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SEO vs. SEM vs. SMM

Alphabet SoupThese three terms have been thrown around a a lot, and often used alongside each other. SEO and SEM have often been used interchangeably. So what's the deal with these concepts? How are they alike, and how exactly are they different?

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

SEO refers to the techniques and strategies used to increase the likelihood of a website appearing on search engine results, namely as close to the top of that list as possible.

Search engines prowl the Web, taking notes of everything they encounter. When a user types something into the search engine, making a search query, the engine's algorithms spit out a list of what it thinks are relevant results.

In this situation, the search engine is the deciding factor. It holds the position of strength. All a website can do is insure its content is sound, good, and proper and trust that the search engine will recommend it whenever appropriate. But in today's online marketplace there is lots of competition, so it's not even enough to just make the list; a website has to stay near the top. Anything too far down the list of results and that website might as well have never been displayed in the first place. Being buried on page three or later is akin to being completely out of sight, and subsequently out of mind.

So SEO consists of ways a website can make itself as attractive as possible to search engines, so that when they output their search results the website is as visible as possible. These techniques consist:

  • Internal tweaks to insure the code adheres to Web standards and is easily accessible to search engine indexing efforts
  • Internal metadata specifically meant for search spiders to read and catalog
  • Utilizing the right keywords within the website's content so that search engines will more strongly associate those terms with the website
  • Submitting sitemaps, or complete "roadmaps" of a website, directly to search engines so they don't have to work as hard to 'discover' your site
  • Accumulating reputable backlinks, or links to your website from others, that search engines recognize as marks of distinction and therefore worthy of higher search result placement
  • Fresh and interesting content that brings in traffic and makes your site increasingly prominent in use, thereby aiding in its search result placement

As a whole, SEO focuses on attracting natural, or organic, search traffic. These techniques work to persuade search engines to better rank your website and/or garner more web traffic. It happens naturally, through subtle and constantly dynamic self-tweaks and efforts of self-promotion. This is in stark contrast to...

Search Engine Marketing (SEM)Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

SEM is an umbrella term that encompasses all efforts to garner search engines' attention and gain higher search rankings. SEO is a part of the greater SEM campaign. Like optimization, SEM includes using keywords and link popularity to increase a website's exposure.

However, SEM does include strategies that are somewhat distinct from SEO. While the latter more focuses on acquiring search engine attention and hits through natural means, SEM includes paid direct inclusion in search results. Search engines provide this option as a way for quality results to stay floating at the top (for in most instances useful results, or spam, would never wish to pay) and to collect revenue for themselves. These paid search results remain near areas of prominence on the search results page, often paired with key search words so that they'll appear whenever those words/phrases are queried.

Buying the opportunity to appear with these keywords can potentially be quite costly, and subsequently the keyword industry is very profitable for search engine companies like Google. There can be intense competition just for access to keywords themselves. For the most popular and common key terms and phrases the prices can be so high that only large enterprises can possibly afford any prolonged campaign using them.

These paid links can sometimes work in minor conflict with really good SEO. Because SEO is organic and normally non-paid, if the optimization efforts are exceeding expectations it is possible for a website to be dominating the top of a search result page; even while at the same time paid links for that same website are already appearing next to the normal listings. In this instance, the company is wasting money; and across large enterprise campaigns this can amount of large sums of money down the drain.

For this reason SEO and paid SEM efforts must be balanced, taking care that one does not overwhelm the other.

Social Media Marketing (SMM)Social Media Marketing (SMM)

SMM does not involve search engines, but does play a key role in a website's exposure and online marketing efforts. Whereas dealing with search engines requires a delicate and constant adjustment of subtle factors (SEO) or costly premiums (SEM), working through social media is relatively cheap and holds the promise of incredibly lucrative growth, if done properly.

Having seen the power and reach of viral content, companies have flocked to the social Web in order to utilize this "online word of mouth" for their own branding efforts. This includes having a corporate presence on:

  • social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter
  • streaming video services, like YouTube
  • Location check-ins, like Foursquare
  • image sharing, like Instagram and Pinterest
  • blogs

Social media allows for information to spread exponentially, allowing company advertising efforts to spread very quickly and to like-minded audiences all at the efforts of the viewers themselves. Companies can also utilize social networks and social website components (like comment systems) to establish a more personal engagement with users; increasing the feeling of customer loyalty, brand awareness, and direct customer support.

SMM should not be directly confused with social media optimization (SMO), which like SEO utilizes specific techniques, methods, and key terms to promote web traffic and awareness. Whereas SEO works through search engines, SMO works through social media. Successful SMO does impact a website's search rankings, as positive social feedback in the forms of Likes, Shares, +1's, etc. can be considered as marks of quality for a website, increasing its search rankings and thereby impacting its SEM.

SEO vs. SEM vs. SMO vs. SMMSearch vs. Social

Search engines have traditionally been the focus of online advertising and marketing efforts. Since the arrival of social media however more attention has been levied towards social networks as an additional venue in which to garner user attention.

Before people spent much of their time on search engines in order to find information and content. Now people spend much of their time on social networks in order to interact and engage one another, and also to look for some sources of content.

Social marketing holds the allure of a more "grassroots" form of exposure, at least compared to the monopolies held by search engines. Many companies consider advertising on social media to be far more direct. Instead of dressing themselves up to be attractive to search engines just to get in front of the faces of its viewers, websites can now just appeal directly to the users at the place where those masses now spent much of their time.

But while social marketing doesn't hold the same monetary costs as dedicated SEM campaigns, they do require large amounts of time and coordination. Also if a social media campaign backlashes, there can be direct impact on the company's online brand and presence. On the other hand botched search engine marketing campaigns only offend the search engines themselves, not the constituents.

Will social marketing make search engine efforts a thing of a past? Not completely. The Web is still a large and ever increasing place. Social media is great for finding some sources of content, namely stuff already within your sphere of interests and knowledge. But this hyper-personalization isn't as adept at serving fresh avenues of new subjects. Research into previously unknown topics remains best done via search engine, not by scanning Facebook Timelines or Twitter Feeds.

Do you think social will ever completely overtake search? Or will SEO, SEM, SMM, and other marketing strategies begin to merge, or grow only more distinct?

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