Compare and Contrast: SEM and SEO

Marketers and the media prefer simplicity. Search engine marketing (SEM) is not, of course, simple. If SEM and SEO (define) were simple, traditional marketing agencies could slot SEM into media plans with little thought or effort. SEO consulting wouldn’t differ from site design.

Yet SEO and SEM have spawned a multimillion dollar industry, even a trade organization, SEMPO. In their quest to simplify SEM, many members of the media and company executives prefer to look at its challenges as a single problem. In fact, a host of variables influence an SEM campaign’s success or failure.

One simplification marketers, the press, analysts, and even some agencies succumb to in an attempt is to drop organic SEO and pay-per-click (PPC) SEM into the same bucket. So let me clarify.

Poor SEO is primarily a problem of several digital hurdles that inadvertently block search engine spiders from doing their job. Spiders are on a mission to:

  • Find quality content.
  • Identify that content and separate it from extraneous information.
  • Grade the content for clarity.
  • Extract the essence of a site’s content on a page-by-page basis.
  • Grade the content for source reputation.
  • Understand the content’s context in respect to the Internet as a whole (assign communities or explore relationships between content and sites).
  • Catalog the content’s URL.
  • Keep the content cache fresh.

Generally, 90 percent of SEO relates to removing obstacles to the search engines finding and understanding the content’s essence. Having an under-optimized Web site is like having a broken window; it can be fixed in a reasonable and finite length of time.

Realistically, if content isn’t relevant you can’t achieve long-term visibility in organic SERPs (define). Sure, black-hat SEO techniques may work for a while. But, a search engine’s mission is to deliver the most relevant results to searchers. You need a plan to remove all obstacles to an engine finding and grading content while understanding its essence.

Once a site is search engine friendly, 90 percent of the site-side SEO work is done. True reputation management, online PR, and content freshness based on seasonal search behavior, as well as trend adjustments, are ongoing processes that will enhance a search engine friendly site.

Paid SEM: High Maintenance

Paid SEM is very high maintenance, not a set-it-and-forget-it business. Skill sets required for planning and executing paid search campaign management are different from those required for SEO, particularly early-stage SEO, where problem areas are identified and roadblocks to search engine friendliness removed. The technology needed to maintain excellence in paid search are also very different from those required in organic SEO.


What, then, are the commonalities between managing and optimizing for both organic and PPC search? They’re primarily linguistic, analytic, and behavioral in nature. They include understanding:

  • Keyword research and cross-utilization of keyword data for SEM and ongoing SEO
  • Buying-cycle factors and how they relate to keywords and sites
  • Visitor behavior within sites for organic and paid traffic, particularly conversion behavior
  • Seasonal keyword search factors
  • Linguistic analysis of query strings
  • Conversion factor analysis

The above relate to improved user experience through understanding visitor needs as expressed by search queries.

Paid search’s true differentiator is requiring a combination of immediate and reactive action. Immediate action is often based on data that are available for analysis on a real-time basis, such as bidding activity. With our industry’s evolution beyond pure search, the number of variables under a marketer’s control is growing. These include landing pages, creative presentation and offers, and additional factors that are different for every business, depending on what specifically drives optimal user experience.

Over the next year, I predict continued competition within paid placement search will result in a whole new generation of strategies and tactics. They’ll take best practices in paid search further away from organic search.

Organic search is simultaneously centered around both the spider and the visitor, with a preference given to the spider (a non-search-friendly site means no visitors). Paid search is all about maximizing efficiency by applying direct marketing principles. Each variable is considered and tested.

What are the chances the same page built for Google, Yahoo, and MSN spiders is the absolute best page for a paid-search landing page? Pretty slim. Spiders and humans have different needs, wants, and desires. Likely areas of divergence include copy length, format, flow, and tone; navigational diversity and priority; and graphic richness.

Organic and PPC search teams will undoubtedly work together. In smaller companies, they’ll be the same person, in the same way marketing directors in smaller companies handle PR, marketing, advertising, and promotion. In larger companies, where both types of search are mission-critical, specialized professionals will be hired, as either an outside agency or in-house staff.

Jupiter Research (a Jupitermedia Corp. division) data seem to validate part of the trend toward outsourcing mission-critical paid search. ClickZ News reported on the recent Search Engine Marketing Agency Constellation report. Analyst Nate Elliot confirms this trend toward professional agencies managing larger spends: “Agencies account for 51 percent of the total spending on paid search — a significant increase over the past 18 months.”

Will the same agencies that manage PPC budgets also assist in organic SEO efforts, or will the specialties diverge due to SEO’s front-heavy workload requirements? Time will tell.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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Screenshot shows a Google search for outdoor grills, the shopping ads shows images with “in store” showing the product is available nearby.