New-age marketers easily mix up the three terms mentioned here and often use them interchangeably – SEM or Search Engine Marketing, SEO or Search Engine Optimization, and PPC or Pay-Per-Click. One thing that is common to all the three is that they all denote activities that are undertaken by brands and marketers to make their online presence more visible so that their websites and social media profiles attract more traffic.

Having said that, there is a big difference between all of them, especially between SEM and SEO as well as SEO and PPC. This write-up is an effort to clarify the differences between these three terms and explore how and where they overlap.

What is SEM (Search Engine Marketing)?

Search Engine Marketing is most commonly used for denoting activities that revolve around enhancing the online presence of a company using paid methods. Google, Yahoo, and Bing are the three largest search engines in the virtual world today. Marketers use paid promotional methods to ensure that their website is able to get mileage in the digital platform.

As per some marketing gurus and experts, though, SEM is an exhaustive term that includes both, organic and paid methods of ranking on the top, in search engine page results. It is considered to be an umbrella term that encompasses SEO as well as PPC.

What is SEO (Search Engine Optimization)?

SEO is the name given to a collective group of actions that marketers and brands do to organically increase the traffic to their sites. This means that they do not pay the search engine for diverting traffic to their sites. How do they do this? By lots of methods including on-page content optimization, off-page optimization, using strong links and backlinks, etc. Since all the major search engine algorithms are updated from time to time, brands need to tweak their site accordingly every time there is an update released. Here, there are certain things that brands can do to make a positive impression on the search engine while certain other things can create an adverse effect on the crawlers.

What is PPC (Pay Per Click)?

This is an outright paid method of promoting a website. By doing this, brands buy traffic for their site. In the PPC services method, advertisers and marketers place their ads on the SERPs and each time a click happens on the ads or the links, the advertiser pays to the search engine. This is a specialized area of work because popular search engines run this program on a real-time bidding method. Since the advertising inventory is limited, this means that advertisers need to bid like in a private auction – only in this case, it is automated – in order to get a place on the result page.

Difference between SEO and PPC

The first distinction between both these online marketing activities is that SEO is a free and unpaid effort while PPC is a paid initiative. In other words, SEO is a method where marketers try to earn the traffic while in case of PPC, a brand or the advertiser is paying an intermediary, in this case, the search engine, to get the traffic. This makes SEO an organic way of promoting a website and PPC an inorganic method of doing so.

The second difference between these two digital marketing tools is that while SEO is slow, PPC is extremely fast, performance-wise. Since SEO is free; invariably all your competition in the marketplace will be engaged in making their sites optimized for search engines. This is why it takes time for your optimized website to get the attention of search engines. There are other reasons too for SEO being slow – like the quality of links and backlinks, or it is not in accordance with the search engine required guidelines. Even though SEO takes the time it is worth all the effort and time because it has known to pay off well in the end. On the other hand, PPC works fast, almost instantly, if done in the proper manner. With an effective PPC strategy in hand, the paid ads are placed higher on the page, above organic search results. Accordingly, the ad and the link start to get clicks, within few hours of implementation.

The third note-worthy difference between both the marketing methods is that even though SEO is slow it is a durable and consistent method; while PPC is temporary in nature – as in, it’s the best for the moment but needs to be revised and changed on a regular basis.

Difference between SEM and PPC

These two words are used for each other most often. SEM, as mentioned above is often thought to be the parent term or the umbrella under with paid marketing methods like PPC, Search Engine Reputation Management (SERM) and unpaid methods like SEO are entailed. SEM typically stands for any kind of internet marketing activity that is undertaken by a brand or a marketer to improve the visibility of the site for search engines. This means that any sort of paid or unpaid campaign that is done by a brand to get more search engine friendly is SEM. In fact, some experts today are of the opinion that SEM encompasses marketing activities related to social media too as it in some ways affects search engine visibility parameters of the sites.

PPC, on the other hand, is thoroughly and completely paid that places the ad of the company on the topmost part of the SERP. It is a specialized field that typically pertains to the Google search engine.

Difference between SEM and SEO

SEO, as we have seen above, is a free but effective way of making the website search engine friendly. While SEM is a much broader term that involves free activities like SEO and paid activities like PPR and SERM. In a way, SEO services can be very well be thought to be one part of SEM, while SEM can be thought to be the parent term.

What works – SEM, SEO or PPC?

This is not that easy to answer but a question that most marketers face. There is nothing right or wrong in the world of marketing. Anything that works is right and anything that does not needs to be discarded. The truth is that in the online world, paid and unpaid, both works – SEM techniques are essential for survival and growth while SEO and PPC are specific areas that need to be brainstormed well before going ahead. Finally, how you make all these three methods work for your brand, needs to be a collective decision between the marketing team and the management.