Let’s assume for a moment that you own a business and want to go about getting people to find it online via search engines. And we’ll also assume that you want to promote awareness about your business via social media venues such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Google+, etc. It is all-too-easy to become immersed in the sea of acronyms and conflicting information related to search engine optimization (SEO), search engine marketing (SEM), and Social Media Marketing (SMM). Often, freelancers and self-proclaimed marketing “experts” even misuse the terms and take important concepts out of context. Add to it the fact that Google endlessly changes their algorithms that determine search engine rankings, and from one month to the next the applicability of the information changes. For the non-technical business owner whose goal it is to spend hard-earned money on a well-targeted campaign for online success, the whole mess of terminology and conflicting information can be exasperating– and perhaps even intimidating.
Let’s put it all into relatively plain language that any beginner can grasp. If a word or two eludes you, don’t worry too much. You’ll get the overall concept. Once you have the basics down pat, you can “graduate” to learning more about each topic in more detail.
Here we go:
Search Engine Optimization, called “SEO”, is a preparatory process of making your website “optimized” for the search engines to properly index the content. When we optimize content for the web, there are some “rules of thumb” that we follow, and there are some absolutes that we follow as prescribed by Google’s own “best practices” standards which Google is kind enough to publicly make available to anyone who cares to do it right. Doing it right is affectionately referred to as “white” hat SEO. Doing it wrong or with the purpose of manipulation and/or exploitation is labeled as “black” hat SEO, much as white and black were colors of hats used in old western movies to represent “good guys” and “bad guys” respectively.
PREPARING the site for proper indexing via proper SEO is the first step in effectively marketing the site. As recently as the year 2010, SEO and SEM were lumped together collectively under the term “SEO”, but since that time, the two disciplines have really come into their own respective realms of strategies, techniques, and methods. SEO is “passive” but essential to the marketing process. It’s very important that a website is optimized well, but not “OVER-optimized”, which is a term used to describe sites that are intended to manipulate search engine results.
Periodically Google makes changes to the rules that website managers (webmasters and marketing people) are to follow. Minor changes are often unnamed, but major changes are typically named to call attention to them, and to categorically address the types of changes being made so web professionals can “talk the talk” and be on the same page with respect to what types of marketing efforts are affected. Some of the Google names for their algorithm changes, for example, are “Caffeine”, “Panda”, and “Penguin”. Cute as these names sound, they each encompass a set of rules and criteria that are affected by the change. For instance, the most recent Penguin 2.0 change will impact over-optimized sites in the search engine rankings.
Optimization generally involves adjusting text and link characteristics of a website to include text position, keyword choices, site structure, page titles, keyword density, keyword dilution, and many additional considerations. That’s where the rules-of-thumb and absolutes come into play. Again, Google provides pretty clear guidance on what’s acceptable and what are considered no-no’s.
SEM is Search Engine Marketing. It’s the active process of promoting a site on the search engines. If a site is marketed without first being optimized to some extent, then the site is being promoted without being properly prepared, sort of like broadcasting a TV commercial without editing it to clean it up.
SEM comes in two basic flavors: subscribed and organic.
Subscribed SEM includes things like pay-per-click, pay-per-impressions, pay-per-placement, etc. Sites that use paid links to promote the site will take a hit with Penguin 2.0 if the links are determined to be spammy links.
Think of subscribed SEM as similar to term life insurance: you’re “covered” as long as you pay your premiums (assuming ethical link sources), but when you discontinue your monthly payments, your search engine presence from subscribed marketing sources simply goes away, just like a term policy lapses if you quit paying your premiums.
Organic SEM, on the other hand, is achieved by creation of additional, independent web content such as blogs, articles, online press releases, videos, directory submissions, landing pages (not “doorway” pages), proper page mapping, and many more elements of unique, original content. Each of the organic marketing content must also be optimized prior to employing them for marketing purposes. You can see where this can become a time-involved process.
Organic SEM is not a “busy work” effort to put a bunch of junk up on the web with keywords and links. It involves creating value-added content that is appealing and useful to people who do keyword searches for the topics you want your site to be found under, so there is dual relevance: Information for people, and keyword merit for search engines to sink their teeth into. The marketing content must be original, meaningful, and unique. The value of the organic SEM to your business is that there is a connection of links that point from one source to another, funneling traffic to your site and elevating your site’s rankings in search engines due to quality link merit as well as the resulting traffic component of the web content. Again, there are rules-of-thumb and some absolute “dos and don’ts” related to organic SEM. Think of organic SEM more like a whole-life insurance policy– There are costs to do the marketing, but over time the accumulation of the original, independent web content doesn’t go away, and the end result is often times PERMANENT (or relatively solid) staying power for your website and content-much like how in a whole life policy, the cash value eventually generates enough interest to cover the premiums.
The up-side to subscribed SEM is that it’s relatively instantaneous, though typically more expensive. The down-side is that it is short-lived for the money you spend. It goes away as fast as it started.
The up-side to organic SEM is that (if it is done properly) it is effective in producing long-term, residual results that drive a positive return on investment while saving money. The down-side is that it can take longer to get established depending on market saturation, industry type, geo-targeting, and several other factors.
BIG caution here: The SEO/SEM and SMM fields are ridden by fraud and deception. Since it’s essentially advertising, there’s no ethical guarantee that a service provider can legitimately make for specific page placement or results. If you think about it, that makes sense. There are only 10 organic spots on Google’s page 1 for a given set of keywords. So assuming that there are more than 10 companies worldwide (as well as other content that relates to your industry) that do what you do, and assuming that at least 11 of them are also paying for marketing, how can an SEO/SEM provider “guarantee” page 1 results for a particular search term? In short, they can’t– Not ethically, at least. But that doesn’t stop many of the THOUSANDS of freelancers and SEO companies out there from making “empty promises in the dark”.
Even subscribed marketing isn’t guaranteed. Someone else can potentially come along and be willing to pay more money for the spot you want. Regarding SEO and SEM, in a nutshell, it’s “buyer beware”. Everyone wants your money. Trust no one based on just their say-so. You need to be comfortable and confident in the relationship with the provider you choose, as well as the track record they’ve established with other clients. The proof is in the pudding, so to speak. Don’t make the mistake that many business owners do and make an emotional “buy” decision based on a sales pitch full of promises. Talk is cheap. Make sure whoever you are considering is able to show you meaningful results from a portfolio of other clients. Lots of people read a book and can “talk the talk”. Remember: this is YOUR business and YOUR marketing dollars… so the provider you pick needs to prove themselves to earn YOUR confidence.
Okay, end of sermon.
On to Social Media Marketing:
The old expression, “word of mouth is the best form of advertising”, has been a universal truth forever. People are much more inclined to buy based on the unsolicited or trusted advice of friends & family than they are from a paid ad intended to persuade or sway opinion. Our physical world has a parallel world online: banking, dating, shopping, etc. Think of Social Media Marketing (SMM) as word-of-mouth online. Developing an audience of fans, friends, and followers via Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. allows you to build RELATIONSHIPS with clients. That means creating a following of people who become interested in the “stuff” you post as it relates to their culture and their interests. The problem comes with many social media marketing companies (or at least that’s what they label themselves as, since it’s a big money-maker) who try to use social media as a point-of-sale. If every post, every pin, and every tweet is some kind of spammy, self-promotional solicitation that pimps your business to folks, expect your social media efforts to fail miserably.
Likewise, if you measure social media success simply by the number of “likes” and “follows” you get, you’re missing the mark completely. If you don’t know any better, the marketing company can pull the wool over your eyes pretty easily by citing the quantity of likes and follows as the determining metric for your success. The number of people who “like” you has zero correlation to dollar sales. Yes, it provides an indicator, but there is no direct conversion between a “like” and a dollar… period. And the number of likes, in itself, is as meaningless as the number of total hits your website gets. It’s the QUALITY of the hits that matters, not the QUANTITY.
Unfortunately in society today, “Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll” sells these days. In terms of marketing and general search engine traffic, then, if a website owner puts out ads and content that promotes “free sex”, for example, the site linked to will undoubtedly get lots of hits. But there will be zero buyers if the site isn’t providing or selling what the seeker is looking to find. Some unscrupulous marketers can artificially generate large traffic to the site via such unethical means (though not quite so exaggerated as the example I use here for illustration purposes). Nonetheless, without looking at the analytics data such as bounce rate, time-on-site, time-on-page, keywords used, etc. the raw traffic score is meaningless on its own.
We use other (different) metrics to evaluate SMM results as they pertain to ROI, but the analytics must be examined in a relevant context in order to make management decisions as to how to engage and employ ongoing SMM marketing efforts. Otherwise it’s just “busy work”. Right along those lines, many business owners just do “busy work” posting blogs and such themselves, thinking they’re doing something good for their marketing efforts (and trying to save a buck by not paying a qualified, experienced marketing person), but unless the content is optimized and strategically applied to their indexed web presence, it amounts largely just to wasted time.
Another Big Caution here: There are a lot of freelancers who enjoy dabbling around with Facebook and Twitter, and they think that they can get away with charging businesses a lot money to make small-talk online via social media. Well… They CAN-because even though they don’t know how to apply social media within a business context, neither does the typical business owner who pays the bill. So is it fraud? Or is it simply ignorance on the part of the marketing freelancer? At the end of the day, the results are the same: the business owner is out a lot of money with no ROI. Just because someone is comfortable and well-versed with making posts and tweets via social media, it doesn’t make them qualified to do your social media marketing. If they’re a self-proclaimed “expert” who posts a lot but who can’t apply SMM to your SEM efforts, they you’re essentially paying them to enjoy their own hobby. They may have the best of intentions, and they may believe that by generating lots of “likes” and “followers” they’re achieving something, but unless it dovetails into your other marketing, they’re just spinning your wheels. Consider these points:
- As a passenger on an airplane, recognizing a “good landing” doesn’t qualify you to be a pilot.
- As a tax payer, recognizing that the government’s deficit spending is bad policy doesn’t make you a budget analyst.
- As a Facebook user, creating a page and writing content that gets a lot of “likes” doesn’t make you a social media marketing expert.
The last bullet point is true for many (if not most) of the solicitations from people who label themselves as consultants and offer to do your social media campaigns, too. They may feel that they are an expert based on getting “likes” and followers for their posts, so the thought may occur to them that they can make some money doing it for other people, and so they hang a shingle on their door to advertise themselves as social media marketers. But looking at one or two data points out of context does not qualify them to do the job any more than admiring a smooth landing makes them qualified to fly a plane– or even just land it. There’s so much more involved, just as there is with being successful online.
With regards to promoting your business, most of the unqualified freelancers and consultants charge much less, so the temptation to spend your money with them is much greater. Everyone loves a bargain, right? But if the money you spend is thrown away without obtaining the anticipated results, how much of a bargain is it? It would be much better to spend more money that produces a solid, positive, and compounding return on investment. The old expression, “To make money you have to spend money” is around for a reason. Spend your money wisely. Ask a lot of questions of any provider you consider hiring. If they seem to stumble, can’t put things in context with your overall marketing, or just end up “talking in circles”, don’t even THINK about handing your business over to them. They’ll fail. You’ll fail.
Again, Buyer Beware. Challenge your provider (tactfully, of course) to establish their credentials and credibility with you before you engage in a contract that might bind you for a year.
As you can see, SEO, SEM, and SMM are all different components of your business’s effective online marketing strategy, but they’re all related and they’re all essential. Hopefully now the wording and concepts make sense, and you can pursue delving into finding a service provider who competently integrates the three in a concerted effort to add customers and sales to your financial future.
Tom Elliott is the author of Website 411: Business Survival in an Internet Economy ( available. For more information about the topics herein, he can be reached at https://www.webdrafter.com ). As an international Internet consultant and keynote speaker, he has developed Website Search Engine Optimization and Marketing courses to train Web professionals, and provides business consulting services to companies and organizations for success on the Internet.