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What’s the Difference Between Search Engine Marketing and Pay-Per-Click Advertising?

There’s a lot of jargon in digital marketing. Two terms that are often conflated are search engine marketing (SEM) and pay-per-click advertising (PPC). It makes sense—search engine marketing includes PPC ads as a strategy. But PPC ads are only one tool—albeit the most important one—within a comprehensive search engine marketing strategy.

The TL;DR: The very best digital marketing campaigns have both SEO and SEM components—and strong search engine marketing includes pay-per-click advertising.

Search engine marketing means using paid methods to improve a business’s placement on a search engine results page for specific keywords or search queries. 

For example, a company that sells mountain bikes for a general audience would benefit from a search engine marketing strategy that ensured their website appeared highly for searches including “men’s mountain bikes” and “women’s mountain bikes.”

There is some debate over which paid strategies are officially part of search engine marketing, but the core search engine marketing strategies include:

  • Search Ads
  • Shopping Ads

Both Search Ads and Shopping Ads are pay-per-click advertising strategies..
Pay-per-click ads include the row of Google Shopping ads at the top of a search engine results page and the text-based ads with the word Ad next to them.

Continuing our mountain bike example, we can see in the pictured search results page that REI paid for both a Google Shopping ad and a Google Search ad to make sure their mountain bikes rank prominently in search results.
Many digital marketers also include the following as part of search engine marketing, as these tools support the core strategies:

  • Display Ads
  • Remarketing
For example, our fictional mountain bike company might benefit from a combination of Google Shopping and Google Search ads, display ads, and remarketing. 
Remarketing means marketing specifically to a person who previously viewed a product or service but did not purchase it, such as through an email or display ad campaign. In an ideal scenario, remarketing reminds a prospective customer that they did like a particular product or brand they saw while browsing and brings them back to the site to complete a transaction. 

What does PPC Include?

PPC is an advertising model designed to generate website traffic in which advertisers pay each time an ad is clicked. This can and often does overlap with search engine marketing, such as in the case of search and shopping ads. Every time a consumer clicks on one of the ads at the top of a Google (or Bing) search, the company pays for that click.

PPC ads can also run as display ads on social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn, and on other platforms such as YouTube and Yelp.

Wait, where does SEO fit into this?

SEO, or search engine optimization, includes all of the unpaid or organic strategies designed to help a business rank higher in search results. Good SEO improves the rank of listings that do not have the word Ad or charge the business for clicks. In the example search pictured above, Retrospec appeared twice as a Google Shopping ad (due to great search engine marketing!) Walmart was the first unpaid, organic text result, which suggests they have great search engine optimization.

SEO is a fundamental digital marketing tool, and we always recommend optimizing SEO. It can also take somewhat longer to produce results, whereas a well-executed search engine marketing campaign can relatively quickly put a brand or a new product at the top of the paid search results for an interested prospect.

SEM can also help a smaller brand level the playing field against an industry giant. Retrospec is newer and smaller than Walmart, REI, and Trek, for example, but their paid search ads place their brand top of page.

Ultimately, the very best digital marketing campaigns have both SEO and SEM components—and strong search engine marketing includes pay-per-click advertising.

At Nouvel Âge Media, our services include search engine marketing, pay-per-click advertising, and search engine optimization. Schedule a discovery call and we’ll show you how we can put your brand in front of your target market through paid and organic marketing campaigns. 

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