Motivation: Characterizing the binding specificities of transcription factors (TFs) is crucial to the study of gene expression regulation. Recently developed high-throughput experimental methods, including protein binding microarrays (PBM) and high-throughput SELEX (HT-SELEX), have enabled rapid measurements of the specificities for hundreds of TFs. However, few studies have developed efficient algorithms for estimating binding motifs based on HT-SELEX data. Also the simple method of constructing a position weight matrix (PWM) by comparing the frequency of the preferred sequence with single-nucleotide variants has the risk of generating motifs with higher information content than the true binding specificity. Results: We developed an algorithm called BEESEM that builds on a comprehensive biophysical model of protein-DNA interactions, which is trained using the expectation maximization method. BEESEM is capable of selecting the optimal motif length and calculating the confidence intervals of estimated parameters. By comparing BEESEM with the published motifs estimated using the same HT-SELEX data, we demonstrate that BEESEM provides significant improvements. We also evaluate several motif discovery algorithms on independent PBM and ChIP-seq data. BEESEM provides significantly better fits to in vitro data, but its performance is similar to some other methods on in vivo data under the criterion of the area under the receiver operating characteristic curve (AUROC). This highlights the limitations of the purely rank-based AUROC criterion. Using quantitative binding data to assess models, however, demonstrates that BEESEM improves on prior models.