Search Engine Marketing


Clients often ask us whether they should invest in SEO (Search Engine Optimization) or SEM (Search Engine Marketing). The answer often depends on the client’s individual needs, but essential to making that decision is truly understanding the difference between the two.

SEO is a long term investment. It involves making tweaks and adding content with the goal of gaining ground on organic (free) search result pages. We at Appletree often compare SEO to buying a home, rather than renting it. Organic search results typically change very slowly, so the results may not be immediate. However, when they do set in, they last longer and take fewer resources to maintain (once you’re on top). Even after you stop investing in SEO, residual traffic will continue pouring in long after.

SEM, on the other hand, has traditionally involved directly paying listing services and search engines for ad placement. Like a rental, as soon as you stop paying, traffic stops immediately. You are not building any equity. SEM has been growing a lot lately; let’s take a closer look at just how it has evolved.

Paid Search

Most search engines sell ad campaigns on a pay-per-click or pay-per-view basis. Basically, you set a monthly budget which determines how often your ad appears or how many clicks it can receive before the ad is taken down. While much of this remains the same in 2017, the number of these campaigns targeting local searches has grown significantly. A 2016 study by Search Engine Watch found that “near me” searches had grown 15-fold since 2013. Even as recently as 2016 the number of these searches was still doubling every year. All this new traffic has attracted a lot of competition for locality-based SEM campaigns.

Paid Link Building

While building an SEM strategy, it’s tempting to blow your entire budget on Google pay-per-click campaigns. But it’s important to consider that search engines are not the only way people can find your website. Rather than dumping every resource into one basket, good SEM managers have been investing in less traditional forms of online advertising to supplement their search engine budget.

For example, you might contact a relevant blogger, podcaster, or radio personality and offer them compensation in exchange for talking about your business. Some will even grant an interview in exchange for traded services or monetary compensation. This type of “influencer marketing” can be extremely valuable to your brand, helping to build trust among new audiences.

Likewise, online publications often write about businesses in their area. For example, they might write an article about the “Best Union Shops to Work for in Pittsburgh”. Of course you can’t usually pay to appear in an article like that, but it can pay off to become familiar with the publications which might write about you at some point. Paying for advertisements on their site might land you near the top of the picks next time they’re compiling such a list. As a bonus, search engines love articles that contain lists of links since they answer questions while also giving the searcher some choices.

Link Farms

On the web, a link farm is any group of sites that all link to every other site in the group. Farmers typically charge a fee to list your site. You might have even seen some of them advertising via junk mail, claiming something like, “Pay Just $99 and Get Your Site on 2,000 Websites”. Usually back links are a good thing, but stay far away from link farms. Search engines caught on a long time ago and consider link farms to be a form of spam. If your site appears in a known link farm, Google will actually downgrade your SEO score. If you continue to advertise in this manner, you may be removed from search results altogether.

Directory Sites

Like the local yellow pages, directory sites simply list businesses, usually divided by category and/or location. Directories display information about your business. Though they do provide back links, they are much more useful and reputable than link farm operations. Many popular directory sites, such as Hotfrog, will list your business for free. Most of them also offer a paid premium slot. Paying can float your business to the top of the list. This can be good for getting leads, but beware of spending too much for these – the results can be difficult to track.

A good web company can help build up your listings. They’ll help you encourage the type of reviews that will put your listing on top without breaking the bank. Just like with other SEM, when you stop paying for a premium listing, your business goes back to the bottom.

Is SEM Enough?

In general, SEM is good for getting fast results. It works best when supplemented with a long-term SEO strategy. This way, as your SEO gradually builds, you’ll be able to scale back that costly SEM budget over time.

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