What Is Search Engine Marketing & Optimisation? (SEM & SEO)

Search Engine Marketing & Search Engine Optimisation, commonly referred to as SEM & SEO, have become something of a hot-potato since around 2003, as they have the potential to make or break any online business.

SEO essentially refers to techniques of on-site web-page code optimisation, as well as the creation of off-site factors that will influence the organic (non paid for) SERPS (Search Engine Results Pages).

SEM normally refers to specific marketing strategies through the Search Engines to advertise and promote your site & pages. SEO is really a subset of SEM, with SEM having a wider scope and including Pay-Per-Click (PPC) traffic, content marketing and social-media etc.

SEM is often used to classify all types of online marketing efforts - even those that aren't search-engine based, but this is a misuse of the term. If you're advertising with a banner on the web-pages of the Guardian newspaper for instance, then this is media-buying or banner advertising, not SEM or SEO.

SEO Overview

SEO traditionally includes 2 main factors:

  • On-site optimisation of pages to increase their likelihood of being displayed in the natural SERPs. This takes into account factors such as page title, use of headings and internal hyper-linking, keyword usage, content management and site structure.
  • Off-site creation of 'backlinks' pointing to your web pages. In very simple terms, these count as 'votes' towards your pages appearing in the SERPs. Backlinks can be gotten from many sources, and most search-engines see any kind of manipulation or attempt to increase these for commercial gain as 'Grey Hat' or 'Black Hat' SEO.

To all intents and purposes, true 'White Hat' SEO - as defined by the search-engine's themselves - involves basically doing nothing external to affect your rankings, and simply producing a 'good' site and waiting for links to come. In the real world, White Hat SEO is generally seen as any original and controlled quality content distribution which can generate you backlinks. The minute you move towards a more aggressive distribution - or using highly automated/spammy methods - with lower quality or repetitive content, you become Grey Hat.

Black-Hat also has several levels; it starts with using automated services to generate large volumes of spam backlinks, and often encroaches on illegal/immoral activity designed to defraud people or companies - but this is at the extreme. It should be said that a lot of commercial SEO is, by necessity, in the Grey-Hat camp (particularly in aggressive sales niches) - with many Grey/Black-Hat SEO practitioners being respectable business-people!

Pre 2006, Google was wide-open for SEO abuse, but over the next 3 years they closed the vast majority of loop-holes. From 2009 onwards their algorithm became increasingly complex and intelligent, until today there is very little room for 'gaming' the system.

You will often hear of 'Google Slaps/Penalties' inside the SEO world, which is the term for when Google make an algorithm change which adversely affects sites that have been exploiting ranking loop-holes.

It should be noted that both small and very large sites and companies have been affected by 'Google Slaps'. In an online global market worth Trillions, the motivation for companies to seek increased search-engine placement is ever-present. Moving from No 11 in the SERPs to No 3 can literally be the make-or-break of a business or campaign. Today, SEO strategy needs to be planned medium-long term, to ensure you constantly move forward without the negative effect of 'slaps'.

PPC (Pay Per Click) Overview

PPC was originally made famous by Google Adwords. Originally it was quite a breakthrough to be able to only pay for a customer to see your offer when they were specifically interested. (This removed all the other people that you used to have to pay to advertise to ā€“ targeting the ones that were searching for your keywords.)

PPC costs were low at the start ā€“ as they were based on open market bids which had no maturity. These rose over time according to what the market said was a reasonable price to pay. Essentially, the demand defined the price.

Unfortunately, the connection between cost and profitability (ROI ā€“ Return on Investment) has been completely lost for many keywords that you'd hope to bid for. Because of inexperienced users and agencies driving the CPC (Cost Per Click) prices up, (plus many large companies over-bidding - and bidding on whole groups of keywords at the same level - even though keywords vary hugely in their ROI), many keywords now cost more to obtain a click for than the profit you'd make if you sold to them! (And that's without taking into account how many clicks you needs to generate a solid lead ā€“ and how many leads you need to make a sale.) This generally means that you need a reasonably high-margin product to make PPC effective in terms of ROI.

PPC is now a multi-billion dollar industry, and anyone using it needs a very clearly defined strategy - and someone who knows what they're doing! Otherwise you'll waste a LOT of money. PPC management involves careful monitoring of keywords & traffic, split-testing, ad/content/landing-page management and a thorough understanding of keyword bidding strategies.

Pay-Per-Volume (PPV) is similar in concept to PPC, except you pay per ad impression (typically in blocks of 1,000). This can work out cheaper, or much more expensive than PPC, and needs to be tested carefully to monitor traffic, lead generation and conversion for ROI. This would typically include banner advertising - as many publications will expect guaranteed income per ad placement; thus removing their 'risk' of your advert conversion.