Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is the ongoing process of promoting your website on the Internet in attempts to achieve better placement on search engines for your chosen keywords. There are a number of ways SEM can be performed, broken down into two major categories: organic and subscribed.

Organic marketing, if done correctly, covers methods that result in your website being elevated in the natural rankings in search engine results pages. That is, based on the keywords you select, search engines evaluate their relevance to your website based on content and popularity, and your website is assigned a position in the search engine listings above or below your competition’s. Common organic marketing techniques include article writing, blog posting, social media bookmarking, professional network linking, online press releases, and other link-building resources. Done properly and within the webmaster guidelines published by major search engine companies, organic marketing is effective. Done excessively, irresponsibly, or unethically, improper organic marketing is labeled “black hat” and can get your website banned from search engine listings altogether.

Subscribed marketing is marketing which has direct costs associated with specific positions and traffic to your site. For example, some companies operate “directory services” that may include a link to your website based on a particular set of keywords, and you pay for specific positions that your website is listed within their directories. Other subscribed marketing includes pay-per-click ad campaigns involving a fee whenever someone clicks on your particular ad in the search engine results. Similarly, pay-per-impression campaigns charge you a fee based on the number of times your ad is displayed to people in search engine results.

Each category (organic and subscribed) has its pros and cons, and each method within each category has its strengths in lending to good search engine positioning. Too often, though, search engine marketing companies promote their own package deals that are slanted heavily in their best interests rather than yours.

To illustrate a comparison between organic and subscribed, think of SEM in terms similar to how life insurance works.

Organic marketing works like a whole life policy does. The premiums are typically higher than term insurance, but eventually the policy pays enough dividends to cover the premiums, thereby eliminating the need for you to continue paying into it. Likewise, organic search engine marketing can be a bit more expensive in the short-run and takes longer to see results, but once it takes hold and delivers results, you can reduce (or even eliminate) your organic marketing expense for the keywords you chose, and your search engine positioning will tend to remain intact for the long-term. How long it takes to achieve a solid position depends on a number of industry and market factors, but if done correctly, you often can see great placement results for at least some of your keywords within two to three months. Like a whole life policy, if you discontinue your organic efforts you do not lose the entire value of the work performed and the position(s) achieved for each keyword.

In contrast, subscribed marketing is more like term insurance. Term insurance is usually much cheaper than a whole life policy, but there is no cash value in a term policy. In other words, once you discontinue your term coverage, you have nothing left to show for it. It’s designed to be temporary and can be very price-sensitive. By specifying a limited budget for a pay-per-click or pay-per-impression campaign, search engines deliver instant results at a lower cost than a typical organic campaign, but if your money runs out or you decide to stop funding your subscribed marketing efforts, all work is lost and you become instantly “invisible.”

For year-round businesses that want a steady or increasing number of website visitors, the organic campaign is probably the best option. Seasonal businesses may favor the more temporary nature of a subscribed marketing campaign. A word of caution, here: Beware of search engine marketing companies that bind you into a year-long contract for either type of marketing campaign. As a rule of thumb, if a company has to hold you hostage for a year to keep your business, you should probably think twice about signing up with them.

To be effective, your website’s search engine marketing strategy should be customized rather than be packaged into a one-size-fits-all commitment. The SEM arena is one of the few marketplaces where a custom product actually costs you less than a package deal. Factors such as location, industry competitiveness, keyword data, and more should all be considered when developing the custom search engine campaigns for your business. Your marketing plan should also be flexible, allowing you to increase or decrease your budget as needed without arbitrary calendar constraints.

Rule of thumb: If an SEM company attempts to pin you down into “their” package instead of what’s best for your business, shop elsewhere.

It’s very likely that your business needs a combined approach between organic and subscribed efforts. For instance, your marketing budget may be appropriately divided to include a pay-per-click campaign to initially boost your traffic while gradually targeting certain keywords in the natural rankings. Then, once your natural ranking results are favorable, the amount of money originally assigned to pay-per-click traffic can be re-allocated to a different assortment of keywords in order to get wider coverage. The “right” answer for the correct search engine strategy you use will depend on your goals, your target audience, and the variety of factors involved (budget included) with your particular market.

You wouldn’t want to do business with an insurance company which only sold a particular type of term policy or whole life policy, proprietary to their own interests. Nor would you want to do business with an insurance company that told you that you had to keep paying them for some specified number of months or years before you were free to shop for a different insurance product elsewhere. Why, then, would you ever consider binding yourself into a term-contract with a marketing company that only offered one category of service, or that requires you to pay them (regardless of your satisfaction) for a lengthy period of time? It just doesn’t make sense to do business that way.

Another rule of thumb: Your search engine marketing efforts should liquidate their own costs in reasonable time by producing results from the campaigns that you run. Otherwise, your advertising efforts are a money-losing liability, meaning “a bad business decision.” Tobe effective, your campaigns need to be managed and adjusted each month, not just treated as cookbook recipes followed blindly. To verify that you are getting the results you deserve, you should have access to some combination of reports, updates, and analytical metrics (data) displaying your progress from one month to the next. If you do not have access to these kinds of information (presented and explained to you in a plain-language, usable fashion), then your SEM provider is the fox guarding the hen house– NOT a good scenario for your hard-earned advertising dollars.

Success in business depends on good decision making, and good decision making depends on having good information. Get savvy on what is involved with promoting your website properly. Don’t let an SEM sales person pull the wool over your eyes with their own agenda. When it comes to your money, you need to CYA (Cover Your Assets).