Introduction to Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

Information retrieval Search Engines existed long before the Internet. Electronic Card Catalogs, Lexis/Nexis, travel reservation systems and private search databases have existed for almost as long as computers have. Early search queries may have been made by punch card.
Even in the early years of the Internet, before the Internet evolved to include Web browsers, there were search engines running a variety of programs and protocols. Because techies have a strange sense of humor, many of these programs are named after “Archie” comic book characters. These included Archie, Veronica, Jughead and Gopher (not a comic strip character). After the browser was invented as a graphical way to displaying information, it became an interface for search. A history of search can be found on the iProspect Web site.
The concept behind Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is quite simple: when a consumer or business person searches the Web through either a text box or by clicking through a directory hierarchy, they are in “hunt mode.” This mode is unique because it indicates that the person is looking for information, usually of a direct or indirect commercial nature. Marketers understand that this “hunt mode” means that the searcher may very well be somewhere in the buying cycle, researching a product or service to try and satisfy an immediate need or future need. That makes search engine results some of the best sources of targeted traffic, whether that traffic originates from “organic” unpaid search listings or paid advertising listings.
To leverage the power contained within this targeted traffic source, marketers must understand how to effectively use both paid and organic SEM and what they can expect each methodology to achieve. Search engine traffic is unique in the following ways:
• Search engine traffic is a non-intrusive method of Internet marketing. The majority of online and offline advertising intrudes on the audience, interrupting their activities. Search is unique in tapping a searcher at the exact moment they are seeking knowledge or a solution. Searchers are on a mission – it’s “just-in-time marketing”.
• Search engine traffic originates from a voluntary, audience-driven search. This means the visitors from a search results link have not only selected your listing from among your peers, but chose the search query that resulted in your listing being shown.
• Search engine traffic results from a fixed inventory of searches. To truly qualify as search engine traffic (or pure search traffic), the search must be one that the searcher initiated as a search, either by clicking a search link in a directory style portal or by filling out a search query box. See Contextual Link Inventory for an exception.
“Organic” search engine marketing (Organic Search Listings) combines the best practices of technology, usability, copy/linguistics and online PR. This is because many search engines base their relevancy algorithms on a combination of the text they see on a page or site, combined with external elements such as links and user behaviors/preferences.
Marketers can buy text-link search results on all of the top 15 search sites as ranked by Media Metrix and NetRatings. That’s quite a change from 1998 or before, when none of the major search engines included paid listings within the search results. The explosion in popularity of paid search results advertising can be attributed to the search engines’ need for alternative revenue sources, marketers’ increasing requests for search results traffic, and the high value of the traffic generated through search results.
Unpaid (otherwise known as organic or algothimic) search engine traffic was once fairly easy to garner – before there were 3 billion documents competing for attention in the search engine databases.
Some marketers believe that there are “tricks” that will improve the relevancy of sites within the search engines that are spider (crawler) based. Not only do some of these tricks not work, many of them can result in negative relevance penalties as the engines take measures to punish search marketers who seek to manipulate ranking and relevance. That said, there are still compelling reasons to put legitimate efforts behind organic SEO optimization, particularly efforts in site design, HTML formatting, copy optimization and server platform adjustments. Within the last several years, paid listings have played an ever-increasing role in most marketers’ minds, due to their increasing screen real estate (some engines now display more paid listings than free!).
The following types of paid listings are most common:
• Paid Placement
• Directory Paid Inclusion
• XML (Per-URL) Paid Inclusion
• Shopping Search
• Graphical (Rich Media) Search Inventory
Many marketers like to compare organic SEO to public relations because PR is so important to a company, yet the ROI on PR can sometimes be a challenge to measure. In both SEO and PR, marketers have the options of hiring internal staff, bringing in consultants, or using an outside agency. The same options apply for paid search marketing. However, often larger paid search campaigns are so large they may require some campaign optimization or bid management technology combined with internal or external expertise.
Search marketing has already proven itself a valuable part of an overall integrated campaign, for both branders and direct marketers. All kinds of marketers can easily benefit from a dialogue with a searcher; whether that searcher is facing a crisis, is in need of information, or is ready to purchase.