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Search Engine Optimization versus Marketing

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This is the dark mysterious corner of the internet: search engines. Nobody knows exactly how they rank websites (it’s a secretly guarded algorithm that’s constantly changing) but we do have ideas what search engines like and dislike. Most of this has been learned by developers through trial and error over time. The SEO algorithm is always changing because once it has been deciphered, it’s often exploited.

You’ve probably heard of the major search engines:  Google, Yahoo, Bing. There is also several others out there, but their search algorithms are all slightly different, in terms of how they rank one website over another.

This is not meant to be a technical, how-to article to bore you. It’s more a guide of what Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is, versus Search Engine Marketing (SEM).

Search engine optimization and search engine marketing can be a confusing concept to grasp. Is there even a difference between them?

Both terms are often used interchangeably, which makes matters even worse. It is important to understand the difference between the two terms and that they are different.

You’ve probably heard of the major search engines: Google, Yahoo, Bing. There are  also several others out there, but their algorithms are all slightly different, in terms of how they rank one website over another. There are also niche search engines. One we use frequently here at Eyesite Creative is Wayback Machine, an internet archive search engine. We use it to find out how a website looked, all the way back from 1996 (!). It is very useful tool if you want to trace the history of a domain and examine how it has changed over the years.

So what exactly is search engine optimization?

Search Engine Optimization is the process of improving the visibility of a website on organic (“natural” or unpaid) search engine result pages, by incorporating search engine-friendly elements into a website.

Search engine optimization for a website is broken down into two basic aspects: on-page, and off-page optimization.  Most on-page development has to be done by a web developer, but off-page SEO can be developed by anyone, at any point!

On-Page SEO includes:

  • Incorporating selective keyword naturally into title tags, meta descriptions, heading tags, alt text, etc.
  • Blog posts and page copy that is written and optimized with quality
  • Clean and formatting page URLS
  • Optimized page load speed
  • Google authorship incorporated
  • Social sharing integration within your content
  • Etc.

Off-Page SEO includes:

  • Faving high quality backlinks (aka having other high quality/authoritative sites  link to your site naturally). Essentially, backlinks help prove to search engines that your website is legitimate.
  • Social sharing signals
  • Social bookmarking (Stumbleupon, Reddit)
  • Much more!


What are keywords?

The word itself “keywords” can be a multifaceted term, but essentially consist of targeted words and phrases used in your website that make it possible for people to find your site via search engines.

A successfully-optimized website will have, as part of either the initial setup or improvements, carefully selected, relevant keywords which the optimization efforts will be designed to make prominent for search engines. Keywords are written into the backend code and integrated throughout the website. Every image has an ALT tag, so search engines can “read” them.

A website’s actual content also plays a huge role in search engine performance. A basic example is a school website expecting to rank for “brown bear”. This is where blogs can help, as they tend to have good success in helping a website rank for these types of specialty key words. Essentially, if the school website does want to attempt to show up for a “brown bear” search, they’ll likely start off by writing a blog post that talks about brown bears. Then they will do social media promotions that link back to the brown bear article, as part of the SEO effort (backlinks) and to drive traffic to the website.

However, there are never guarantees to how a search engine will behave, nor a timetable for how fast they will respond to changes. However, if some time has passed and one technique doesn’t seem to be bringing results, try something else! It is an art, not a science, and every website is truly different in that regard.

What is Search Engine Marketing?

The main difference between these two terms is that search engine optimization is simply a component of search engine marketing.  SEM includes SEO tactics, as well as several other search marketing tactics. Essentially, SEM includes components of paid search, such as Pay-Per-Click (PPC), and also the use of social media marketing.

It is important to note that you should never use the terms SEO and SEM interchangeably, because although they work hand in hand, they are not the same term.

So which tactic is better?

Many marketers debate whether one is better than the other. We would argue that organic SEO is the best approach, and as you can see, true SEM cannot succeed without the use of organic SEO.

However, there are situations where Pay-Per-Click (a component of SEM) paid advertising makes more sense than SEO. For example, if you are first launching a site and you want immediate visibility (think if you’re running for office), it is a good idea to create a PPC campaign because it takes less time than SEO, but it would be unwise to strictly work with PPC and not even touch search engine optimization.

Although organic SEO takes longer to show results, in the end it will be less costly and you will establish a search credibility that you might not establish with PPC.

When it comes to choosing the best tactic, it is important to evaluate your specific goals, but be sure to fully understand the differences and how you will maintain your efforts.