In the 21st century, the success of a firm depends on its ability to market its products and services online. But the digital marketing landscape is by no means simple. There are all kinds of concepts that companies, both new and old, must learn if they want to have success.

As with anything, it’s best to start with the basics. In this article, we’re going to discuss some of the key terms that people use to describe marketing online – namely, SEM, SEO and PPC. Once you know what these acronyms mean, you’ll be in a much better position to decipher articles on the subject that you read in the future. So without further ado, let’s get started.

SEM – Search Engine Marketing

Search engine marketing, or SEM, is a term which covers a broad swathe of online marketing strategies. Search engine marketing can involve paid advertising, where companies pay search engines like Bing, Yahoo, Google and Duckduckgo to appear in search results, and “free” marketing, where firms generate content designed to rank highly in search results.

There are other forms of online marketing that do not fall under the umbrella of SEM, but they are few and far between. The vast majority of digital marketing dollars go on SEM-related activities, whether they cost money directly or not.

PPC – Pay-Per-Click Advertising

Pay-per-click marketing most closely resembles the marketing most companies are familiar with – advertising activities where the firm pays for the space they need directly. In the case of PPC marketing, the business pays for advertising to appear at the top or bottom of the page in search engine results, or to appear in banners on websites that are members of the advert network. PPC marketing makes it much more likely that your advert appears at the top of search results and is particularly useful for companies just starting that don’t have an established digital presence.

Of course, none of this is free. The “pay” part of PPC tells you that much. But how payment in PPC works is a little complicated. Essentially, you pay for advertising space related to specific keywords. Most PPC marketing platforms, like Google’s Adwords, allow you to select the keywords that you’d like to target with advertising and create advertisements around them. Other people may also want to advertise for those keywords, and so businesses must engage in competitive bidding against each other to secure the space. The firm that bids the most wins the right to appear in the advertising results and the others get relegated to subsequent pages or out of the results entirely.

PPC advertising is good in the sense that you don’t have to build up an online presence to benefit. If you’re a new business and you’ve got the money, you can pay to get to the top of search results without having to go through the much longer process of getting there “organically” – a concept we’ll explore next. But the downside is that you must pay each time a person clicks an advert, whether they ultimately decide to buy something from you or not.

SEO – Search Engine Optimisation

The aim of search engine optimisation, or SEO, is to boost the visibility of the pages of your site without paying advertising dollars directly to a search engine. Companies with effective SEO can climb the ranks in search results without paying for every click and eventually reach the first page, generating leads for free.

SEO involves many specific strategies designed to convince search engines that the content on your pages is more useful for users than the content on other sites. Google and others evaluate the merit of your web pages based on links from other websites, whether they contain useful content, images and videos, and the amount of traffic they receive from social media. Search engines take this information and use it to infer the quality of your web pages and how high up in the ranks they should appear for a given keyword.

The benefit of SEO is that by the end of the process, you should be able to generate traffic to your website organically, without paying every time a person clicks on an advertisement. Prospects will see your pages at the top of search results and then simply click through, no payment required.

The cost of SEO is that it can be both expensive and time-consuming. Rarely do new companies get to the top of search results for particular keywords in less than six months. What’s more, SEO is not free: you have to dedicate time, writers, and SEO professionals to the task.