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To the average business person, digital marketing may at times seem like a mishmash of meaningless acronyms: SEO, SEM, PPC, ROI, CTR… the list goes on.

There are three strategies you may hear the most about when it comes to internet marketing, SEM, SEO and PPC. You’ve may wonder, which is the most important? The answer is, all of them. Here’s why:

Search engine marketing (SEM) most often refers to paid and unpaid tactics to draw traffic to your website.

Search engine optimization (SEO) more often refers to the free tactics and Pay-per-Click (PPC) refers to the use of paid ads.


First, SEO. One of the most important things to remember is that people searching the internet are not really interested in putting a ton of effort into their searches and they’re easily distracted. In fact, a study has shown that peoples’ average attention span is eight seconds, less than that of a goldfish. And some 97% of searchers don’t go beyond the first page of search results. You want people to find you fast – or better yet, first – when they do a web search.

GoldfishSEO stand for search engine optimization. It’s all about is getting your website to rank high organically (free) in search engine results pages (you may hear them called SERPs). The way to do that is to make your pages as Google-friendly and as discoverable as possible by including words (keywords) and phrases (long-tail keywords) that people frequently search for.

Now, in the old days (actually just a few years ago, which is a lifetime on the internet), there were a lot of SEO experts who knew how to game the system to get pages to rank higher in search results. The emphasis was on quantity – lots of low-quality content stuffed with as many keywords as possible that would trick people into going to a site. So, people were ending up on web pages whether what was on that page was relevant to what they searched for or not. It seemed great for businesses: Inflate the numbers! Make it look like we have lots of visitors and can charge more for ads.

The problem was it wasn’t good for consumers – and really, in the end it wasn’t great if you wanted real prospects. Why would you want to draw a bunch of unqualified leads to your site if they aren’t your target audience and they probably won’t buy from you? Businesses may have been seeing a lot of traffic, but they probably weren’t seeing corresponding conversions and sales.

These “black hat” SEO practices – that is, tactics that focus on gaming search engines and not on finding human in your target market – caused Google to make many changes its algorithm. Google’s ranking system algorithm is a set of formulas used to determine what a searcher is shown on search engine results pages.

“These ranking systems are made up of a series of algorithms that analyze what it is you are looking for and what information to return to you. And as we’ve evolved Search to make it more useful, we’ve refined our algorithms to assess your searches and the results in finer detail to make our services work better for you.” – Google Search Liaison

The Google Algorithms

No one (except Google) knows exactly what goes into those algorithms; the best guess so far is that there are about 200 signals that are used. We do know the new algorithms favored quality over quantity; relevance over repetition, and authority over amateurs. No longer can you stuff content full of keywords to rank higher in search engines. There’s no one “magic bullet” to fool these algorithms – and in fact you may be penalized by Google if you try.

A few of the most important signals Google looks at:

  • Does the site have quality, relevant content?
  • Do other reputable websites link to your site?
  • Is your site optimized for a mobile experience?
  • Do your pages load quickly?
  • Is the traffic to your site legitimate?

In other words, the better your site is for the user, and the more people visit it, the better chance you have of ranking higher in search engine results.

Here’s the thing: SEO is the long game. It can take several months or longer to see any real results in organic search.

While it’s important to always consider organic search and SEO when creating content or building web pages, there’s a quicker, easier way to get traffic to your website – if you’re willing to spend a little money.


Let’s look at a typical Google search engine results page for a keyword search of “phoenix attorney:”

Search Engine Results Page

Notice how the paid ads take up the top three positions on the page, and the first in the so-called “local pack”? The first organic listing is at the bottom, almost “below the fold.” Think of it like a newspaper: When you see a newspaper on the stand, it’s usually folded in half – you only see the top front. Everything else on Page 1 is “below the fold.”

AdWords to the Rescue

Paid Google ads (via AdWords) is a way to get results more quickly than SEO. The way paid ads work is that you target search words relevant to your product and audience. There are simple one-word keywords and there are long-tail keywords: Long-tail keywords are a longer string of words that make up a search term, but they’re a little more than that: they’re more about intent than numbers. They more closely mirror what the searcher means when they type in a search query. The idea is that as search terms become more precise, the competition becomes less. For a visual, I’ll share this graphic from Yoast, which does a good job of explaining how this works:

Long-tail KeywordsYou “bid” on these keywords and only pay when someone clicks on one. (You can also pay per 1,000 impressions, which is better for awareness than traffic). You want to make sure that your best, most likely customer prospects are clicking on those keywords because you don’t want to pay for useless clicks. So, you carefully pick your keywords, which is a blog topic in and of itself.

Here’s the thing: Paying for ads isn’t enough to get you to the first page, especially if you’re in a very competitive industry. The decision on how much you pay and where you’ll rank used to come down to two things: the maximum cost per click (CPC) you were willing to pay and quality score. Quality score, according to Google is “is an estimate of the quality of your ads, keywords, and landing pages. The more relevant your ads and landing pages are to the user, the more likely it is that you’ll see higher Quality Scores.”

Notice that one factor is the relevance of your landing page? That goes back to SEO. The better landing page experience, the better the quality score. So, make sure your web pages are optimized for your keyword and the content on the page is useful and relevant to your ads.

PPC encompasses several search engines, such as Google and Bing, two of the most popular ones. But in the US, Google dominates the search engine market with a 90% share, so chances are, you’ll be working with AdWords.


So, back to SEM, which we learned earlier is simply the process of attracting web traffic (and ultimately customers) via SEO and PPC. There are two ways to do this: By yourself or by hiring someone else.

Have someone else do it

SEM takes a good amount of time – even after the initial learning curve. If you’re tackling SEO and PPC yourself, that’s time that takes you away from running your business – your most important task. If you have the staff to do it, that’s great, but you might benefit by hiring a contractor or an agency to do the work for you. They will set up, monitor and do the reporting for your campaigns and they have the training to see opportunities and challenges for which they can make changes on the fly.

Do it yourself

We’re not going to try to tell you that SEM is rocket science. It’s not. But it does take a certain understanding of search, marketing and keywords. In addition, Google makes small changes every day, and broad changes several times a year. Occasionally the changes are major and if Google makes a major change to its algorithm, your rank could take a hit that could take a while to come back from. Someone needs to keep up on changes and be ready to make adjustments if an algorithm affects your page rank.

Do you really want to do that yourself? If so, there are plenty of good resources out there: Perry Marshall has some good books and resources; there are websites, such as Search Engine Land and Wordstream that have handy information; and of course, there’s Google itself, which has tutorials and certifications.

How much does it cost?

Google AdWords costs as much as you want to pay. Depending on what you want to accomplish and how much you have for a budget, you can spend $10 a day or $100. Or $1,000. In addition, if you hire someone to handle you SEM for you, they will likely charge a fee for managing your account, making necessary changes, and monitoring and reporting results. A freelancer may charge an hourly fee, while an agency may charge a flat monthly fee.

The bottom line is that concentrating on PPC over SEO will bring you traffic and leads more quickly. But remember: You must have a quality website with relevant content to get people to stay once they land on your site, and you must update the content to get them to return. That involves SEO, which is a longer-term investment. Your website is your lead magnet and PPC and SEO are two strategies that help make it work.