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Search Engine Marketing Overview

September 3rd, 2017


Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

The process of gaining traffic and visibility from search engines and social media services through both paid and unpaid efforts; it can include Search Engine Optimization (SEO), pay per click (PPC), as well as related marketing tactics such as Google’s remarketing.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

SEO focuses on increasing website traffic and visibility “organically” … i.e., without explicitly paying for individual ads. There are two areas of SEO:

On-Site SEO
Optimal setup of a website and its server to ensure that search engines have full access can understand, and index a site’s content. Note: On-Site SEO is the only portion of SEM directly controlled by your website’s developer and content manager.

Off-Site SEO
Marketing efforts with the intention of developing backlinks from credible/authoritative sites in the same or complimentary industries to increase the authority of a website thus increasing the likelihood it will list higher in the organic listings on a Search Engine Result Page (SERP).

Pay Per Click (PPC) e.g. Google AdWords

Short advertisements that are displayed to search engine users based on the keywords you specify. PPC ads are typically displayed above the organic listings on a SERP. The price you pay is determined by bidding on your desired keywords. The more competition for your keywords the higher the bid price. You pay only when a user clicks on your ad after which they are directed to a landing page you specify to continue the sales process.

Google AdWords Remarketing (aka Ad Retargeting)

Remarketing is the use of cookies to track those users who have visited your website and presenting those users with ads, when possible, on other websites they visit. You only pay when a user clicks on those ads, but all the impressions up until then are free. Remarketing is a powerful and effective tool as creates multiple impressions with your prospects well after they’ve left your site.

Search Engine Results Page (SERP)

The results page a search engine displays after a search term is entered. A SERP includes results for both organic results (unpaid / via SEO) as well as sponsored results (the product of PPC). In addition, SERPs may also contain elements such as Google’s Instant Answers, Google Local listings, Google Maps listings, as well as other elements. The space and prevalence of organic results on Google SERPs have been decreasing over time as more SERP space continues to be allocated to PPC and other features.

SEM Strategies and Trends


Consistent, reliable, and predictable demand generation using only SEO has become increasingly difficult due to the massive amount of content on the Internet. It can be most effective for sites with a large amount of well-targeted content, or for sites with very specific targets. For example, the keyword “dentist” would be extremely difficult and costly to generate demand using SEO, whereas the keywords “dentist, implants, Chiloquin Oregon” would be relatively easy and inexpensive.

For any website, there is no reason on-site SEO best practices should not be implemented. The cost is low, and proper on-site optimization helps ensure the best readability for users and includes some crossover benefits for web accessibility. However, for many sites, returns on SEO demand generation quickly diminish due to the high cost of writing and publishing high-quality content on a continual basis. The amount, quality, and frequency of such content is the primary long-term determiner of a site’s authority and thus higher SERP listing.

Another major problem with using SEO for demand generation is that organic SERP listings are controlled by the ever changing and proprietary criteria of Google and other search engines and can be subject to subterfuge by competitors. You never have control or assurance that your current SERP listings will not change and you have no direct control over the process. For example, major updates by Google of their criteria have resulted in dramatic changes in SERP listings almost overnight.

Paid SEM (PPC and Remarketing)

Paid SEM offers the benefits of speed, control, testing, and predictability. Any website can pay to immediately bypass the years their competitor may have invested into establishing their SERP listing. Paid SEM puts campaign control directly into the hands of an organization rather than be subject to the determination of a third party and allows the fine tuning and testing with almost immediate results for adjustments and optimizing a campaign so that a cost per impression and return on investment can be calculated.  Paid SEM takes advantage of the trend of search engines to provide more prominence on SERPs to paid listings and offers opportunities to expand your demand generation off just your website. Paid SEM takes a significant financial commitment over time for success, which is also true for SEO. Paid SEM campaigns have the disadvantage of not directly building a site’s authority or establishing SEO equity. A year’s worth of SEO strategy would build equity whereas when a paid SEM campaign ends there is no direct equity built. However, increased paid traffic to a site can indirectly benefit SEO depending on the perceived value of the content on a site from those visitors who may in turn reference the site, producing organic backlinks. As it’s a common question, be aware that Google AdWords does not allow you to hijack search traffic for your competitor’s name or product names (assuming they are trademarked).

Which is best, SEO or paid search marketing?

This question is irrelevant if the messaging, usability, and value of your website is first not fine-tuned. Your website should be structured with your prospects and users in mind only (not search engines) so that it concisely presents your value proposition, firmly establishes your credibility, addresses potential objections, and provides an effortless path through your sales cycle. When a site’s messaging and content is optimized for your human prospects and users, you will have created the type of high-quality site that Google wants to provide its customers.

When considering where to put your time and resources into demand generation it’s important to not lose sight of the big picture. There may be other lower-cost opportunities to generate visitors utilizing resources that exist within your organization already or it may be more cost effective for you to put resources into other marketing avenues.

With those considerations in mind, where and how to generate demand through search engines will depend first on how sought after your prospects are by other entities. Your competition will include your direct competitors as well as use by any other industry of your keywords. Unique, low competition, and “long tail” (a part number for example) keywords tend to provide more opportunities for SEO, whereas highly competitive keywords may favor paid SEM.

The best approach will often be a combination of SEO and paid SEM. As mentioned earlier, for all sites there is no reason not to employ on-site SEO regardless of any other factor. In most cases, hiring a reputable and objective consultant to help you map out a strategy and implement a plan will result in a higher return on your investment. Even if you have a web developer on staff, engaging a consultant who is a subject matter expert to provide guidance can be well worth it. Be aware also that there are hordes of predators who market themselves as SEO experts and look to capitalize on misconceptions. The most easily identifiable ones are those who market by spam or phone calls; if they really were SEM experts they would be marketing themselves through search engines. However, even those who do market themselves through other channels should not necessarily be taken at face value. Look for a partner who has been in the business for years and who can provide customer references.


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