEO, but I definitely help popularize the notion of SEM being an umbrella term to encompass both SEO and paid search.

For those who want the detailed history, my Does SEM = SEO + CPC Still Add Up? article from 2010 covers the history in more detail.

The short story was that in 2001, those doing SEO but also branching out into paid search wondered what to call themselves and what they were doing. Did SEO cover paid search, too? Was a new name needed?

I looked around at various terms being used at the time and wrote a column proposing that “search engine marketing” be an umbrella term for both paid and non-paid search activities.

When the SEMPO search marketing industry group formed in 2003, I helped write the initial glossary of terms. SEM as an umbrella term was part of that glossary.

SEM Transforms Into Paid Search

Over the past few years, I’ve encountered more and more people who use SEM to mean paid search. I’ll hear it in conversation with people at conferences, in presentations, in press releases that I’ve been sent.

At first, this drove me crazy. Hey, it still does. But I came to realize it wasn’t that people were ignorant of what SEM “really” meant. They simply were brought up, however it happened, to believe that SEM meant paid search.

My aforementioned history from 2010 delves deeper into how this might have happened. Wikipedia, as it turns out, bears some of the blame.

Regardess of how it happened, I’ve felt recently that trying to fight for SEM as an umbrella term is going against the tide. It’s not a battle that I think can be won.

The “Battle” For SEM Already Lost?

At our SMX East search marketing conference in October, during an open forum, I asked the audience what they thought. Should SEM mean paid search or instead be an umbrella term for paid search and SEO?

The response was overwhelming. The audience wanted it to stay as an umbrella term, vehemently so in many cases, as people spoke up.

Similarly, last week I asked the same thing on Facebook:

With nearly 100 answers, 87% wanted it to remain an umbrella term.

So fight on? Well, consider this chart:

That’s from Google Trends, showing search activity for various words. SEM searches have been on the rise dramatically for years, while PPC searches have plunged and CPC searches have stayed relatively static. Paid search doesn’t even register.

The chart could be interpreted in many ways. Perhaps, even, it indicates a rise in interest for search engine marketing overall, as an all-encompassing activity. That’s especially so when you look at a chart for searches for search marketing, which shows that term as dropping off.

Still, I think SEM to mean paid search is on the rise. I believe that veteran search marketers tend to use SEM for the umbrella term but newcomers, as well as traditional marketers or those who do marketing beyond search marketing, tend to use it for paid search.

Search & Social = ???

It all leaves me thinking that it’s time to throw in the towel, to give up on SEM as an umbrella term for search marketing. I’ll get back to that. But the entire question of what SEM means reminds me of another umbrella term I’ve seen some seeking recently, a way to unify the activities of search marketing and social media marketing.

Make no mistake. They are completely different activities.

Search marketing is about being found by people who are actively expressing a desire, a need, a wish, and wanting an answer, right away.

Social media marketing is about gaining visibility, buzz or traffic through social media channels, where people may not necessarily be after anything in particular. Serendipity is fine for them. They discover things through social media that they might not be actively seeking.

While distinct, the two can play off each other. Social signals are being used by search engines. Social media sites have people searching for answers on them.

Enter Inbound Marketing?

One area search marketing and social media marketing are similar is how both generate “natural” or “organic” or what the traditional agency world calls “earned” traffic.

With SEO and non-paid social media, there’s the opportunity to generate large amounts of “free” traffic, often from people who are easy to convert into customers, leads or just readers, if page views are your goals.

Potentially, the term inbound marketing, coined by HubSpot cofounder Brian Halligan could be used to encompass both search and social.

However, when I asked people in November on Google+ if they knew what the term meant, reactions were mixed. Some liked it. Some didn’t. Some were unclear what it encompassed.

For me, perhaps the biggest problem with using inbound marketing as an umbrella term for search marketing and social media marketing is that as I understand it, it’s focused around organic or earned efforts to gain traffic, not paid efforts.

Paid has a place in social, just as it has a place in search. Given how many search marketers seem to want an umbrella term for search marketing that encompasses both paid and organic search efforts, I hate to think of what happens if we get an umbrella term for search and social that only covers the organic halves of those activities

And The Winner Is?

So what’s the term to cover search marketing and social media marketing? Heck if I know. Perhaps we don’t really need one. Perhaps both fall within internet marketing or digital marketing and those are all good enough.

As for the SEM debate, I tend to think SEM should be accepted to mean search engine marketing, the practice of buying paid listings. And the umbrella term for SEM + SEO? Search marketing, with no acronym required.

What are your thoughts?

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About The Author

Danny Sullivan was a journalist and analyst who covered the digital and search marketing space from 1996 through 2017. He was also a cofounder of Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land, Marketing Land, MarTech Today and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo and MarTech events. He retired from journalism and Third Door Media in June 2017. You can learn more about him on his personal site & blog He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.



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