The distinction between these two terms is simple, but important. SEO is something you can do yourself, although the process is both complex and complicated, and usually takes at least six months to begin showing positive results. Paid Search Engine Marketing requires you to sign up with each search engine (usually Google and Yahoo) to pay for being listed prominently in their results.
That’s the comparison in its short form. Let’s explore each in a little more detail.
The “optimization” part of Search Engine Optimization refers to how a site’s content can be manipulated—or optimized—to appear relevant in relation to a specific set of keywords. Since all search engines sort by the apparent relevance of the websites they search, this process is extremely important in assuring that prospects are able to find your site.
Without optimization, your website is like operating a store without a sign in the window and without engaging in any form of advertising. True, it’s possible a prospect may stumble upon your door, but it would be highly unlikely and only by chance. Optimizing your site is analogous to installing a neon sign above your store and placing a large advertisement in both the Yellow Pages and the local newspaper. This enables people to locate your store more easily, and find what they’re shopping for efficiently.
What makes the process of optimizing both complex and complicated is that different search engines have different ways of determining relevance. It’s quite possible to be highly ranked by Google and practically ignored by Yahoo, or vice versa. In order to achieve the best results possible, optimization requires implementing three distinct steps.
The first step in optimizing a site for better search rankings is to research all the potential keywords someone could use when attempting to find the product or service you sell. Let’s say you own a business that offers pet sitting services, specializing in purebred dogs. Only when you understand what a typical prospect types into a search engine to find what you’re selling will you know which terms must be worked into the content of your website. These might include:
- Pet Sitters
– Dog Sitters
– Greyhound Sitters
– Purebred Dog Sitters
But if your prospects generally think of “pet sitting” in terms of “boarding,” then the term boarding must be included in your site’s text. Additionally, whether you think pet sitting and boarding mean the same thing isn’t as important as whether search engines consider them to be the same. And they don’t. Search engines can only search for those specific keywords your prospects would use. In this example, you could use the term pet sitting throughout your site in all its various permutations, but this would have no relevance when a prospective customer or a search engine is looking for boarding services or kennels. To assure you can reach the broadest possible universe of prospects, you could consider several more terms they might search for:
- Pet Boarding
– Pet Care
– Pet Hotels
– Doggie Day Care
(along with variations of the original terms: Dog Boarding, Greyhound Pet Care, Purebred Dog Kennels, etc.)
There are keyword databases (WordTracker and Keyword Discovery are two examples) that can help you determine how many searches each month are initiated for any particular set of keywords.
Once you’ve determined all the terms your prospects might search for, these keywords must be incorporated into the text of your site. And it won’t do to simply pepper these terms throughout each page. In fact, such repetition might get you banned by some search engines. This must be done in accordance with the way search engines process information displayed on web pages.
In fact, it may be necessary to include additional content throughout your site to allow all those relevant keywords to be included, in a strategically appropriate manner.
Adding a blog, or a series of articles or reports containing the desirable terms, can be a very effective solution. When the terms appear throughout your site in this “organic” fashion, search engines assume there is highly relevant content related to the keywords to be found there.
Once upon a time, it was possible to embed hundreds of terms into a website (by entering the content in white letters against a white background, for example), where these keywords could only be seen by search engines. While effective, this technique was short-lived, as search engines soon became too sophisticated to fall for this trick.
The final step in SEO is creating appropriate links with other websites within your industry. Your pet sitting service might have links with sites like pet food suppliers, veterinarians, groomers, spaying/neutering clinics, and providers of flea control products or pet toys. All these links share a thematic connection with your site’s content, which helps influence search engines to rank your site higher in their results.
That’s where Google’s PageRank algorithms come into play. This program assigns your site a rank from 0-10, based on the number of links or “backlinks” (other websites that reciprocally link to your site). If no other website is linked with yours, your PageRank score would be 0. In order to achieve a rank of 10, you’d need literally millions of links. Only the largest and most established online marketers have the time and resources to develop this level of linking. An average score of 5 can be accomplished with a reasonable number of links.
Now that we’ve covered the complicated and complex process of SEO, let’s turn our attention to the relatively easy, yet potentially expensive, process of Paid Search Engine Marketing.
The strategy is simple: working with search engine companies, you bid on the specific terms you want. Each time a search is initiated for those keywords, your listing will appear within the “sponsored” or paid results (usually above or alongside the main search results). If a prospect clicks on your listing, you are billed a predetermined fee. You also set a limit on the price you’re willing to pay for each click-through.
How the fees are determined, and the availability of specific keywords, are based on many factors, most of them unique to each PPC provider. If many website owners are bidding on the same terms, the price can get very high (but the results may be worth the cost, if they deliver a qualified prospect to the website). The amount of your bid may also influence where your site shows up in the results. Like many areas of business, the website owner with the highest bid winds up at the top of the list.
It’s worth saying that what you don’t know about keywords can cost you—a lot. The most popular search terms are usually the most expensive, but they may not be the ones that can deliver the most qualified prospects. If we revisit the Pet Sitting example one more time, let’s say you specialize in sitting (or boarding) purebred dogs. You might not want to bid on “Pet Sitters” (which would deliver people looking for someone to watch over dogs, cats, hamsters, birds and snakes). You might also decide to skip “Dog Sitters” (there are lots of less-than-purebred dogs out there).
In the end, you may get fewer, but far more qualified, prospects by bidding on the relatively unpopular and, hence, less expensive “Purebred Dog Sitting.” While this example may be flawed, its purpose is sound. The better you know your customers—and what they’re looking for—the better you can decide which search terms are worth the price.
OK. We know what SEO and Paid Search Engine Marketing can accomplish. We know how they differ from each other. But what are the key things you should consider when determining which approach you should take in planning your own online marketing program? There are several factors to consider:
- How many prospects can you reach?
Statistics show that a smaller percentage of searchers click through on paid search engine results. That means you can usually reach more potential customers through Search Engine Optimization, which gets you higher in the rankings, but not in the #1 (sponsored) position.
- How fast do you want to reach them?
SEO, by virtue of being “organic” (as opposed to being paid for), can require six months or more before search engines determine your site’s relevance and favorable results become apparent in your site’s rankings. Since Paid Search Engine Marketing is a purchased service, it can create an immediate improvement in your rankings. It can also be turned on or off at will (or based on budgets).
- How assured do you want to be about your rankings?
As long as you’re willing to pay the bill, Paid Search Engine Marketing will keep you at the top of the rankings. But as soon as you cancel the service, your ranking will nosedive. On the other hand, SEO can’t really give you a guarantee of success (since much depends on the way various search engines function). But if it works, it will keep on working.
Given the time requirements of implementing a Search Engine Optimization program, many online marketers take advantage of Paid Search Engine Marketing to cover that “ramp-up” period. For those who can afford it, Paid Search Engine Marketing allows newer websites to get immediate results within a reasonable budget.
There’s one more consideration: with keywords that are general in nature, it’s difficult for SEO to accomplish high rankings, since so many online marketers—even in completely different business sectors—are attempting to accomplish the same objective. General keywords can be effective as part of a strategically planned Paid Search Engine Marketing campaign, while more specific terms lend themselves better to SEO efforts. For these reasons, most experienced online marketers use a combination of both approaches to get the best possible results.