What is SEM, and Why Should You Care?

(Originally published in Small Business Computing, November 30, 2009)

Technology insiders tend to throw around technical terms and business jargon, assuming people outside the industry understand what it all means. By its nature, technology vocabulary is often confusing and complicated, and insiders often add to the confusion by over-complicating things. To help add a sense of clarity to the confusion, each month, Laurie McCabe, a partner at Hurwitz & Associates (a business consulting firm), will pick a technology term, explain what it means in plain English, and then discuss why it may be important to you. This month, Laurie takes a look at search engine marketing.

What is Search Engine Marketing?

Search Engine Marketing (SEM)is an umbrella term that describes the different methods you can use to make your Web site more visible on search engines so that you can drive more traffic to your site. SEM blends organic search engine optimization (SEO) with paid search or pay-per-click (PPC) advertising to increase exposure for your Web site.

SEO focuses on designing and optimizing your Web site so that your site will rank higher within the organic search results pages—the list of Web sites that pop up when you conduct a search. Basically, search engines such as Google or Bing look at a page and try to decipher the most important or relevant information on the page. SEO revolves around figuring out what keywords people will use when they are looking for the types of services and/or products you provide, and using these in your Web pages and content so that search engines accurately index your site and people can easily find it. When you use SEO techniques, you are not paying search engines to appear or move up on their site, you are simply optimizing your content so that it will naturally place higher in search results.

In contrast, paid search or PPC advertising involves paying search engines so that your site appears as a sponsored link in the small text adds that appear on the top and right hand side of a search results page—think Google AdWords. While it is free to display your ad on Google or another search engine, you pay the search engine vendor every time someone clicks on your link. The search engine vendor positions your site on the results page based on a combination of how much you are willing to pay-per-click, and a subjective quality assessment of how important your ad is in relation to others on the page. This quality measurement includes things such as the percentage of clicks on your ad and how many times the search term appears in your ad.

Why Should You Care?

What good is your Web site if you’re not driving traffic to it? You invest in a Web site to help educate and promote your products and services to prospects and customers. But, if people can’t find it, you will not get the kind of results you want form your Web site.

Both organic and paid search techniques can help you drive traffic, but each method has different plusses and minuses. For instance, cost per click is less for organic SEO than with a PPC approach. While you invest time (and maybe money, in the form of an SEO marketer or a service) to optimize natural search results, you’re not paying the search engine vendor for every click-through. In addition, people click on organic search engine results much more frequently than they click on PPC ads, because of where they appear on the page.

On the other hand, a PPC campaign can typically ramp up traffic to your site much more quickly than organic SEO. So, if time is of the essence—say you need to drive holiday sales—PPC is likely to help you get better results.

Many businesses find it most effective to combine both SEO and PPC approaches. For example,PPC enables to you to quickly test keywords to see which search terms work, and which don’t. As you discover which terms work best in a PPC campaign, you can also incorporate them into your organic SEO approach.

What to Consider

Web searches are becoming the top way for both consumers and businesses to research and shop for products and services. Consequently, small businesses are rapidly shifting their marketing initiatives from traditional media to digital marketing media tools, including SEO and SEM.

These marketing tools are often less expensive to use than traditional marketing options such as print advertising and direct mail. A small investment can help companies significantly boost marketing reach and return. SEO and SEM give small businesses more visibility into whether they’re reaching their target audiences, easier ways to track and measure payback on their efforts, and the ability to rapidly adjust and refine campaigns and outreach as needed.

However, search engine marketing techniques involve both art and a science, and are evolving at a rapid pace. What works today won’t necessarily work tomorrow. To stay ahead of the competition, consider services that are tailored to your specific market and needs. For instance,

Lotusjump provides a service to help small businesses optimize organic search results for hundreds or thousands of keywords to generate more qualified leads. The automated service automates the process of building more qualified leads based on more specific “longtail” search terms. So if have a retail business, you can create keywords specific to the hundreds or thousands of products that you sell.

Own a bakery or tree service business? If you do, everything is local, and services that help to reach the local market are what you care about. WebVisible, for instance, buys advertising space from multiple media providers and ad networks, and provides many types of online marketing solutions, including fully managed search advertising, banner/display advertising, call tracking solutions, custom landing pages, promotional URLs and more. Using the WebVisible platform, small businesses can target local advertising more effectively. Yodle, meanwhile, focuses on local services businesses, helping them to create a Web site, develop an effective SEO campaign across the Web, and help make the phone ring when the business is found through a Web search.

The Web is becoming our virtual shopping mall. Small businesses that make an investment into understanding different types of organic and paid search approaches and using those most relevant to their business will have a big advantage in bringing in traffic.

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