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SEM and SEO – What’s the Difference?

The most common request we hear when discussing search engine services is, “We want our website in the top ten of the search engines when people type in the phrase ______.” This goal is flawed and full of unrealistic expectations. Sadly, there are plenty of companies that are willing to take your money in response to such a demand. In some rare cases they might be able to fulfill this request, but often by using unethical and inappropriate methods and tricks that – if they do work – only work for a season and often at the cost of hurting a site in the long run.

Not only is the expectation to get a particular site in a particular position for a particular phrase flawed, but it also tends to obscure other benefits to search engine traffic. Getting expectations in line with what can reasonably be accomplished keeps companies from wasting time and money while avoiding frustration that can come from a flawed search engine strategy.

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To straighten out these expectations let’s begin with a couple definitions.

Search Engine Marketing: SEM relates to the purchase of AdWords (or other online marketing media like banner ads). Search engine marketing is very controllable. You decide what you want to spend, which words or phrases you want to purchase, and exactly which page you want your ad to link to.

Search Engine Optimization: SEO relates to the examination of a website to find any technical barriers that might be preventing a search engine from accessing a website’s content, and then identifying the most relevant site content and improving significant elements (primarily the page’s browser title) in order to help the search engine index the content most effectively.

Failure and disappointment follow when companies hire a search engine service to apply SEM expectations to SEO, or vice versa.

Appropriate SEM Goals

If you want search engine traffic directed to your site’s homepage when a specific phrase is used, all you have to do is sign up for an AdWords account (or a Sponsored Search account with Yahoo!) and bid on keywords and key phrases. If you bid enough you can achieve your goal. It’s actually very easy, and very controllable. You decide how much you want to spend. You define exactly which keywords and phrases you want to be listed under. You define the text of your link and exactly which page you want the ad to link to. You can set up site trackers that record and measure the return on investment of your ads. Google has a free analytics system (what used to be Urchin 6 – see June 2005 newsletter) which allows you to establish goals, track effectiveness and monitor all manner of marketing data from your AdWord links.

If We Had Our Druthers

But, as consumers we’d rather not pay for placement if we can get listed in organic results for free. Besides, we all know that the sponsored links are paid for and so we don’t trust sponsored links as much as we do natural ones. Statistics bear this out. Natural links are clicked on seven times more frequently than sponsored ads.

The problem is that we cannot control organic results. We cannot do anything that will guarantee a particular site’s inclusion in organic search results. We certainly cannot control which phrases a search engine will associate with our site, and even if we have success getting a site into a search engine, and we achieve good placement on a given phrase, we cannot control which page in our site that the search engine will link to in its results.

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Whoulda, Coulda, Should Ya?

Suppose for a moment that we could control these things. Suppose I could find a way to get my site to show up on the top of Google for the phrase “web design” or “web development.” Would this be a good thing? I’d like to make a couple arguments that it would not be a good thing. And then, based on these arguments, describe how the inability to get particular homepages top ranking for general phrases actually creates other kinds of opportunities – opportunities we’re blinded to when we’ve set SEM expectations on SEO efforts. True SEO opportunities can actually do more good for your search engine strategy than the perceived good of getting top ranking on a general phrase.

Argument one: If We Had Our Druthers Search Engines Wouldn’t Work

We all tend to think our sites are relevant to our general business categories. But in reality they usually aren’t. For search engines to be useful tools they must strive to be impartial. For example, when a searcher types in a general phrase like web design, my site should not show up. While we are in fact a web design company, the phrase “web design” does not imply that the searcher is looking for us. They might be a web design firm themselves, or they might be looking to become a web designer. Because “web design” is such a general phrase it should bring up the most general information about the topic of web design. As it is, the phrase “web design” appropriately returns lots of sites that teach principles and techniques of web design. If I could control or manipulate their results to get my site in that list it would only mean that the search engine is doing a bad job. And if I could do it, so could others. In the end search engines would be terrible and nobody would use them.

This relevancy reality is true for your clients too. While they might make some pretty darn good widgets, they are probably not the end all, be all, source of information on widgets in the world. The world is a big place and has lots of information in it. I’m always amazed at what detailed knowledge can be discovered about subjects that seem obscure. Consider light bulbs. Do a search on that phrase and you can find out how light bulbs work, collectors of antique light bulbs, the history of its invention, the energy usage of light bulbs, and what appears to be a light bulb fan club site. There are a lot of companies that make and sell light bulbs, but the subject of light bulbs is vast and search engines don’t assume, just because I type in “light bulb” that my intent is to buy one.

The more general a phrase, the less appropriate it is for your site to show up in the results. It’s the way it should be and we shouldn’t try to change it.

Argument two: If We Had Our Druthers We’d Have a Lot of Irrelevant Traffic

A major principle in search engine optimization is to always honor the intent of the searcher. Search engines have a hard enough time trying to glean what a searcher is looking for when they drop a general phrase on them. In our December newsletter (Number One in Google? Not for long…) we talked about the rise of personalized search results that take into consideration an individual’s preferences in determining relevance. This capability is still in its infancy so for now search engines have to make educated guesses about what to return when users type in vague terms like “vacation” and “light bulb” and “web design.” Without more detail they have to return overarching sites on the subjects in view. As a result, the more general the phrase the more general the result, and thus the less likely any of the links will display what the searcher is looking for. So if by some miracle – or more likely some serious flaw – my site were to come up under the term “web design,” it would be very unlikely that the visitor’s intent to discover something about the general subject of web design would be fulfilled by my site. Consequently I might get a whole lot more traffic, but it would not fulfill the searchers intent and they would quickly click away. What good would that be? I’d trade a hundred clicks from Google that only went to one page and immediately left for one click that read a lot of my content and ultimately made contact with us. Wouldn’t you?

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Why This is a Good Thing

If you want to control the occurrences of links and clicks from a search engine then SEM is the way to go. That’s what it’s there for. You choose the phrases. You choose where the clicks go. If you’re selling consumer products, vacation packages, or anything else that a person might purchase directly from a website with a credit card, then SEM is probably the right tool for the job. A good rule of thumb is, the more general your desired key phrase, and the more directly you want to control the link the more you want to use SEM tools like AdWords and banner ads. But if you want organic search engine traffic, you have to let SEM expectations go and instead understand a different kind of opportunity available through SEO strategies. We’ve written a lot about organic search already (especially in May 2005 Who’s Your Homepage? Managing Lateral Website Traffic and April 2004 Search Engine Optimization Strategy). I’ll refer you to these articles in order to contrast SEM expectations with appropriate SEO goals. However, I will reiterate one point we’ve made before.

In a nutshell the main activity in search engine optimization is to give every page a clear, concise, accurate browser title which has been tweaked to anticipate how people search. These kinds of titles usually contain three or four words, sometimes more. These words describe the subject and describe its specific relevance to the searcher.

It is true that longer, less commonly searched phrases generate significantly fewer clicks than commonly searched phrases. But the “stickiness” of common phrases is much less than the “stickiness” of longer search strings. Stickiness is how active a session is after a click, how many pages are looked at, and what actions are taken. The reason longer, less common phrases are stickier than common ones is due to the process people must go through when searching. When I search I start with general phrases and then add and modify my words until I start to get the results I want. So by the time I click, I’ve made several search attempts. And each attempt has narrowed my search terms. So when I finally click a result, I am far more likely to have zeroed in on my subject and find what I’m looking for. If I find what I’m looking for, I’ll explore the resulting site more fully.

Because of this dynamic I am much happier with my clicks from search engines that used search terms like: “website design process,” “web design documentation,” “advantages of website,” “content management process,” and “website development pricing” than I would be with clicks from the phrase “web design.” I am happier with a handful of these sessions than I would be with twenty times as many sessions on a generic term that bounced right off my home page. These sessions are also more valuable because the intent of the searcher (as their terms reveal) is usually fulfilled by our content. They are happy they found it. The searcher gets the relevant information they want and we get a potential future client. The way organic search engine results work matches questions with answers, needs with solutions. And that’s a good thing.

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