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When it comes to fleshing out their digital marketing strategy, many business owners tend to conflate Search Engine Optimization (SEO) with Search Engine Marketing (SEM). The confusion is understandable, but it’s important to remember there is a big difference between the two.

While SEO focuses on making sure your website has the appropriate keywords in all the right places, SEM focuses on using paid advertising to improve where your business appears in search engine results.

Untangling SEO from SEM and Vice Versa

While SEO and SEM are two different approaches to utilizing the power of search engines to bring visitors to your website, they are closely tied together because they actually work hand in hand. SEO focuses on building website traffic organically, while SEM focuses on delivering website traffic directly through paid placements.

When it comes to search engines, the elephant in the room, of course, is Google. It’s a pretty big elephant. As of 2019, Google owns 92.95% of all searches on the web. That equates to about 63,000 searches per second, so when we discuss SEO and SEM, what we’re really talking about is Google optimization and Google marketing. Regardless of what search engine you’re targeting, however, your SEO and SEM strategies should focus on Google’s best practices if you want traffic.

So, how do SEO and SEM work? Google has a whole list of criteria it wants brands to use in order to rank organically, and it mostly involves keyword placement. In the old days of the web, you could “keyword stuff” by just adding a bunch of relevant keywords to any given page and changing the font color to the color of your page (white in most cases) to get keyword love from Google. Those days are over. Google’s algorithm is quite sophisticated now, so you have to employ “white hat” techniques if you want to stay in Google’s good graces.

On-Page SEO

On-page SEO should really be called “on-site” SEO because it refers to the SEO tactics you’ll use on your website. For on-page SEO, it’s a good idea to develop a “focus keyword” for each of your pages. “Keyword” is a bit of misnomer here because what you really want to use is a specific keyphrase that’s unique to that page. Google likes it when each of your pages has its own keyphrase, because it helps the algorithm clearly identify where to send traffic, and it cuts down on any potential confusion for Google’s web crawler. You want to make sure you’re including the phrase in your headline, your subheads, the first paragraph of your article or page, and in the meta information (which includes the meta title, the meta description, and the metadata on images, etc.). While there is a lot more to on-page SEO (such as meeting a 300-minimum word count for all articles, installing an SSL certificate, and disavowing spammy backlinks), keyword placement is the most critical.

Off-Page SEO

Another organic ranking factor that Google prioritizes is backlinks to your website. These are links to your content from other pages (hence the term “off-page” SEO). When someone links to your site, it tells Google that your content is important and relevant, and that increases its value to other users. Google likes to promote valuable, user-friendly content. Getting backlinks isn’t easy, however. The best way to do it is by participating in digital conversations on the web and (very importantly) linking to other pages in your own content. Offer comments on blog posts and social media posts and engage other website owners directly. Take opportunities to guest blog or start an off-site blog on social media sites like LinkedIn or Medium, and link to the content on your website. The more you engage, the more you’ll elevate your web presence and get Google to notice.

Check out this SCORE article on SEO basics for more information about how to optimize your site for search.

SEM - Paid Search Basics

SEM, which is also known as paid search, is a little more complex because it involves audience targeting and keyword planning and bidding. Keyword research is a big part of SEO and SEM, and Google’s keyword planner tool can help you identify which keywords to go after.  The tool will actually give you a bid range so you can identify which keywords will cost more (hint—broader terms will almost always be more expensive) and it’ll give you keyword-related trends and forecasts.

It’s worth mentioning that long-tail keywords aren’t just less expensive than those broader terms you might be tempted to target initially; they also provide much greater value, because they typically demonstrate higher user intent and focus. Long-tail keywords are typically defined as any search term greater than three words. So, for example, if you’re targeting people who want to buy office furniture from your store, your results will be better if you choose to target “solid wood office furniture near me” instead of simply “office furniture.” This level of keyword specificity allows you to narrow your audience to people in your area who are looking for the particular kind of office furniture you sell. This way, when the search engine delivers traffic to your page, you know your visitors are prequalified and more ready to engage than casual web surfers. So, long-tail keywords are cheaper and more effective! Who doesn’t like that?

Once you’ve developed a list of keywords that will work for your brand, you can start creating audiences to target.

Google and other search engines allow you to create audiences to target using an audience manager. You can upload customer or prospect lists, remarket to people who have visited your website in the past, and target search engine users based on interest categories.

The goal of SEM is to make sure your brand or business winds up at the top of the search engine results page for certain terms, regardless of where your site ranks organically. The more you spend, the better you’ll perform.

The Rise of Local Search

In the past few years, Google and other search engines have given increased attention to local search results. Google’s use of the “knowledge panel” has gained marketing ubiquity and claiming one for your business is important. You do this through the use of Google My Business, which is focused entirely on your brand or business. Local search allows you to compete with bigger brands and competitors by focusing your SEM efforts on a closer geographic area. Check out this SCORE webinar for more information about local search.

SEM and SEO Working Together

When a person clicks on one of your search ads, they’re going to be directed to your website. All of your targeting, planning and research go out the window if the person is greeted by a slow website with poorly written content that isn’t secure or relevant. If your site isn’t optimized properly, even the best ads won’t keep people on your site, and you won’t achieve the outcomes that you’re paying for.

If you’re looking for digital marketing help and guidance, look no further than SCORE. Our seasoned mentors offer subject matter expertise on just about any topic, business type, or strategy, and best of all, it’s free! Reach out to a SCORE mentor today to put your business on the digital map!

About the Author(s)

Bridget Weston

Bridget Weston is the Acting CEO of the SCORE Association, where she provides executive leadership and works directly and collaboratively with the Board of Directors to establish the vision and direction of SCORE.

Acting CEO, SCORE
SEO and SEM on keyboard