SEO vs. SEM: What’s The Difference, Why Does It Matter, And How The Heck Do You Do Them Both?

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Most businesses are familiar with SEO, if only from the standpoint that they know it’s something they need to do and they probably lose sleep over how to do it right. But few make a distinction between the “O” (Optimization) and the “M” (Marketing). They’re related – but different. And how you approach them can make the difference between a successful website and one that floats among the flotsam of the internet hoping to bump up against a customer.

So What’s The Difference?

Optimization is the technique involved in making sure that your website meets search engine guidelines and standards, is ready and available for crawling and indexing, and doesn’t put up any barriers that could prevent it from being crawled and indexed. Optimization, done right, is as close to a one-time-deal as you can get. Yes, things change, and your site will need upkeep, but that’s true of your site as a whole and not just its “optimization”. A good website is an optimized website, by the standards of its time.

No magic, no pixies and fairy dust, no secret sauce. No incessant tweaking of your title tag or the size of your H1s. No $19.99 a month fee for vague but enticing SEO services.

Marketing, however, is where a little of the magic comes in. Marketing is always about the magic – finding customers, meeting them on solid ground, appealing to their needs and desires and ultimately making the sale, whether it’s a product or your service that you’re selling. Marketing is volatile. It depends on so many factors, from the competition to the whims of your customers to the latest social network fad.

Good marketers use a little bit of their own secret sauce to test, fail, test, and try again. Good marketing is less about knowing textbook guidelines and more about intuiting the needs and the direction of a market.

Why Does It Matter?

Optimization and marketing go together like peanut butter and jelly. They may exist independently but when you combine them they are much more delicious.

You can optimize without marketing, but that will only get you so far. Imagine that you’re doing pretty well in the search engines, getting a good amount of qualified traffic because your site is listed well. Now imagine how much better you could be doing if you tried; if you promoted your website via ads, content marketing or social channels.

You can market without optimizing, but you’ll be limiting your potential reach. You could pay for ads all day long but wouldn’t you rather get some of the traffic and exposure for “free” in organic search results?

In a nutshell, SEO is a relatively fixed set of techniques that makes your site friendly for search engines and improves its chance of getting listed well in search results, and SEM is about taking an optimized site and getting a return on it. If you do these two things together you’ll have a much better chance of getting in front of prospects and customers.

That’s Nice, But How Do I Do All That?

First, optimize your website. That means doing all the tried-and-true, search-engine-endorsed things that go into optimization.

  • Do your research. Find the important keywords related to your products or services.
  • Optimize your content. Get those keywords into the page copy and make it sound good.
  • Make those keywords work. We talked about what to do with keywords before. Now it’s time to put it into practice.
  • Check your technology. Make sure there’s nothing that could block a search engine’s access, like Flash.
  • Check your links. It’s important to have a good navigational structure and hierarchy because when we talk about search engines “crawling” what we really mean is “following all those links on your site from one page to the next”. It’s best not to bury pages several clicks down the hierarchy.
  • Clean up your code. Best practices are best practices. If your code is messy, bloated and non-standards-compliant you could be setting yourself up for trouble. The easiest way to avoid this is to run your site through the HTML and CSS validator at the W3C.
  • Improve your speed. One of the things Google takes into account is how fast your site loads. If it’s slow, due to bad code or poorly optimized images, fix it now.
  • Make sure you have a sitemap.xml file. You can “feed” this to search engines to let them know which pages are ready for crawling and indexing.
  • Get advanced. If you’re serious about optimization, talk to your developer about things like 301 redirects and canonical URLs.  Some of these are outside the scope of this article but I want you to be aware that there’s more to an optimized site than throwing a few keywords around.

Awesome, now that you have an optimized site, it’s time to market it!

  • Promote it on social channels. Get out there and do some social networking. Not only can you drive people back to your site, but your social sites can also appear in search engines, building your presence in search results and giving your site more authority. (Need I remind you to put your web address on all your properties so everything links back to your site?)
  • Advertise it. You can do some relatively inexpensive advertising through Google AdWords or similar programs. Pick a budget and try it. It’s an awful lot like optimization. If you pick the right keywords, you’ve got a better chance of showing up in front of the right audience at the right time.
  • Get some inbound links. This is sometimes referred to “off-page SEO” but personally, I feel that this is more about marketing. Getting other (quality, relevant) sites to link to yours is a real search booster.

The Beautiful Nexus Of SEO And SEM

Are you ready for a mind-bending, universe-splitting conclusion? Here’s how you tie optimization and marketing together with a pretty bow: content marketing.

Content marketing is all about getting your content out there into search engines so that not only do you have a home page and an about page and maybe a few service pages floating out there, but you’ve got dozens… nay, hundreds!… of content pages that search engines can list and that you can use to hook prospects and customers.

Great content draws people. Provide informative, entertaining or otherwise valuable content and you’re marketing your business by demonstrating your expertise and professional prowess.

And how do you market your content? By optimizing it. It’s the Mobius strip of marketing. If you write a bit of great content, optimize the page, include great keywords and send it out into search engines, you’ve just closed the loop between the O and the M.

If it sounds like work, it is. But one way or another, you’re going to work. Wouldn’t you rather get the biggest bang for your buck when you do?

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Carol Lynn Rivera

Carol Lynn Rivera

Carol Lynn is a content creator and marketer who has been in the business of digital marketing since 1999. Along with her husband and business partner Ralph, she owns and operates both {Web.Search.Social}, a consulting and marketing services business, and Rahvalor Interactive, a web and creative services production studio. On any given day Carol Lynn will wear the hat of project manager, consultant, social media manager and content marketer. Her true passion is writing, whether it’s web content, a blog post, email campaign or social status update. When she's not writing for customers, {Web.Search.Social}, or her own blog, she's planning her early retirement to Barcelona as a famous and wealthy novelist.
Carol Lynn Rivera
Carol Lynn Rivera
  • http://www.digett.com/ Amy

    Fabulous. I’m especially liking the final section. It’s all about the content marketing. :)

    • http://twitter.com/CarolLynnRivera Carol Lynn Rivera

      Me too. Needs a whole series all by itself!

  • http://www.thewordchef.com Tea Silvestre

    Anytime anyone mentions PB&J in the context of marketing, I’m all ears. Nice explanation of the differences and why/how they work together. 

    • http://twitter.com/CarolLynnRivera Carol Lynn Rivera

      I debated using “peanut butter and chocolate” but decided I’d end up looking for a snack instead of finishing the article :)

  • http://twitter.com/KenPickard Ken Pickard

    Love the post…especially when you tie in a good sandwich! Haha. The points where you mention about marketing vs just SEO is right on. It seems like a lot of people…even big companies and to focused on the HOW to get more traffic instead of the WHY.

    One of my favorite Ted Talks is the one from Simon Sinek. “People Don’t buy What You Do, They Buy Why You Do it” It’s the connection we have with others that keeps them coming around. Build the story and share the journey and we too can make great strides in our online marketing.

    Ken Pickard
    The Network Dad

    A.B.M = Always Be Marketing

    • http://twitter.com/CarolLynnRivera Carol Lynn Rivera

      Thanks, Ken! That’s a great quote. I agree that the “why” is important. SEO is great but it can be kind of a sterile way to market. Companies really need to get past the mechanics and the lure of listings and work on the “marketing” side. Thanks for your input!

  • James Norberto

    Great article… Thanks for the insight.

  • Anonymous

    Definitely a great article with concise explanation.

  • http://forums.webtoolhub.com/ Joe

    Nice explanation. As a conclusion, The keyword research and its proper use is the key success of any business and then come the promotion step i.e. the SEM.

  • Tameka Vasquez

    Very nicely summarized for marketers fairly new to digital media. It really goes without saying these days that marketing and optimization must coexist. Thanks for sharing!

    • Carol Lynn Rivera

      Thanks, glad you found this useful! Especially now that Google is cracking down on SEO fro SEO’s sake, we had better make sure we’ve got the right marketing in the mix.