Does search marketing really matter? (SEM 101)

I have a good friend who creates websites for personal users and small non-profits. When I told him about my new project, blogging about search engine marketing (SEM) and search engine optimization (SEO), he wondered aloud, “Who in the world cares about that stuff? What does it matter? There are only so many Amazons in the world, anyway.”

I was initially surprised by his reaction. But his comments got me thinking – what is the point of SEM? Does it only apply to the big players in the online business world? Does this stuff really matter to anyone?

Of course, the answer isn’t as clear as those of you reading this blog might initially think. In reality, the answer is (as with so many things in life): it depends. It all comes down to the intention of the website.

What is SEM?

Let’s first define our terms. SEM encompasses all of the various ways site owners can use search engines to attract more traffic to their websites. SEM is all about helping users of search engines find your website. SEM is comprised of two major parts: SEO and Pay-Per-Click (PPC) advertising.

SEO techniques help a website reach its optimal rank in the “organic” (naturally relevant) section of search engine results pages (SERPs), which increases its visibility to searchers. SEO is fundamentally all about making a website more discoverable, accessible, and usable for visitors. If you consider the needs of your users during the design phase of your site, then you will automatically go a long way toward optimizing your site’s code, structure, and content for search engines.

One of the most basic users your site will host is the search engine web crawler or robot (often referred to as simply a “bot”). It primarily reads text-based content, just as the most basic web browsers do. When you consider and accommodate the lowest level of text browser in your site design, search bots will be able to crawl more of your site, which helps the search engines index more of your site, which then allows us to evaluate more of your site’s content relevance. And once a searcher uses keyword queries that match your site’s content, your site will then be included in those SERPs (assuming you have compelling content to offer). This is the essence of SEO.

PPC, on the other hand, is paid advertising on SERPs related to the keywords the searcher used, so the ads are (hopefully) just as relevant to the searcher as are the organic results. (Note that some ad distributors can place PPC ads in other, affiliated websites beyond SERPs.) Thus PPC also increases a site’s visibility.

However, there are big differences between these techniques. PPC is a temporary listing, only lasting for the duration of the ad campaign, and costs the sponsoring advertiser money each time a user clicks the ad (aka impression). Alternatively, changes made in organic rank achieved by SEO techniques are done in the permanent search result listings, which are provided at no cost to either the listed website owners or the searcher. (Of course, the ranking order of organic listings is constantly evolving due to many factors, such as new, relevant sites coming online, others going offline, tweaks to the algorithms search engines use for determining relevance, and when sites with great content implement SEO improvements).

Another difference between PPC and SEO is time for efficacy. As soon as a PPC ad campaign starts, searchers will see ad impressions. The benefits of SEO on organic search results, on the other hand, take time to see. While your SEO-driven changes are immediately seen as improvements by visitors to your site, search engines need to recrawl your site, reevaluate the changes, and reassess your site’s relevance and value in the SERPs. That takes time, so patience is a virtue when practicing SEO.

Does it matter?

Whether SEM matters depends upon the intentions a webmaster has for his or her website. Some folks put up websites for personal reasons, such as for posting photos of their latest family vacation, writing personal movie reviews, or to simply blog about their daily life’s activities (Facebook, anyone?). Maybe they’re learning a new technical skill and they simply want to exercise their new wings on a largely meaningless, initial web project. But honestly, who cares about these sites? There’s nothing in those sites for a visitor to buy, subscribe to, or download. That’s the process when you “convert” a visitor into a customer – a key concept for SEM.

But if your website’s reason for being is to promote something, such as a business selling a product or service, subscriptions to an e-mail-based newsletter, a software download, or just advocating a political/social cause, then you want conversions. You get them by attracting qualified visitors, who are already interested in and actively seeking the information you provide, to your website. That’s the role of the search engine in this process. In that case, SEM (and especially SEO) is extremely relevant. The thoughtful use of SEM here can have a profoundly positive impact in promoting awareness of your site to a targeted set of users.

Best of all, the value of well-executed SEM applies equally to locally-based promotions (such as a new restaurant in town) as well as those whose target audience is regional, national, and even global in scope. Simply put, SEM brings interested eyeballs to your website.

So sure, SEM is important to companies like Amazon’s online business model relies upon customers coming to their site to make purchases. SEM not only helps Amazon sell products, it also actively sells their brand, so customers learn to automatically visit their site again for their next purchase.

Of course, the business goals of getting conversions and selling a brand can apply to your business just as much as Amazon. You may run a great local bed & breakfast that accepts online reservations, sell products in a niche market (like Ford Model T restoration parts and information), or write detailed white papers on Internet security as a consultant. Until your own brand’s name recognition is strong enough to be your industry’s own version of, you need to be found by your target audience. This is most effectively handled through search engine results, which are optimized by SEM.

It’s your question to answer

In the end, the big question that each webmaster must answer is, “Does it matter to me that people find my website through search?” That’s the key question that only you can answer. And if your answer is, “Yes, it matters to me!”, then SEM matters. You don’t need to be as big as Amazon to benefit from SEM. In fact, it’s the smaller sites that benefit the most, as they will get a chance to stand out in the light of day. The Amazons of the web-based world can otherwise cast pretty big shadows!

New SEM forum online

The new Webmaster Center forum for all issues SEM- and SEO-related is up and running. Be sure to check out Search Engine Marketing and Optimization. That will be your chance to exchange SEM ideas and strategies with fellow forum readers and our forum moderator, Brett Yount (I’ll poke my head in there from time to time as well). I’ll even collect suggested topics for future SEM 101 columns.

Coming up next: Getting started in site optimization by building a toolbox. Until next week…

— Rick DeJarnette, Live Search Webmaster Center