With the growing buzz around inbound marketing, it might be useful to note a few key differences between Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM).
SEO optimizes a website’s content and code so that it appears on the top of organic search results for which the search engine does not charge any money. In the case of SEM, you create an ad for your product or service, sign up with a search engine (say, Google) via its advertising program (Google AdWords in this case) and pay a certain amount of money to the search engine each time your ad is clicked on its search results page or on its partner websites (Google AdSense members).
The popular notion is, once you’ve spent a onetime fee to get your website SEO’d, you’re done. That’s not true. Search engines like Google keep tweaking their search algorithms regularly to improve the search quality, so a well-optimized site that appears in the Top 3 positions today might even vanish from the first page of organic search results tomorrow after the new tweak is implemented. Which means, in actual practice, you’d need to keep spending money to get your website re-optimized every time the search engine provider makes a change.
In case of SEM, while you need to keep paying for clicks on an ongoing basis, the cost of keyword research and ad design is a truly onetime expense that doesn’t have to be repeated when the search engine undergoes a tweak.
Coming to content, a search engine displays links pointing not only to your website but to other websites that carry reference to your company. In the Web 2.0 world of today, not all content pertaining to you on various blogs and forums is favorable to your company. Imagine the risk to your company’s reputation if the top organic search result points to a website containing negative comments about your company!
Exacerbating the risk is the distinct possibility that organic search results often vary from location to location, so it’s quite possible that your prospective customer in the USA is seeing negative comments about your company at the top of their search results and your marketing manager located in India isn’t even aware of this! This actually happened recently with an India-based software development company that gets most of its business from Web 2.0-based freelance portals.
If you only do SEO, you are stuck with this risk. Whereas, with SEM, you can mitigate this risk since people see ads that you’ve created.
End of the day, SEO and SEM have distinct functions and the question shouldn’t be “SEO or SEM?”. In my opinion, a comprehensive inbound marketing campaign should include elements of both SEO and SEM.
I invite readers to post comments based on their actual experience with SEO and SEM.