SEO or SEM – Well It's Only Semantics – Part Two

There’s a phrase that should make you cringe. “Well it’s only semantics.” Words are powerful if used correctly and different words can have very different meanings. That struck me for a second time today, when I saw Stephan Spencer’s item, “What would you ask the leading SEO gurus?”. This is all for a Thought Leaders Summit being organized for MarketingProfs.com. The theme of the conference is the SEO industry, what it does and where it’s going. Not once is there a mention of Search Engine Marketing or SEM. Since some of those leading SEO gurus are friends of mine, I hope they won’t mind me explaining my personal concern. Indeed I know that some of them share my concern.

So we have SEO or Search Engine Optimization and SEM or Search Engine Marketing. Why is this called a conference on SEO? Well that’s the term that most business owners in the street would understand. What’s your ranking on Google? It’s obvious that a high ranking will be better. More people find you in Google so more of them end up on your website. What could be simpler? So the SEO practitioners have had one of the easiest selling jobs imaginable. Not appearing high on Google is very visible and a ranking is very simple and measurable. So many business owners now think that’s the two-step process that’s involved.
Step 1 – build your website
Step 2 – apply SEO to get good search engine rankings

The problem is that it’s easier to sell the idea of SEO than to deliver the results. So some SEO practitioners resorted to methods, which ran counter to the Terms of Service of the Search Engines. Sometimes very short term results could be achieved, with disastrous consequences in the longer term. It’s not surprising that the current reputation of SEO is tarnished in some quarters. Indeed some see a conflict between the SEO practitioners and the Search Engines.

Search Engine Marketing deals with a much bigger playing field. It is a major part of the wider function, Internet Marketing or Web Marketing. The objective here is to use the services that the Search Engines are offering, including advertising (Pay-per-Click, etc), to help maximize sales developed through websites. It’s a much better objective for a company than merely to have a high Search Engine ranking, which may or may not result in increased sales. Search Engine Marketing thinking must start during the conception of the website since it will influence the website architecture and the web pages content. SEM is a much more profitable activity for a business than mere SEO. It is also a field where Search Engines and the SEM practitioners have much more common interest.

The problem is that few business leaders understand or even have heard of the term SEM. Many of them have heard of SEO and know it means getting high SE rankings. So the argument is that we all should follow a ‘bait and switch’ process here. We get their attention by promising to do SEO. They’ll believe they will soon have a Google ranking they can boast to their partners about. Then you explain that what they really need is the very much more expensive SEM process. To my mind it may be better to get folk thinking SEM right from the start by promoting SEM and dropping the term SEO. It will produce much more Win/Win results for everyone.