SEO and SEM Explained in Plain English For the Non-Tech Business Owner

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is akin to producing a TV commercial. That is, it is PREPARATORY work designed to get the website ready to be marketed, much like how producing the TV commercial involves editing, formatting, and fine tuning. Once the site is optimized, it’s ready to be put out in front of the public’s face (and the search engines). Marketing the site is the process of calling attention to it, and continuing to enhance the presence in front of the viewing audience, just like broadcasting the TV commercial.

Think of it this way: If you produced a TV commercial and only aired it one time, you may receive some business from it, but over time, peoples’ memories fade and no one remembers the commercial. In much the same way, submitting the site to search engines (part of marketing) and creating links from independent sources (organic marketing) should get some initial results. But if the efforts stop there, then a few months later, the effect is gone. Just as you’d think it silly that a business owner complains 6 months later that no one is responding to their TV commercial (that only aired once six months ago), it is equally unrealistic that an SEO project that is marketed one time is expected to deliver results in perpetuity. It simply doesn’t work that way.

Like the TV commercial, the preparatory work to get the website up and running is typically a one-time BIG expense (with periodic adjustments as the market changes) due to the time involvement to do the job… and the time it takes to do the job right depends on several variables: the market (competition and saturation), the goals (local, regional, national exposure), the scope of the site (number of pages, amount of content), etc.

Also like a TV commercial, the marketing and promotion of the site takes comparatively less time to implement, but must be a steady, ongoing process to be effective. It is a shame when a business owner spends the money to optimize their site, and then fails to follow through with “the rest of the job” in terms of marketing it. The initial costs of SEO go wasted in such instances.

Just like with any kind of advertisement, the business owner needs to establish a budget for Search Engine Marketing (SEM). Perhaps they shave bits off of their other marketing methods (brochures, radio spots, yellow pages, newspapers, etc.) to establish their position on the search engines. Dollar for dollar, a properly managed SEM campaign, whether organic or pay-per-click, typically yields a better return on investment (ROI) for the business.

SEO is a pre-requisite to effective SEM. It’s the first part in the SEM process, and involves performing market research, defining and refining keyword phrases to maximize what SEO professionals refer to as “keyword density” and minimize the effects of “keyword dilution.” SEO involves editing links, content, and sometimes structure of a website to get the site prepared for marketing. The SEM promotion of the site can be handled a variety of ways, using several different strategies (both organic and paid-for marketing) to accomplish the same end: getting the site found when someone searches for a particular keyword or keyword phrase. SEO is commonly known to have a direct impact on organic marketing efforts with SEM, but unbeknownst to many business owners (and even some Web developers, the quality of a website’s SEO will often affect the price of pay-per-click marketing as well. For example, keywords used in pay-per-click campaigns through Google AdWords are assigned a “quality score”, and sites that are optimized well will typically yield higher quality scores than poorly- or un-optimized sites. The higher the quality score, generally the lower the price-per-click for an optimized keyword.

A key point to remember about the search engines is that a company’s “competition” is not necessarily its “sworn business rival” down the street or across town that draws from its customers. In terms of search engines, the “competition” is any website, link, document, advertisement, etc. that is ranked above the business’s website, or showing up within a page or two of the business’s search engine listing for a given keyword phrase. This is why proper keyword and market research is so important for effective SEO, rather than simply relying on the words and phrases that intuitively come to mind when a business owner thinks of his or her own products and services. Using the “hardwood floors” example, it is possible that articles and companies about carpentry, arboretums, laminate flooring, and floor wax could all be “competition” on the search engines.

The problem with any kind of marketing is that a business can always spend more money on it. For example, if a billboard company is approached to advertise a company and asked the question, “How much does it cost to advertise my business on billboards?” the answer is likely to be, “It depends on how many billboards you want to advertise on, an where they are located.” A similar response would be offered in reply to someone asking the question, “How much does it cost to advertise in the Yellow Pages?” The answer: “It depends in what city and on how big of an ad you want on the page.” The cost questions pre-suppose that there is some fixed cost to advertisement, which is far from reality. Not all markets are the same, and a business could conceivably spend an infinite amount of money on advertisement. SEM is no different.

At some point in advertising, whether it be via traditional methods or via the Internet, there comes a point where the marginal cost increase in marketing yields a diminishing return on investment. As an extreme example to make this point, let’s assume that a company achieves the Number-One position in the organic rankings on Google for a particular keyword, “hardwood floors”. No matter how much money is spent on promoting the keyword phrase “hardwood floors”, there will be no improvement in the position of that company because they can’t be better than number one. If the position for “hardwood floors” were numbers three and five in Yahoo! And MSN respectively, then spending more money on organic marketing may bring them up to Number-One across the board (there are no guarantees), but those advertising dollars would be much better applied to marketing other keyword phrases that are not quite as prominent yet. In this way, the ROI is part of a “best bang for the buck” consideration in terms of effective SEM.

Search engines generally look at three criteria to determine a website’s placement in the rankings: text features, link features, and traffic (or popularity) features. All three comprise the search engine merit of a website. Website developers generally only exert control over text criteria, meaning the content on the website itself. Taking it further, SEO/SEM experts “wordsmith” the text content on the site and work externally to the website to influence link criteria by creating and adjusting links from relevant content on the Web that point to the site, such as articles, blogs, and other websites. In other words, SEO and SEM address the text and link components of a website. The traffic component of the site’s search engine merit is largely driven by the text and link adjustments. Eventually, if a site is optimized and marketed properly and effectively, the popularity (traffic component) of a website will continue to deliver placement results over time and allow the business owner to reduce their organic marketing budget, or perhaps realign those marketing dollars to focus on a different set of keyword phrases.

The business’s budget will largely determine how that company’s SEO and SEM strategies are prioritized and implemented, so it is important that the search engine optimization and marketing company is provided with limits. If a business owner doesn’t know how much they want to spend on SEO & SEM, then it is smart to discuss options in a consultation and perhaps offer the business owner a “good, better, best” style of initial proposal for the scope of work that is defined. Surprisingly, most businesses can achieve favorable results with a fairly modest budget if they find a competent SEO and SEM company. That is, there are a lot of people and companies “practicing” SEO/SEM in the market place, but comparatively few that are proficient in it. Due to this, it’s always advisable that the business owner insist on references of demonstrated results from a portfolio of other clients, rather than just make a decision on price alone.

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