Search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) are two terms that you’re probably hearing more and more in your daily marketing activities. While they’re still relatively new, they are definitely terms that you need to be at least somewhat familiar with, primarily because online consumer purchasing statistics continue to skyrocket each and every year, and because small businesses are finally realizing that they’re losing potential revenue every day to their competitors that are actively practicing SEO and/or SEM.

For the sake of explaining SEO and SEM in simple terms, let’s talk about the differences, and the pros and cons of each. More advanced readers will already know that SEO is actually a sort of “subset” of SEM, but we’re going to try and keep it as simple as possible.

SEO

Let’s say you have some sort of e-commerce website that you sell green widgets from. Obviously, the more people that hit your site, the better chance you have of converting them to paid customers, right? Well, one of the first and ongoing major concerns of any small business or individual that wants to tap into online revenue channels is traffic. It’s the same thing as having a brick and mortar style store. If you don’t have that steady flow of foot traffic, you don’t make any money, right?

At some point in time, back in the late 90’s, webmasters started to realize the staggering numbers of people that were using search engines to find websites and more importantly, to find websites that they wanted to purchase items/services from. It didn’t take long before someone thought “hey, if my site ranks higher than my competitors site, then I stand a better chance at getting the potential customer’s business”. It was only a matter of time before webmasters and marketers started hunting for ways to increase their rankings in the search engines, and even though SEO is a constantly changing beast (and it has changed drastically from the early years), there are practices today that remain pretty constant.

Practicing good SEO on your site involves many different processes, and it takes time. The time factor can’t be stressed enough. Too many people give up on SEO after a few weeks or months because they’re not seeing immediate results. Let’s say you wanted to rank in the top 10 results on Google for even a semi-competitive keyword (such as “green widgets”), it would take months and months to see any kind of positive result. Now, keep in mind that when you do put in the time and do everything right, the rewards can be huge. Obtaining one of those valuable top 5 or top 10 results (meaning, when someone searches for your most desired keyword, and your site shows up in the listings on the first page) can pay off tremendously, and at that point, you can start to enjoy the spoils of your hard work (or the hard work that you paid an SEO company to do for you, either way).

To conclude, SEO should be a part of your website marketing strategy (actually, it’s an absolute necessity these days) and whether you do it yourself, or hire a qualified SEO company to do it for you, the payoff will likely be well worth it. There are other factors to keep in mind though, the main one being the overall look and feel of your website. Let’s say you are in fact ranking well in the search engines, and people are coming to your site – but then what? Is your site worthy enough to convert those search users into sales? This is where a lot of people fall short, and wonder why they’re not raking in the dough after they finally achieve good rankings. Internet users, in general, have very short attention spans. If your site can’t capture their attention (and you have in the neighborhood of a few seconds to do that), then your numbers will definitely reflect it. Make sure your site is presentable, clean, sharp, good sales copy, and is able to actually convert searchers into customers.

SEM

Now that we’ve talked a little about the basics of SEO, we can jump across the road and explore SEM (search engine marketing). SEM can encompass many aspects of online marketing, but for the sake of simplicity, we’ll talk about it in the same sense that a majority of webmasters know it as – PPC.

PPC (pay-per-click) is a form of advertising that, by now, you’ve seen a lot of. If you’ve ever been to any of the major search engines, you’ll notice that when you search for a term, such as “green widgets”, the search engine returns your classic list of results down the page, but you’ll also notice that there are other results down the right hand side of the page. Those results are actually ads that other webmasters are paying to have placed there for people searching for their desired keyword.

For example – Let’s pretend that you have a new website that sells chocolate candy. Even if you’ve already started practicing good SEO for your site, chances are good that it will be several months out before you start ranking for any of your target keywords (such as, “chocolate candy”), and in the mean time, you need a way to get your brand and product seen by the massive number of search users every day. That’s where SEM comes into play.

As long as you have the budget for it, even a brand new website can be seen in the search engines from day one. The way it works (going back to the chocolate candy example) is that you would sign up with one of the big search engines – we’ll use Google for example. Their PPC program, which is called “Google Adwords” is the interface you use to get your ad seen in the search engines by bidding on your desired keywords. The way it works is if you want to rank on the first page of Google search results for the keyword “chocolate candy” you would sign into your Adwords account, write a small text ad (like the ones you see on the right side of the search results), and you’ll actually set a “bid” amount for that particular keyword. The higher the bid you set, in general, will determine how high you rank for that keyword. Each time someone clicks your paid ad, you are charged for that click. So if it is costing you .25 cents to rank on the first page for a particular keyword, and you’re willing to spend $10 per day, you stand the chance at getting 40 extra visitors per day to your site. The cool thing is, since the ad was served to the end user through a keyword search, the traffic is typically highly targeted. In simple terms, if someone typed in “chocolate candy” in the search engine, and the end user saw your paid ad – they’re probably clicking on it because they want more information and/or a possible place to purchase chocolate candy. If your website delivers a solution to their problem, then you just landed a new customer.

The possibilities are limitless with PPC – it all depends on your budget. Obviously, the more you’re willing to spend, the more exposure and potential new customers you stand to gain. If you’re confident that your site can convert search users into paid customers, then you may be willing to spend more and more, because in general, PPC is much cheaper than traditional marketing channels. Spending $100 on PPC will almost always get you more potential customers than spending $1000 on a traditional paper mail campaign. Justifying the costs associated with PPC will become very easy once you understand what keywords are working well for you, and how much you’re paying for them. Like anything else in the business and marketing world, it all boils down to ROI (return on investment).

Summary

I know you were just hit with a lot of information, but hopefully it was simple enough for even a beginner to understand. As you would expect, there are more advanced and deeper explanations and theories that go along with SEO and SEM, but this should give you a general understanding of each, and how they’re different from each other. Just in case it didn’t, check out the pros and cons below:

SEO

  1. Time consuming, yet potential huge payoffs in the future. When you finally start to rank well for your keyword, you are essentially getting free traffic from the search engines.
  2. New websites won’t stand a chance at first against competitors that have been practicing SEO for years.
  3. Basic SEO can be done by you, although more advanced and “fast track” SEO can be performed on your site by qualified SEO providers. Again, it still takes time (and potentially a lot of money, depending on what keyword(s) you’re optimizing for).
  4. Slow, but steady in the long run.

SEM

  1. Costs involved up front, but immediate exposure in the search engines.
  2. Gives new websites a chance to compete with long term competitors.
  3. Highly targeted traffic – meaning your ad is served to those searching for whatever keyword you’ve bid on.
  4. Great for branding, and getting a new companies name “out there”.
  5. Costs can be justified when you start converting.
  6. Nearly instant traffic – a basic SEM campaign can be set up and executed within a matter of hours.
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