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What is search engine marketing?

What SEM really is...and ISN'T

Many people have different definitions of the term search engine marketing (SEM). Even search professionals disagree with each other, including representatives from the commercial web search engines. I am not surprised that the average shopper for search engine marketing services is confused with all of the information being reported on this topic, both on- and offline. Which leads me to the question:

I'm confused. What is the difference between search engine optimization and search engine marketing? Aren't they the same thing?

It is quite common for people (including journalists and even search professionals themselves) confuse the terms "search engine marketing" and "search engine optimization." Search engine optimization is a one type of search engine marketing. Search engine advertising is another type of search engine marketing.

One of the most widespread beliefs about search engine marketing (SEM) is search engine advertising equals search marketing. If your online marketing firm runs advertising campaigns on Google, the firm must specialize in SEM, right?

Although this belief is common, it's hardly accurate. As I said previously, search engine advertising is only one component of the search marketing process. Marketing campaigns involve branding, sales, customer service, distribution, trade shows, radio, TV, direct mail, and so forth. And advertising, too. So when hiring an SEM company, be sure it provides a variety of services, not only advertising.

Search engine marketing encompasses a number of different skills, including but not limited to:

Search engine advertising

Generally speaking, pay-per-click search engine programs (such as Google AdWords) are one form of search engine advertising.

Search engine advertising includes sponsorships, pay-for-placement (PFP) advertising, and maybe contextual advertising. I'm a big fan of Matt Wagner at FindMeFaster. He knows more about search engine advertising and pay-for-placement programs than almost everyone in the industry: pay and you're guaranteed top placement in a search engine's results both on the search site and within its distribution network as long as your ads and landing pages meet quality guidelines.

Successful search engine advertising campaigns depend on five main factors:

  • Keyword selection
  • Bid price
  • Ad copy
  • Ad distribution
  • Effective landing pages

But that's not all there is to search engine advertising. All PPC programs have rules. You can't just purchase any keywords you want to purchase and write any ad you want. Representatives from the search engines must approve your ads and the landing pages, which are the pages users "land" on after they click on your ad.

Therefore, for this type of search engine marketing, a qualified person should know how to perform keyword research, make keyword purchase recommendations, write/test ads, create/test landing pages, measure results, and monitor.

In the web search industry, many search engine marketing professionals typically specialize ONLY in search engine advertising.

If it sounds like a lot of work, it can be. Some businesses do quite well without having to spend thousands of dollars on search engine advertising. Some businesses require more research and testing. If you find that your search engine advertising campaign is taking up a great deal of your time, then hire a specialist. Search engine advertising professionals are often more efficient than marketers who have multiple job responsibilities.

And remember, in our industry, search engine marketing specialists typically specialize ONLY in search engine advertising. I would be wary of taking search engine optimization (SEO) advice from a person or firm who does not have a firm grasp of the art and science of SEO.

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Search engine optimization

Search engine optimization is designing, writing, coding (in XHTML), and programming your entire web site so that there is a good chance that your web pages will appear at the top of search engine queries for your selected keywords and key phrases. Search engine optimization is optimizing for people who use search engines, NOT optimizing for search engines only.

The fundamental building blocks of a search engine optimization are:

  • Keywords and labels
  • Accessibility and navigation (includes information architecture, design, layout, technical format) - a user-friendly site navigation scheme and URL structure that search engines can crawl
  • Validation in the form of bjective, third party link development and social signals
  • Accommodating searcher behaviors - pages/documents actually appear at the top of search listings based on searcher goals and behaviors

SEO mostly applies to XHTML-coded pages specifically but can include other page types such as PDF and Word documents.

Search engine optimization is optimizing for people who use search engines, NOT optimizing for search engines only.

At the core of optimization is keyword research. In order to obtain search engine visibility, you must use words and phrases that your target audience is typing into search queries. Keyword phrases must be carefully selected and placed strategically throughout your site. These keyword phrases must appear somewhat frequently and prominently on your web pages.The results of keyword research can also be used for planning pay-per-click search engine campaigns.

Optimization also involves allowing search engines easy access to your keyword-rich content. That can be done by creating a search-engine friendly web site, which is often the least expensive option. Or sites can give access to content by participating in paid inclusion or feed programs.

Remember, search engine optimization is part art, part science. An expert SEO professional has both technical and creative skills. Some SEO firms only specialize in one portion of of the optimization process, such as link development firms.

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Link development and social media optimization (SMO)

Since link popularity has become increasingly important for obtaining and maintaining search engine visibility over the years, some search engine marketing firms specialize primarily in link development. There are many ways to generate links to a web site, both good ways and bad ways (search engine spam).

One credible means of link development is getting your web site listed well industry-related sites. In fact, I often begin all search engine optimization campaigns with the keyword research and an industry analysis. High-quality links are often one of the quickest ways to get initial search engine visibility.

A qualified search engine optimizer who specializes in link development can help you build quality content, create a link policy, and manage link requests.

Social media optimization (SMO) is not search engine optimization, even though the sales and marketing people who promote this service want you to believe it.

Here are a couple of things to remember about link development firms:

  • One indicator of an amateur SEO firm is one who continues to promote that PageRank is a number between 1 and 10.

  • Social media optimization (SMO) is not search engine optimization, even though the sales and marketing people who promote this service want you to believe it. Social media optimization can, however, be part of a link development strategy.

  • Link development is an ongoing, iterative process, not a one-shot deal.

  • If a link development firm is promising instant link popularity, steer clear. You are probably dealing with a firm who engages in search engine spam.

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Specialized search engine optimization

There are many different types of specialized search engines, including but not limited to:

  • Shopping
  • Image
  • Video
  • Audio/music
  • Local
  • Mobile
  • Social media

Some of these search engines are standalone search engines. And some of these search engines are part of a large commercial web search engine, part of the blended search emergence.

Not all businesses need every type of specialized search engine optimization. In addition, there are optimization generalists and specialists. For example, search engine marketing firms that specialize in video search might not be a good firm to use for search engine advertising, and vice versa.

To find the search engine marketing firm that's best for your business, analyze your site's needs. Don't fall for the latest and greatest search engine marketing buzzword of the month.

Be realistic. If you're unwilling to modify the site design and copy, a search engine advertising campaign might be your most viable option. If you're in the process of redesigning and rewriting your site, a firm that specializes in SEO is probably your best choice. Shop around for the firm that suits the needs of your online presence.

 

Shari Thurow - photoArticle by Search Engine Visibility author Shari Thurow, Founder and SEO Director at Omni Marketing Interactive, a full-service search engine optimization (SEO), web site usability, information architecture (IA) and web design firm. Shari is also the co-author of When Search Meets Web Usability.

If you would like permission to publish this article for your online newsletter, blog, or web site, please fill out our contact form or call us at 847-426-4256.

For more information about our search engine optimization, search usability training, and site design services, please fill out our contact form or call us at 847-426-4256.

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