Definition: Search engine marketing, or “SEM,” consists of cumulative efforts to promote a website in paid and organic search listings. SEM is a primary driver of business growth and customer acquisition for many ecommerce stores.
The term "SEM" is used in varying applications. In some organizations, SEM refers exclusively to PPC (pay-per-click) paid search marketing (or even more specifically, Google AdWords). Other marketers use SEM as an umbrella term that describes all marketing efforts that influence performance in search engine listings, including organic results. A related term, "search marketing," can also be used to describe both paid and organic search.
While there's no right or wrong definition, Bigcommerce uses SEM to describe both paid and organic search marketing. As ecommerce becomes increasingly channel-agnostic with more customer touch points, unifying marketing efforts is preferable to siloed campaigns.
Paid search advertising, or PPC ads, are results that appear above and beside natural organic ratings.
Organic search listings (SEO) are determined by proprietary search engine algorithms, while paid results are bid on and paid for on a per-click basis. SEM is not used in reference to display advertising, though PPC and display share many best practices. Strong SEM performance can consist of high placement on one — or both — of PPC and SEO.
Online businesses working on improving their SEO can positively impact rankings with on-page optimizations and off-page efforts. Paid search results can be more directly affected, but are still subject to algorithmic ranking factors such as quality score. Higher organic search rankings often enable ecommerce stores to lower their advertising spend, effectively balancing out their SEM visibility. Though hiring an in-house or freelance SEO specialist can seem expensive, the ROI can be significantly greater than continuously paying for PPC ads.
The most popular vehicle for paid online searches is Google AdWords, due to its leading market share in the search space. The second-most widely used paid search system is Bing Ads, used on Bing and Yahoo search engines.
Learn more about how to use Search Engine Marketing -- and optimization -- to scale a growing online business: