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Search terminology: In France “SEM” is “Référencement”

One would think that an activity worth millions of euros would have an established name after 10+ years in service, right? So, most people agree that you can call the general business activity “Search Engine Marketing” or shorter just “Search Marketing”. So that becomes SEM as an abbreviation but you may want to stay away from SM unless you want to be in a bad semantic neighbourhood (S/M). Now please come to France and we will gladly add the term “référencement” to the lot.

The word “référencement” is so different from what you call SEM, SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) or SEA (Search Engine Advertising) or direct translations of those words into other languages that it may be useful to explain the origins of it. Watch out, though, the word may be trademarked by Jean-Pierre or Sylvain.

To understand the origin of the word we need to rewind to offline and look at retail marketing. Back to supermarkets and the retail systems which are of course part of a grand French tradition. In the retail economy, the producer of goods will sell products to the retail chain and will dispute its positioning in the supermarket aisle. You actually do not want to be at the top, rather in the middle to where the shoppers eye will be naturally oriented. In order to be in the category, the producer will need to be “referenced” with the retailer. Now transposed to the world of search engines, in order for the content producer to dispute his position in the search results he first needs to be “referenced” in the index. Hence the word “référencement” and the awkward translations into “search engine referencing” that you would sometimes run into.

With such a simple explanation and easily understable concept the term became versy strong at least in early years of Search Marketing. But then Paid Search came along and made it all impossible to communicate. Paid Search is “référencement payant” (19 chars) and SEO is “référencement naturel” (20 chars) or “référencement organique” (22 chars). Try fitting that into the menues of your website or write it in an sms!

So, today terminology is broken. The French will refer to Paid Search as SEM and the French-speaking Belgians will call it SEA (Search Engine Advertising) and then perhaps add the word “référencement” in the text.

Overall, it seems that the international abbreviations of “SEO” and “Search” are winning some ground in France but it may take some more years before we finally get it coined.

In the mean time, new agencies like my own will rather target terms like “agence search” (search agency) than stick to “référencement” like the somewhat older breed. Check out Google Insights:

Hey, Google say we are right in BDBL – can you beat that?

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Anders Hjorth is a digital native, entrepreneur and a frequent speaker on Search Marketing. He is now the President of BDBL MEDIA (formerly Relevant Traffic France), a Digital Marketing agency based in Paris. Prior to launching BDBL MEDIA, Anders was the COO at GroupM Search in EMEA and heading the Outrider brand. Anders was one of the founders of Relevant Traffic and before that he worked across: SEO, Paid Search, Affiliate business, webdevelopment and hosting, buzz generation, domain names, consulting and management. Within online marketing Anders has a preference for Search. Why? Well it is extremely efficient and then of course it is non-intrusive. Anders has a blog on www.innovel.com

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