What Is Search Engine Marketing [SEM]?

The other day I was speaking with a small business owner over lunch and he mentioned to me that he had hired an SEM company to help improve his website rankings.  I told him that was great, and asked him “what kind of marketing are they doing for you?”

His answer was “search engine marketing”

I replied, “I know, but what sort of search engine marketing are they doing for you?”

I could see from the look in his eyes that he didn't have a clue as to what I was talking about.  To him, search engine marketing was some sort of thing that marketing people did online to improve a website's rankings…..or something like that.  Others intermix the term SEM with SEO as they think they are one in the same.

Many small businesses and service professionals hire web marketing firms every year, and have no idea what they are buying.  Most just trust (or pray) that the marketing company they hired is doing the right thing as that's all they can do.  It's hard to measure something that you don't understand.

Typically a company that markets themselves as a Search Engine Marketing company offer both SEO and Paid Search Marketing options such as Pay Per Click advertising.

For you small businesses and service professionals out there, here is an outline of what search engine marketing is all about, so the next time that you hire a marketing company to help with your search engine marketing, you'll have a better idea of what you're getting into.

What is Search Engine Marketing?

Search engine marketing, or SEM, is a form of internet marketing that revolves around marketing to people that are using search engines (Google, Bing, etc) to find what they are looking for.  It encompasses several different forms of marketing and advertising, all revolving around search engines and keywords.  There are forms of SEM that are free, such as Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and others that are paid, such as Pay Per Click (PPC) marketing.

What Marketing/Advertising Make Up Search Engine Marketing?

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) – This is a free form of SEM. This term often gets intermixed with SEM.  SEO is just one form of search engine marketing.  SEO is the practice of optimizing your website so that it ranks higher in the search engine results for a given keyword or term.  Optimization happens on you website, in the form of adding keyword relevant copy to your site, as well as optimizing the technical aspects of your website, such as site structure, site speed and relevant meta data.  Offsite optimization is usually in the form of linkbuilding, that is getting other websites and sources to link back to your website.  Websites that link back to your website is seen as a form of trust, or referral for your site in the eyes of the search engines.

Pay Per Click (PPC)  – A paid form of SEM.  With PPC, a business will create advertisements that will show up alongside the search engine results when a person searching online types in the keyword or term that you are bidding on.  Many websites partner with search engines to show similar ads on their websites too.  You bid against other people in an auction type scenario who also want their ad shown when someone is searching for a certain keyword or term.  Ads can either be text, image, or even video based….depending on the platform you are advertising on.  You typically pay everytime someone clicks on your ad and is them taken to your website.

Contextual Advertising – A paid form of SEM.  Contextual advertising is when an advertising platform scans the words on a website or web page and serves advertisements that are related to that website or page.  If you're online reading an article about how to finish your basement, you'll likely find advertisements on that page from home improvement stores or other related industries hoping to sell you stuff.  That is contextual advertising.  It can take the form of text ads, videos, or image based ads such as banner display advertisements.

So here you have a general overview of what search engine marketing is.  As you can see, it's a mix of free and paid forms of marketing your website to people who are searching for things online.  All three of the above types have several different kinds of marketing/advertising in themselves, but that's for another post.

If you have any questions about this article, or SEM in general, feel free to contact me here.

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CEO at 3Bug Media
Gary Shouldis is the founder of 3Bug Media, a web marketing company that helps businesses create 360 Marketing Strategies to dominate their market. His blog is read by over 20 thousand small business owners a month and has been featured in the N.Y. Times Small Business, Business Insider and Yahoo Small Business.
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