The first step is to get your site into the search engines such as Google, Yahoo!, and Ask.com (formerly Ask Jeeves), so when people search on a term that's relevant to your site, you have a chance to show up on the search results page. Which is (need I point out?) free advertising for your site.
So SEO refers to the (complex, time-consuming, hair-tearing) process and art of organizing and architecting your site to make it as easy as possible for search engines to find and index, and then the even more arcane art of trying to get your site to show up on the first page of the search results. That's a topic we'll cover in another feature.
Optimization also shows up at the so-called "back end," meaning that when those Google or Yahoo! searchers click on your listing or your keyword advertisement and get to your site, what they see is what they expect to see, and they are able to get, or do, or become aware of whatever it is you want them to get, or do, or become aware of. You'll want to optimize your site in terms of the flow of customer action so they can buy that widget or sign up for that newsletter, rather than get lost or confused or driven away by poor design, lame architecture, and worse implementation. We'll point out this aspect of SEO where appropriate.
The second major step in SEM — and the main topic of this Scoop — is paid search.
Paid search lets you advertise to people who have searched on a term that is in some way relevant to your business. If somebody who works in an auto repair shop searches for Honda Bumper Pullers, and you sell Honda Bumper Pullers — you have a chance to have your ad show up on that search results page (maybe in addition to your site showing up in the regular search results listing).
Even better, if somebody searches not for Honda Bumper Pullers, but for something less specific but still relevant (like Honda Specialty Tools), you can pay to have your ad show up on those results pages too.
So paid search lets you actively reach out and grab traffic and potential customers rather than just waiting for them to enter a search term that brings your site onto the first search results page.
Now we're talking about those ads you see on the search results page — on Google, for example, when you perform a search, the results page shows you Web pages that have the term you want, and just above that might be one or two additional results with a blue background labeled "sponsored links." And on the right is another column of text ads, also labeled "sponsored links." Those are what you're bidding for. You aren't bidding to show up in the main results listing — that's generated by the search engine according to its own rules, and you can't buy that position. No, really, you can't. (Which doesn't mean someone won't claim to be able to sell it to you!)
In addition, Yahoo! and Google place paid ads on partner Web sites. This is called AdSense (in Google-ese), otherwise known as "contextual ads." You've seen these ad boxes on the Web, labeled "Ads by Goooooogle" and containing three or four text ads — we use them on various pages here at AllBusiness.com. Google decides the topic of the partner page and places your ads accordingly. So, for example, we go to one of David Carlick's expert columns on Internet Marketing on AllBusiness.com and scroll to the bottom where we find the Google text ads. Google figures that Carlick's column is a good place to put ads from search-engine marketing firms (duh!), so on the day I looked I found ads for "E Marketing Strategies," and for "Proven Direct Marketing," and for "Highly Targeted PPC."
You can bid to show up on editorial pages like this in the same way. In fact, it's just another check box on your bidding form. However, ads on editorial Web pages do perform a bit differently than they do on search results pages, so you'll want to test that when planning your various campaigns.