Online Exclusive: How to Use SEM and SEO

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Want to get the most out of both search engine marketing and search engine optimization? You need to understand what both of them are best designed to do - and what they're not designed to do. If you figure that out, you can get the most mileage out of your SEO and your SEM. If you don't figure it out, you can end up where every other major search mistake leaves you: with a gaping hole in your advertising budget.


The basic point to keep in mind is this: Paid search is your best option for reaching people looking to make a purchase. SEO does its best work reaching out to people doing research.


Before we go into how to take make the best use of the two sides of search, you need to understand who's searching to begin with. The search population is basically broken into two groups:


· Researchers are looking for more information on a topic. They don't know what they want to find - and they might not want to find anything specific just yet. They only want to know more.


· Purchasers know exactly what they want. They're searching because they don't know where to find it. At the most extreme, that could be the searcher who knows exactly where she wants to fly to for vacation, the type of hotel she wants to stay in, and the price she's willing to pay; all she needs is the best Web site to book everything on. In general, purchasers are looking to do something (like book a flight), rather than to learn something. (There are plenty of searchers who want to do something specific, but who aren't looking to buy anything - but we'll still call them searchers, for the sake of simplicity. And you can be a "purchaser" of information, too - looking to subscribe to a particular magazine is one example.)


Of course, there is a middle ground: people who have a pretty good idea of what they want, but haven't worked out the kinks just yet. Even if someone knows she wants to go on vacation in Orlando, FL, there might be a lot of information - like the kind of hotel she wants, or the flight length she'll tolerate - that she's left undecided.


But, by and large, those are the two types of people on search engines. And the same person will transition from researcher to purchaser, and maybe back to researcher, over time. Before the woman looking to go to Orlando decides on her exact itinerary, she might spend a long time researching what kinds of things there are to do in Orlando, what kinds of hotels there are, flight schedules - and even whether Orlando is the right vacation spot for her. She only moves into the "purchaser" category when she works out all those details. And, once she books her flight and hotel, there very well might be more things she wants to learn about - where the best Orlando restaurants are, for example - that will put her back into "researcher" mode. Which starts the process over again.


Search engines/searchers, advertisers/purchasers. That's the breakdown of who using search engines. Of course, there's the second question of who's talking to the searchers - the search engines and the advertisers. And they follow a similar breakdown: the search engines are researchers; the advertisers are purchasers.


Search engines are researchers because they tackle keywords in the same way researchers do. When searchers submit a query, the search engines effectively ask about that keyword, "What can I (the search engine) learn about this topic?" Once they've gone through all the research, they pass it along to the searchers. Often, that produces a very wide range of results - as good initial research tends to.


Advertisers are different. They're involved in the purchasing process. Like purchasers, they're not interested in information; they're interested in getting something done. So the results that advertisers show are specific, and targeted to reach a specific goal. Their whole approach to search has nothing to do with information for its own sake, and everything to do with making a sale. In other word, it's a purchaser mentality. And it speaks to purchasers.


One good example is a search for "school supplies" (a popular topic this time of year). For that search, in Google, the first nine organic results feature some school supply retailers, a retailer that sells to schools, and the Web site of the National School Supply and Equipment Association, (a school supply trade organization). The list is also a thoroughly wide range of school-supply related information, only some of which will be relevant to any given searcher interest.


By contrast, the vast majority of pay-per-click ads for that term are focused on a very specific goal: driving sales from searchers looking to buy school supplies. With very little exception, all the ads focused on selling school supplies to school-supply "purchase" searchers (say, parents or older students).


The organic listings speak to researchers. The paid ads speak to purchasers.


SEO won't change things. So organic search speaks much better to researchers; paid search speaks much better to purchasers. Of course, up until now, we've focused on the way things are because they happen to be that way. Paid search focuses on purchasers because advertisers have decided to make it that way.


Organic search focuses on researchers because the search engines design themselves to do that. And so it's tempting to say that none of this is inherent to the system - that if advertisers changed the way they used SEM, and site designers made better use of SEO to improve their organic ranking on purchasing-related searches, all of this could change.


That assumption is partially right. An advertiser can use SEM for branding, for example - and, for branding purposes, can advertise in ways that targets "researchers." It can be a highly effective tactic. At the same time, good SEO can drive a site's organic rankings up on "purchase" keywords - regardless of search engines' organic/research underpinnings.


But a major problem remains. In paid search, the advertiser has control over the landing page that an ad leads to. In organic search, no matter how good your SEO is, the search engine has the last say about the URL your listing leads to. And because the search engines don't think like advertisers - they think like researchers - relying entirely on SEO might get you high listings on purchase terms; but the pages on your site that come up might not be the best ones to show a given searcher - and might even turn searchers away.


You might want searchers to go to a product page, say; the search engine might send them to an "articles" page, a glossary entry, your FAQ page - or a different purchasing page that's far less useful for achieving your conversion goal.


Take an articles page. Articles pages can be excellent for SEO, because they're filled with content (so the search engines recognize them as relevant for a the keywords that are used in that article). They can also be used to drive article readers to take an action, once they've read it. Indeed, an excellent way to draw researchers to your site is to use articles to boost your SEO, bring them to your site from organic listings, and familiarize them with your brand.


That's a great SEO tactic for attracting researchers. But if a searcher looking to make a purchase follows an organic link to an article on your site, she might assume that your site isn't selling anything (or might lack the patience or time to look for your products page), press the back space, and proceed to your competitor's site. You've lost a customer who may never come back - and your competitor has gained her. Meanwhile, if you're doing well enough in SEO to rank high enough to draw purchaser traffic, you've probably paid an SEO firm lots of money.


That's a situation you can't afford to be in. A better tactic is to use SEO to focus on researchers, use SEM for purchasers and whenever guiding searchers from point A to point B can be a help, and be able to get the most out of search at every step of the buying process.


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