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SEO, SEP, or SEM Specialists - Who am I talking to?

In the past few years there has been a lot of confusion over these terms. Some people interchange search engine optimization (SEO) or SEP (search engine positioning) with search engine marketing (SEM). Others feel each term describes a definite specialty. Martha Lee and Rob Sullivan discuss how they each define and implement SEO/SEM and what it means to be an expert in this arena.

How is SEO (SEP) different from SEM or is it?

Martha says:

Search Engine Optimization is about positioning a site to gain merit based search traffic in the “organic” or regular listings while SEM encompasses many facets of online promotion.

In the early days of SEO, one could build targeted keywords into web site content, titles and meta tags, submit to the major search engines, and get found by their audience. As the Internet has grown, so has the complexity of getting search visibility online. One area that is most likely to muddy the waters of where SEO ends and SEM begins, is the ever-growing and broad reaching ‘Link Building Campaign’. Quality link generation, obtained through both editorial results and advertising efforts, plays a vital role in driving search credibility.

Though I see SEO and SEM as two distinct areas of expertise, I find, in my own practice over the last 7 years, that a combination of the two is not only more effective, but essential for establishing a search friendly online business.

Rob Says:

In reality, SEO and SEM are essentially the same. As Martha said, sometimes the terms are used to mean different things but in a nutshell, to me, they are similar in meaning.
I say “similar” because to me, SEO is merely a part of a much broader SEM campaign.
When I started in this industry, there was only SEO – Search Engine Optimization. In fact, when I first heard of Goto (which then became Overture and was later purchased by Yahoo!) my first thought was “paid advertising on search engines won't last – why would you pay for a listing you can easily get for free?”

It soon became apparent, however, that paid search engine listings are at least as effective, and sometimes more effective, than organic search engine rankings.
So to answer the question, I think organic Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and paid search marketing (Pay Per Click, or PPC) are just aspects of a total Search Engine Marketing (SEM) campaign.

So what does it mean to be an SEO/SEM expert?

Martha Says:

Over the last few years, the number of SEO firms has grown enormously. Similarly, so has the number of “SEO experts”. Typically an SEO expert will say anything from “I am an accredited SEO expert (meaning they took a class in search engine optimization) to “I am one of the first to practice SEO” to “I have proven results to show”, to “we’re the biggest SEO firm in (our city/state/region/etc.)” with a name dropping client list to match.

So who do you choose? Well that depends on many things: your needs, your budget, the range of web services they provide (for example, some firms provide development, hosting, design, information architecture, project management, and so on). Also very important is the complexity of your site. For example, a dynamic data base driven or e-commerce site has its own unique challenges to getting effective positioning on the search engines.

In general, the best SEO experts have been around long enough (5 or more years) to get solid results and adjust with their clients changing industries online. They often have a web development and/or design background, and can map out the collaborative process. Most important of all, the best SEO/SEM experts are leading the pack in identifying and implementing client opportunities through new Internet marketing and media trends.

Rob Says:

As Martha suggested, sometimes the best SEO's are ones that don't name drop. Sure I can name drop too – I've worked on celebrities sites, Fortune 500 sites and many you've probably used. Does that make me an SEO expert? Not necessarily. The fact of the matter is, an SEM or SEO expert is one that can show demonstrable results and proof of their worth.

After all, I can claim to rank you “in the top 5 on all the major search engines in 2 weeks.” and I could probably do that for you...For terms that drive little or no traffic, and will result in zero additional revenue for you.

In reality an SEM expert is one who can first identify your needs and then draft a project to help you reach your target audience when and where they need to be reached. Whether that is through an organic optimization plan, a PPC program, newsletter releases, press release optimization, blogs or any other means necessary to help you make money.

Because, lets face it, almost anyone with a web presence is online to make money. The best SEOs know what it takes to help you make money. Optimizing a website so that one can name drop, or write up an impressive case study doesn't make a good (or even average) SEO.

In summary, Martha and Rob say:

SEM is a broad term meant to indicate how one markets their website through search engines. Search Engine Optimization is just one way of achieving results through search engines, as is Pay Per Click. Essentially, SEO drives the baseline integration of words and language, identifying (to both humans and crawlers) what you’re selling, who you’re selling to, and who you are.

A good SEO Expert is able to look at your site, understand your goals, and tailor a search engine marketing campaign to suit your needs. That usually means an initial consultation, a questionnaire, and sometimes additional meetings with primary decision makers to confirm the “collective view and goals” for your online presence. A valued SEO expert is one who truly understands your business, is enthusiastic about what you do, and can help you achieve measurable online success.

Martha Lee
Founder and CEO
Get In Position

Rob Sullivan
Search Engine Marketing and Brand Development Strategist
Get In Position


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