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What is Search Engine Marketing vs Search Engine Optimization?

This is a question that often gets a confusing answer. To the extent there really is a difference, you can distinguish them in this way:

SEO is the technical process of increasing a given web page’s ranking in a search engine’s “natural” or un-paid (“organic”) search results.

Most SEO best practices focus on Google’s search engine and its algorithms, because Google dominates more than 90% of the total organic search traffic in the world. SEO strategies can target different kinds of searches besides words and text, using keyword-rich alt tags assigned to images, videos, podcasts, and social media channels.

You might say that SEM, on the other hand, is SEO but with a sales mentality.

SEM involves the active, outbound promotion of websites or landing pages in order to appear in search engine results pages (SERPs).

SEM uses both optimization techniques (such as primary keywords) and paid advertising. The most common example of SEM at work would be the paid, or “Sponsored” search results on Google that you’ll see appear above the regular, “organic” results list on a SERP.


The advantages (and disadvantages) of SEM

Sponsored content options are offered by all the search engines, social media channels, and industry-specific online publications. You can of course offer free content to all of these too, but you can turbocharge your results more quickly with sponsored posts, displayed to users whom you can also target with highly refined criteria, with set budget and run rates.

However, bear in mind that sponsored content will improve your rankings only on the site where you’ve paid to advertise. It won’t boost rankings elsewhere because they are relying strictly on search algorithms to determine results. Even if it’s using the right keywords, sponsored content is generally ignored by the search engines (unless you’re advertising with them, of course).

So if you do want to explore the sponsored content option, choose wisely where you want to do it in order to get the most bang for your buck. If few people in your target market use Twitter, look elsewhere such as YouTube, Facebook or LinkedIn.


Great content: the foundation of any search strategy

At the heart of either SEO or SEM is a dedication to content marketing.  Whether you’re paying for placement elsewhere or just putting it out there on your site, high-quality web content delivers the core value – and searchable keyword phrases – needed to optimize your visibility to prospective clients and customers.

Anchor content, variously called cornerstone content, is the vehicle you use to boost rankings and visibility with all the various SEM or SEO strategies. It’s usually an in-depth look at the problems customers face and your approaches or solutions to their problems. It can be detailed service or product descriptions, blog articles, newsletter content, videos, white papers or even a useful tool widget.

Producing high quality written content takes either a lot of time or the ability to hire a great writer, but if you only deploy this single SEO strategy, you can rocket just about any of your listings to the top of Google’s SERPs over time, as long as you do it the right way.

This means linking your unique, quality content via keywords you use to create related, but again unique, content on Authority sites such as Quora, Reddit, WiseLike, LinkedIn and other highly-trafficked destinations on the web.

Here’s a good illustration of how to build your keyword ranking using Authority sites.



Improve page speed

The page speed of your site makes a huge difference to a user’s experience. (How patient are YOU when a page takes forever to load?)  Google algorithms include the user’s overall experience, and improving the page speed is one such way to elevate your page in its “eyes.”

Use tools such as Google’s Page Speed, GTMetrix or Varvy’s Page Speed Tool to run insights and gain suggestions on how to improve loading speed. These are highly technical, so you might need to enlist the help of a web developer.


Make sure you’re optimized for Mobile

Most people are still behind the curve when it comes to mobile. Their sites load properly on desktop browsers, but not on mobile devices or even tablets.

Use a responsive design for your site, if you haven’t already, to ensure that your site is optimized for mobile devices.


Don’t forget the power of videos in Search

Every SEO or SEM strategy has to encompass video marketing. Video’s popularity continues to increase by exponential degrees. Creating useful tutorials and other informative videos is also a great way to deliver real value to people in a multimedia format that’s easily accessible to anyone with a smartphone camera.

You can produce relevant ”talking head” videos to deliver the same messages as a particular article on your site. Use your primary keywords in the video’s description, title and tags. (But never engage in keyword “stuffing,” which Google recognizes and will actually diminish your rankings these days.)


The Final Word: Get your Mission Aligned With Google’s For Greater Success

Google as a company desires content that helps to improve the lives of others, delivers value, and that users want to engage with. That’s how it determines relevance for search results.

For years, though, unscrupulous individuals attempted to game the system using “Black Hat” SEO techniques, like planting invisible links on unsuspecting websites to be discovered by search crawlers, or purchasing fake users or reviews.

These less-than-scrupulous strategies allowed the Black Hat SEO jockeys to rank their content quickly at the top of Google’s search. These mostly irrelevant search results enraged Google. Because of that, Google added over 200 ranking factors to help suss out the impostors, including such minutiae as the expiration date on your domain name (the further out into the future, the better, because it means you’re committed to sticking around)

The last five years have seen a massive overhaul in the way Google determines relevance. Now, it’s all about Trust and Authority, as well as Relevance. To gain Google’s trust under the newer algorithms, you must deliver longer, richer content that’s highly relevant to your focus keyword. The longer you do this, the more trust your site develops with Google.

To gain authority, use strategies such as those illustrated above to link your site to other sites that Google already knows to be good, trustworthy authorities, essentially adding referral value to your content.

Leadit Marketing offers a variety of content and search marketing services, if you’d like help in boosting your online visibility.


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Shannon Prager is recognized B2B marketing strategist and the President of Leadit Marketing. She is responsible for the daily operations and management of Leadit Marketing as well as the long term vision for the company.

A marketing leader with over 19 years of B2B demand generation and marketing experience, she understands the importance of a fully developed integrated marketing strategy. Shannon’s background includes demand generation, marketing automation, social media, digital marketing, customer marketing, account based marketing and marketing operations. You can follow her on LinkedIn via or Twitter @

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