Paid search, SEM, and SEO are three different things that have, over time, become entangled and mischaracterized in the digital marketing conversation.
SEO was previously considered a component of SEM. But doing SEM didn’t always mean SEO was a part of the effort. But when it was, SEM was paid search + SEO.
Confused yet? Probably. Because it’s confusing. (And needlessly so.)
So let’s clarify some things. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to refer to all paid search marketing efforts simply as “paid search.” The other stuff — search engine optimization — is a different bucket. The term “SEM” can be put to the side for now.
Let’s define paid search and its uses.
What paid search isn’t.
Let’s start with what paid search isn’t. Paid search isn’t SEO.
SEO, or search engine optimization, is the practice of increasing the quality and quantity of your website’s traffic by increasing your website’s visibility on search engines. One way of doing this is by optimizing your site’s content and architecture so that it delivers better value to users interested in your brand. This helps it rank better in search engines.
It’s an important process, but a long and tedious one, and can lead to modest results over a long period. While the clicks are free, the price you pay to optimize for more of those free clicks is a big investment of time and resources (either the salary paid to an in-house expert or outsourcing to an agency). So don’t trick yourself into thinking your clicks are totally, completely free.
What paid search is.
Paid search, on the other hand, is an investment that provides instant gratification. It’s when you pay a search engine to show an ad on their platform.*
*(Technically, you’re paying them when a user clicks on your ad.)
Here’s how it works: you find a partner that can assist you in generating a keyword list, writing effective ad copy, and determining a budget. Once your new campaign has launched, you’ll be able to see your ad live on search engines in five minutes or less. Over time you’ll see what’s working and what’s not, and adjust accordingly when you have enough data to make statistically significant decisions.
It helps if your partner is also running other media for you, and has first-party, ethically-sourced data on your audience. If you’re running an omnichannel campaign under one roof, you’re gleaning actionable insights from multiple channels and sharing learnings across the platforms. Your campaigns essentially learn from each other, you can iterate faster, and you get more bang for your buck.
Paid search gives you control
Paid search can have an immediate impact. If you find the right partner — especially one who can leverage your existing data and one that targets real people — you can start benefiting from more high-intent traffic to your website very quickly.