We've talked a good deal about SEO on the DT.C blog in the past, (and that's because it is very important) but an area closely related to it that we haven't given much attention to is SEM - Search Engine Marketing. Although you may not be thrilled to discover that there is another 3-letter acronym that is seemingly difficult to grasp in the web-world, it's really quite simple. SEM refers to Paid Search—that is paid search listings and ads.
SEO is solely focused on optimizing web sites so that they are understood more clearly by search engines and to fit the vast array of other qualifications that are in their ranking systems. The goal of SEO is to improve a web site's organic results for certain search queries. Even though some companies claim to be able to make your web site rank first in every relate-able search for a set fee, one does not simply pay a search engine to have his or her site at the top of the rankings. That is, of course, unless you're using SEM.
As stated previously, SEM encompasses Paid Advertisements (often looking like normal search results) that are set to display according to specific keywords. These ads are displayed in the designated advertising space, as opposed to being listed in the organic search rankings. The goal of SEM is not to rank higher or more often in the organic rankings, but to instead appear when certain keywords are used.
The image below is a screen shot I took of the results of a search for Painters in Atlanta Georgia. This lays out the specified AD space for SEM ads, in comparison to the organic search results (which are affected by SEO).
SEM is able to accomplish different goals, depending on what your focus is with paid ads. You can use SEM to increase traffic to your website, advertise a special event or sale for a time, encourage more followers on Facebook & more. If your focus is to gain more traffic to your site, Google Ad Words can certainly help you do that. If your focus is to gain more followers or to advertise a special of some sort, Facebook Ads can help you meet that goal.
SEM is great for sparking new growth and finding which methods are most effective for your SEO, but it should not be left alone. SEO should accompany SEM at all times, and sustain SEM's influence for the long-haul. SEM is great for getting people to where you are, but SEO is what keeps them coming back.
SEM can help uncover which keywords draw the most traffic to your site, since the ads are based on keywords. This provides a (relatively) quick test as to which keywords are most effective. Once this is determined, you can use these keywords in your SEO - which will provide the long-term results everyone wants!
Although Facebook Advertising can be very helpful in increasing interest in your business (Give-away ads, I'm talking to you), the effects are not as long-term & they do not encourage traffic to your website. However, it can certainly inspire new customers.
SEM can be a great tool for accomplishing the goals you wish for your online activity, but at the end of the day it is only a tool. It is not a magic pill, but more synonymous with a steroid shot (to use Daniel's example). A quick shot in the arm is fine for large step ahead, but it takes continued efforts to sustain growth.