Let’s assume for a moment that you own a business and want to go about getting people to find it online via search engines. And we’ll also assume that you want to promote awareness about your business via social media venues such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Google+, etc. It is all-too-easy to become immersed in the sea of acronyms and conflicting information related to search engine optimization (SEO), search engine marketing (SEM), and Social Media Marketing (SMM). Often, freelancers and self-proclaimed marketing “experts” even misuse the terms and take important concepts out of context. Add to it the fact that Google endlessly changes their algorithms that determine search engine rankings, and from one month to the next the applicability of the information changes. For the non-technical business owner whose goal it is to spend hard-earned money on a well-targeted campaign for online success, the whole mess of terminology and conflicting information can be exasperating– and perhaps even intimidating.
Let’s put it all into relatively plain language that any beginner can grasp. If a word or two eludes you, don’t worry too much. You’ll get the overall concept. Once you have the basics down pat, you can “graduate” to learning more about each topic in more detail.
Here we go:
Search Engine Optimization, called “SEO”, is a preparatory process of making your website “optimized” for the search engines to properly index the content. When we optimize content for the web, there are some “rules of thumb” that we follow, and there are some absolutes that we follow as prescribed by Google’s own “best practices” standards which Google is kind enough to publicly make available to anyone who cares to do it right. Doing it right is affectionately referred to as “white” hat SEO. Doing it wrong or with the purpose of manipulation and/or exploitation is labeled as “black” hat SEO, much as white and black were colors of hats used in old western movies to represent “good guys” and “bad guys” respectively.
PREPARING the site for proper indexing via proper SEO is the first step in effectively marketing the site. As recently as the year 2010, SEO and SEM were lumped together collectively under the term “SEO”, but since that time, the two disciplines have really come into their own respective realms of strategies, techniques, and methods. SEO is “passive” but essential to the marketing process. It’s very important that a website is optimized well, but not “OVER-optimized”, which is a term used to describe sites that are intended to manipulate search engine results.
Periodically Google makes changes to the rules that website managers (webmasters and marketing people) are to follow. Minor changes are often unnamed, but major changes are typically named to call attention to them, and to categorically address the types of changes being made so web professionals can “talk the talk” and be on the same page with respect to what types of marketing efforts are affected. Some of the Google names for their algorithm changes, for example, are “Caffeine”, “Panda”, and “Penguin”. Cute as these names sound, they each encompass a set of rules and criteria that are affected by the change. For instance, the most recent Penguin 2.0 change will impact over-optimized sites in the search engine rankings.
Optimization generally involves adjusting text and link characteristics of a website to include text position, keyword choices, site structure, page titles, keyword density, keyword dilution, and many additional considerations. That’s where the rules-of-thumb and absolutes come into play. Again, Google provides pretty clear guidance on what’s acceptable and what are considered no-no’s.
SEM is Search Engine Marketing. It’s the active process of promoting a site on the search engines. If a site is marketed without first being optimized to some extent, then the site is being promoted without being properly prepared, sort of like broadcasting a TV commercial without editing it to clean it up.
SEM comes in two basic flavors: subscribed and organic.
Subscribed SEM includes things like pay-per-click, pay-per-impressions, pay-per-placement, etc. Sites that use paid links to promote the site will take a hit with Penguin 2.0 if the links are determined to be spammy links.
Think of subscribed SEM as similar to term life insurance: you’re “covered” as long as you pay your premiums (assuming ethical link sources), but when you discontinue your monthly payments, your search engine presence from subscribed marketing sources simply goes away, just like a term policy lapses if you quit paying your premiums.
Organic SEM, on the other hand, is achieved by creation of additional, independent web content such as blogs, articles, online press releases, videos, directory submissions, landing pages (not “doorway” pages), proper page mapping, and many more elements of unique, original content. Each of the organic marketing content must also be optimized prior to employing them for marketing purposes. You can see where this can become a time-involved process.
Organic SEM is not a “busy work” effort to put a bunch of junk up on the web with keywords and links. It involves creating value-added content that is appealing and useful to people who do keyword searches for the topics you want your site to be found under, so there is dual relevance: Information for people, and keyword merit for search engines to sink their teeth into. The marketing content must be original, meaningful, and unique. The value of the organic SEM to your business is that there is a connection of links that point from one source to another, funneling traffic to your site and elevating your site’s rankings in search engines due to quality link merit as well as the resulting traffic component of the web content. Again, there are rules-of-thumb and some absolute “dos and don’ts” related to organic SEM. Think of organic SEM more like a whole-life insurance policy– There are costs to do the marketing, but over time the accumulation of the original, independent web content doesn’t go away, and the end result is often times PERMANENT (or relatively solid) staying power for your website and content-much like how in a whole life policy, the cash value eventually generates enough interest to cover the premiums.
The up-side to subscribed SEM is that it’s relatively instantaneous, though typically more expensive. The down-side is that it is short-lived for the money you spend. It goes away as fast as it started.
The up-side to organic SEM is that (if it is done properly) it is effective in producing long-term, residual results that drive a positive return on investment while saving money. The down-side is that it can take longer to get established depending on market saturation, industry type, geo-targeting, and several other factors.
BIG caution here: The SEO/SEM and SMM fields are ridden by fraud and deception. Since it’s essentially advertising, there’s no ethical guarantee that a service provider can legitimately make for specific page placement or results. If you think about it, that makes sense. There are only 10 organic spots on Google’s page 1 for a given set of keywords. So assuming that there are more than 10 companies worldwide (as well as other content that relates to your industry) that do what you do, and assuming that at least 11 of them are also paying for marketing, how can an SEO/SEM provider “guarantee” page 1 results for a particular search term? In short, they can’t– Not ethically, at least. But that doesn’t stop many of the THOUSANDS of freelancers and SEO companies out there from making “empty promises in the dark”.
Even subscribed marketing isn’t guaranteed. Someone else can potentially come along and be willing to pay more money for the spot you want. Regarding SEO and SEM, in a nutshell, it’s “buyer beware”. Everyone wants your money. Trust no one based on just their say-so. You need to be comfortable and confident in the relationship with the provider you choose, as well as the track record they’ve established with other clients. The proof is in the pudding, so to speak. Don’t make the mistake that many business owners do and make an emotional “buy” decision based on a sales pitch full of promises. Talk is cheap. Make sure whoever you are considering is able to show you meaningful results from a portfolio of other clients. Lots of people read a book and can “talk the talk”. Remember: this is YOUR business and YOUR marketing dollars… so the provider you pick needs to prove themselves to earn YOUR confidence.