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Search Engine Marketing FAQ, or SEM 101

by Andrew Miller   |   Jul 22, 2007

Unless you have lived in a cave for the past few years, you've heard a lot about Search Engine Marketing (SEM). Maybe you've read some articles or blogs on Search Engine Optimization (SEO) or Pay-Per-Click (PPC) advertising. Most likely you've even read about social networking and local search marketing. You know you need to get involved somehow, but where do you start? Who should manage this program? Where does it fit within your marketing structure? First off, kudos to you for investigating SEM for your business. You may feel a little behind the eight ball but I assure you that it's never too late to start. That's the beauty of what we do. Every day is a new challenge and a new opportunity.

We've compiled a comprehensive FAQ for small-to-medium (we like to call them "up and coming") businesses that haven't yet jumped into the SEM space. If you don't see the answer to your question here, feel free to drop us a line or leave a comment and we will be sure to get back to you. If you have had some experience in this space, don't hesitate to leave a comment to help others and keep the conversation going.

What is Search Engine Marketing?

Also known as SEM, Search Engine Marketing is the art and science of reaching customers that use various search engines. The goal of any search engine marketing campaign is to increase your website's visibility within the search results for a keyword related to your business, products, services or content. Greater visibility usually leads to increased web traffic which can be converted into sales, leads, downloads, store traffic, advertising impressions or just about any other type of "conversion" that your company has.

There are many types of SEM and depending on your website objectives, some or all of them can be used to accomplish what you have set out to do. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) aims to increase a site's rankings in the free, or "organic" search results to increase traffic volume. Pay-Per-Click ads are purchased in an auction-style system and displayed as "sponsored results" next to or above the organic results. Local search marketing can be used to promote a business, product or service within a specific geographic area by optimizing for local search engines, directories and data providers. Social Media Marketing is the art of engaging consumers in a dialogue on social networking or user-generated content sites. There are other types and much overlap between these, but we'll focus on these four to begin with.

Most people only think of Google and Yahoo! when they think of search engines, but there are many, many more search engines that you have probably already heard of. Our definition of a search engine includes any web site or service that people use to find something. That "something" can be anything, including text, video, audio, products, services, friends, relationships, maps, driving directions, communities of like-minded people, etc. Sites like Youtube, iTunes, Amazon.com, MySpace, Facebook, Mapquest, Google Maps, Yelp.com and Yellowpages.com are just the beginning. There are literally hundreds of search engines out there, and nearly all of them can be used to promote different types of businesses.

What's with all the acronyms?

It's not (just) our way of making ourselves sound smart. If anything, Search Engine Marketers are not good enough at communicating our trade to others outside of the industry. Here's a quick breakdown of the most common acronyms we use frequently. For more detailed definitions, each of the terms below links to our SEM glossary.

SEM: Search Engine Marketing or Search Engine Marketer

SEO: Search Engine Optimization or Search Engine Optimizer

PPC: Pay-Per-Click advertising

SMM: Social Media Marketing or Social Media Marketer, similar to Social Media Optimization (SMO)

CPC: Cost-Per-Click or Cost-Per-Conversion, depending on context

CPA: Cost-Per-Acquisition, typically the same as Cost-Per-Conversion

Why should my company consider using Search Engine Marketing?

You may feel like your customers are not using search engines to find your products or services. I would challenge that assumption in a variety of ways, but the following statistics may be the best way to prove that all types of customers are using the internet in the early phases of online and offline transactions. As reported by Search Engine Watch, a survey recently published by Accenture found the following:

"67% of consumers prefer to purchase items in physical stores while 69% research product features online and 68% compare prices online. Combining these variables, 58 percent said they locate items online before going to a store to purchase, while only 13 percent said the Internet plays no part in their offline shopping."

I'm usually not one to use scare tactics to convince people they need search engine marketing, but when 87% of consumers say the Internet plays a part in their offline shopping habits, retailers better listen.

What about B2B purchasers? An Enquiro report published in May found that 65% of B2B buyers begin their research by using a search engine. Search engines continue to dominate other information sources throughout the entire purchase cycle.

Where does SEM fit in with my other marketing initiatives?

Search engine marketing is not meant to replace all of your other marketing efforts. Instead, it complements nearly every other form of advertising or marketing by engaging customers at the exact point they are searching for products and services that you offer. You already know that your TV, radio, direct response, print or outdoor campaigns can build awareness for your brand. To maximize the effectiveness of those programs and fully leverage your marketing spend, your brand also needs to be present when customers are searching for the products and services you advertise elsewhere. You can't count on people to type in your company's name along with the product name. They could be led to a competitor's site instead of yours. Additionally, a strong presence in search engines can expose customers to your brand that have never heard of you but instead are searching for something they saw advertised by one of your competitors.

How do I get started finding an SEM consultant?

If you are thinking of managing your SEM in-house, skip to the next section.

First, list your objectives for your website. Keep this list handy and don't stray from it.

Second, do some research on reputable industry sites like SearchEngineWatch.com or SearchEngineLand.com. Don't feel like you have to read everything, just learn some of the lingo and basic concepts. A good consultant will want to learn your business and help you accomplish your objectives with a customized approach. This is awfully difficult to accomplish with a "one size fits all" solution. Cost is a big factor as well. Prices can vary dramatically, and the most in-demand consultants can charge $500 per hour or more in fees. Others prefer a flat fee based on a defined project scope. Cheaper is not necessarily better, so expect to pay $100 or more per hour for an experienced consultant. They might also be able to provide various levels of investment to give you the choice of how much you want to bite off at once. If done correctly, your return on this investment could dwarf any other marketing initiative you are running.

Third, conduct some online research and poll your friends, colleagues, industry contacts, blog readers, etc for recommended consultants or SEM firms. I have to issue a word of warning. There are a lot of "snake oil salesmen" in the SEM (specifically SEO) industries that tend to sour the reputation of the entire industry. The truth is that there are many, many more qualified, honest SEM practitioners out there that would be happy to help. Be wary of anybody that "guarantees" top rankings or claims to know Google's top-secret ranking algorithm. The truth is that nobody outside of the search engines knows how they work and frequent changes makes it impossible to predict the future success of any program. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Make a list and contact the ones you feel might work for you.

Fourth, consider all the options. SEM is made up of several disciplines, all of which may be effective by themselves but the results can be amplified if multiple strategies are deployed in unison. Ask your potential consultants if they are experienced with all the various aspects of SEM, or consider hiring multiple if you feel that would best help you accomplish your objectives.

Note that many consultants are so busy or so good that formal RFPs are not a good way to present yourself as a desirable client. It could indicate that your company is overly bureaucratic or difficult to work with.

Once you find a good consultant, listen to what they have to say and try to implement as many of their recommendations as possible. You may not be able to get to all of them, but each piece you can use will add value and improve your results.

How can I bring SEM in-house?

The industry is relatively new and there is not yet a standard title or department for SEM work. Most SEOs used to come from IT or web development teams and a lot of Social Media Marketers or Pay-Per-Click come from advertising, PR or marketing departments. Look for places in your organization where an SEM will have access to the most vital groups: IT/web development, marketing, advertising, PR and executive management. Perhaps this is as a standalone team or a part of another team with open access to the others. There is a lot an SEM can do by themselves but ultimately they will rely on all or some of the other departments for support. Do whatever it takes to allow them to keep learning. The field changes daily so blogs, conferences, books and webinars can keep their skills sharp and up-to-date.

How do we measure the success of SEM?

It depends on your objectives, of course. A good search engine marketer should be able to understand your objectives and customize a program to meet them. Some companies are simply looking for more traffic to their website. Others need more leads as efficiently as possible. No matter what your objectives are, be sure to set at least one conversion goal and measure all of your online and offline marketing efforts against it. Calculate your ideal cost per conversion and keep tweaking your programs until you are in your goal range.

Never let your programs run on autopilot. This isn't a "set it and forget it" proposition. Changes in search engine ranking algorithms, competitors' PPC bids, blog posts or other user generated content can affect your SEM program in a moment's notice. Be sure to monitor your SEM campaigns and make frequent adjustments to keep yourself on track to accomplishing your objectives.

Now that you have the basics down, you are one step closer to building your business by tapping into the power of search engines. It will soon become a very effective weapon in your arsenal and should help increase your visibility beyond your wildest expectations.

portrait of Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller

Andrew co-founded Workshop Digital in 2015 and serves as the Director of Client Services. He oversees our client relationships and ensures our SEO and PPC teams have everything they need to provide amazing results. After growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta during the 1980s, he decided it was time for a change of scenery and moved north to attend The University of Richmond. Armed with dual degrees in Computer Science and Spanish, it made perfect sense to seek another course change and begin a career in advertising and marketing at The Martin Agency and later, CarMax, before venturing out on his own in 2007. Andrew collects hobbies and devotes his time to his family, training for triathlons, and trying to grow vegetables in an expanding backyard garden.