SEO and SEM – The differences

Clients usually can’t comprehend the difference between SEO and SEM, they just look to the developers they’ve hired to build the site and “ensure it ranks on the first page of Google.” This lead to a situation where the client is leaning on a developer for expertise, and the developer simply doesn’t know what they don’t know. It’s for this reason that the terms search engine optimization and search engine marketing are typically interchanged as if they are the same – but guess what … they aren’t!

While search engine optimization handles the on-page aspects that relate to site rankings, search engine marketing (or SEM) can be defined as the set of techniques you can employ outside the context of your site to increase the ranking of a given web page. Search engine marketing is all about creating quality back links to websites, and employing Pay-Per-Click (PPC) and AdWords campaigns, placing banner ads, employing re-marketing services (where a site displays ads to users who’ve visited previously), and utilizing a score of other available techniques to drive traffic to a given page.

Aside from recognizing that SEO and SEM are different sides of the same coin, the distinction is that while SEO is something you can simply do one time on your website (and quite effectively if you create a systematic approach for subsequent content to automatically be properly SEO’d while it’s being added to a site), SEM is an ongoing marketing process which will have no definitive end and requires a decent budget to do well. SEO and SEM require a team effort, a healthy search engine marketing budget is all well and good, but many a frustrated business owner will tell you that they’ve spent far more money than they’d care to admit on PPC, AdWords, banner ads, and any number of techniques that have been promised to be the right solution. These business owners have probably even been patient as many developers and marketers preach but still see inadequate results, and find themselves hemorrhaging time, money, and sanity just by trying to coax people to their website. The reasons for these types of issues are varied: incomplete research, poor websites, inadequate search engine marketing campaigns, a lack of interest in the product or topic in general, or more usually a combination of these factors. However, when you initiate a search engine marketing campaign, it’s crucial to recognize that its success or failure depends on the overall quality of the on-page SEO that you’ve setup throughout your website. Without these two distinct components coordinating to convey the same message, it’s of little consequence how well each one is done; your website’s rankings won’t be going anywhere useful anytime soon.

To help explain the relationship between on-page and off-site optimization, let’s examine a quick analogy to help us illustrate the interactions the two of them have. Visualize yourself standing on a beach with two kites, one of which is absolutely top-of-the-line, aerodynamic, light, and built to collect and utilize wind in the most efficient way possible, maximizing its potential for flight. The second kite, on the other hand, is literally a brick attached to a paper airplane that you tied a string around and proudly decided to attempt to fly. If we were to set both kites down on the sand and observe, we’d likely find that while we may not have much control as to the direction it’s headed, the well-crafted kite would naturally be picked up by even a light wind and go somewhere on its own. The brick-on-a-string, however, would sit in the sand without a hope of meaningful flight.

It should be fairly obvious here that we’re drawing a correlation between a kite’s aerodynamic capacity with the quality of a web page’s on-page SEO. Furthermore, a web page with content that’s actually in demand will be afforded a basic level of organic search engine ranking for relevant keyword searches even if that doesn’t necessarily place it on the first page of Google. So where does search engine marketing fit in?Well, if a kite’s already up and flying on the wind that’s naturally blowing in off the ocean, search engine marketing works to artificially crank that wind up a notch or two. When harnessed and wielded by a skilled search engine marketer, that kite can use the extra wind to fly higher and do all sorts of precise tricks to yield specific results. In this way, effective search engine marketing can enhance properly set-up websites, turning them into profit centers for business.

Sadly, our brick-on-a-string is still out of luck, and no amount of wind short of a hurricane is likely to move it so much as an inch. Even when it does, it’s just as likely to become buried in the sand as it is to take flight in any reasonable way, and control is something that you can just forget about. The point here is that without solid on-page SEO, successful search engine marketing campaigns are inherently doomed from the start. In this way, WordPress itself won’t win you rankings on the first page of Google, but when properly implemented will at least give you the aerodynamic kite you need to have a fighting chance.

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