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The relation between ecommerce, SEO and SEM

30-second summary:

  • What’s the difference between SEO and SEM?
  • What are the elements of a successful search strategy?
  • How can marketers choose a winning formula for their business goals?
  • Goodway Group’s Search Center of Excellence, Lisa Little helps you find the answers.

What’s the difference between SEO and SEM? Why should I bid on my own brand keywords? Should we start with SEO or SEM? Is ecommerce considered search? Where should I invest?

To understand the relationship of these channels within the search function, think about a playground tournament of dodgeball (SEO), kickball (SEM), and tetherball (ecommerce). All games are played on the same playground (search engine results page, SERP) with the same type of ball (platforms) but different rules, gameplay, player positions, strategic play, variables, and objectives to win.

Some players (advertisers) invest everything into playing only one game. The athletes (performance marketers) that play a combination of those games and master the common skill sets (data storytelling, understanding impact to the business, influential communication skills, continual learning, eagerness to test, embrace rapid change) rule the playground.

The SERP is filled with aspects and listings of all types that fall into these three channels to make up the search marketing function. There are three key benefits of a comprehensive search strategy:

  • In tandem, they take up more real estate on the SERP for your brand to own and push out your competition. Combined brands can gain maximum visibility.
  • The searcher typically does not know if they are interacting with ecommerce, paid, or organic listings, and the right combination can mean that you will be there for your customer when, where, and how they personally prefer to interact with your brand.
  • Regardless of how chaotic the path to conversion can be today, a consolidated search strategy will cover full-funnel bases and ensure you’re reaching the customer in a personalized, effective, and efficient way.

Advertisers, brands, categories, verticals, and seasonality all come into play when determining the right combination of SEO, SEM, and ecommerce efforts for your specific brand. It’s definitely not one size fits all.

Here’s the what, why, and when breakdown to guide brands as they develop their unique search combination.

Search engine marketing or paid search or SEM or PPC

SEM is paid advertising triggered by keyword searches. There is a real-time blind auction (a combination of bid, quality, relevancy) each time a keyword is searched to position on SERP with the other advertisers competing in that same auction.


SEM provides messaging and targeting control that serves at the top of SERP. If you’re not participating, your competitors are.


Marketers use SEM when they need immediate awareness, traffic, and results. The need for controlled, promotional messaging and measurement of activity is driven by tangible dollars. Getting to know your customer behavior acts as a behavior learning engine. To best utilize SEM, marketers should have a budget to spend on paid digital media.

SEO or organic search or location listing management

SEO provides listings based on relevant search terms to the SERPThis can be in the form of knowledge graphs, SEO listings, map listings, social media, ratings/reviews, and more.

Note: Additional SEO areas include app search optimization, location listing management, content mapping, free shopping listings, web development, and more.


Understand and dig into what overarching terms like “SEO” or “Reputation management” really mean to brands, what marketing problems are they trying to solve, or what they are hoping to achieve.


SEO is the fundamental and foundational infrastructure of your brand’s DNA online. Even the most beautiful mansion (paid advertising) crumbles under a weak foundation. The internet shares everything organically so you may not even be aware of what is out there around your brand without a strong SEO strategy and consistently mindful and smart messaging.


Every brand that has a website should have some participation in SEO and work within organic listings to accomplish company brand guidelines and goals. Marketers should regularly update and optimize location listings for those brick and mortar businesses. This is an ongoing process, but it typically starts with an assessment or opportunity evaluation.

Ecommerce, shopping ads (formerly product listing ads)

Ecommerce is the broad term for online retail, which includes paid and unpaid aspects that work in tandem. This ranges from shopping ads on search engines and open marketplaces like Amazon/Walmart to integrations like Shopify.

Note: You will need merchant center accounts to house structured product data feeds.


Automation and machine learning is key to ecommerce success. Try leveraging a management platform like Kenshoo to consolidate holistic ecommerce stories and gain advanced capabilities in the ecommerce program.


Ecommerce is vital to drive online sales effectively, efficiently and maximizing impact on the bottom line.


If you sell products online, the entry point is shopping ads on search engines. From there, it depends on merchants, supply chain, and marketplaces your products are sold.

Every brand’s needs will be different and require a unique combination of SEO, SEM, and ecommerce. Marketers will have to assess the brand’s goals and capabilities to determine what programs are necessary, how they will help achieve goals, and what data is required to achieve the goals.

Brands will have similar goals when implementing SEO, SEM, and ecommerce, like establishing a SERP presence, but there is ample opportunity for creativity within these platforms to achieve a brand’s unique goals. It is important that marketers stay focused on these goals throughout the campaign but also be agile as the industry changes and reallocate funds to different platforms if the desired results are not achieved. Tracking results in real-time will help marketers refocus their strategies quickly to ensure the goals will be met.

Now that we know the relationship, use cases, and benefits  – let’s look at some questions you can ask to help determine the next steps to take your search program to the next level.

  1. What’s your primary business objective?
  2. What pain points are you trying to solve?
  3. Do you have the right partner who has strength, expertise, tools, and capabilities across all search channels?

Looking at channels holistically, marketers should implement strategic planning with a nimble approach to adjust for results is what will drive excellence in your overall marketing program. While they each play different roles and bring different benefits to advertisers, these channels should never be pitted against each other, compared on a 1:1 basis or replace one another’s role in the marketing mix. Instead, they should be considered supplemental to each other and pivotal to success.

Lisa Little is Search Center of Excellence at Goodway Group.

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