The terms SEO, SEM, and SMM are brandied about so often (by both seasoned professionals and those learning the trade) that it is easy to become confused and use “SEO” to refer to anything and everything involved in online marketing. After all, everyone loves jargon and quick, easy abbreviations. But as a former journalist, I know that it is always important to be accurate — otherwise, things will always get lost in the digital translation.
1. Online marketing is the broadest, umbrella term that refers to any and every practice aimed at increasing website traffic. Everything else is a subset of this term and field.
2. SEO, of course, is one facet — and arguably the most-important one — of Internet marketing that means “search-engine optimization.” It is simply the practice of perfecting a website through actions including keyword research, keyword placement, and website-structure refinement. It is optimizing a single item itself — the website at hand — for search engines. Anything outside of this definition is not SEO.
3. SEM is “search-engine marketing” — and it occurs after SEO. Once a website itself is ready to receive increased traffic in search engines, it is time to focus on factors outside and independent of the website that will help the site to rank highly for its keywords. The most-common SEM practices are pay-per-click (PPC) advertising and linkbuilding — getting links on other websites that point back to the target website (ideally with the keywords in the anchor text).
4. SMM is “social-media marketing,” and it is an aspect of online marketing that is completely different from SEO. This is the method of increasing traffic through social-media networks including Facebook and Twitter. SMM does not depend on SEO because a link in Digg or Reddit will deliver traffic regardless of whether the site has been optimized for Google.
SEM Wikipedia: A Primer on SEO Strategy
These, of course, are only four of the terms that are widely used in online marketing. But it is important to understand the distinctions when embarking on Internet marketing either by yourself or with an SEO consultant.
For example, the term “off-page SEO” can lead to confusion for two reasons: The two words contradict each other, and “off-page SEM” is redundant (needlessly repetitive). All SEO is on-page; all SEM is off-page. Online-marketing experts may use these terms interchangeably and subconsciously since they are so common, but those new to the practice need to understand the differences.
SEOmoz offers a useful “off-page SEO” checklist that consists of twenty-one tactics. While the ideas are very sound, I would just submit that it is actually an SEM checklist with SMM strategy included as well. Of course, this may be my erstwhile reporter-self being pedantic. But I digress.
If you are new to online marketing in choosing to work for yourself or for your company, it can be overwhelming to look at such a list and realize what you’ll still need to do — on an ongoing basis — even after all of the keyword research and website tune-ups. But it is very important. An website that is optimized to receive traffic and attention from Google is not enough — you need to give the Internet regular, gentle nudges in your direction.
It is for this reason that Internet marketing is both an art and a science (just like traditional marketing). Despite the equations that can be used in external keyword tools and SEM data and the technical insights into website construction, there is always an element of uncertainty. Every time I discuss proposals over the phone or Skype with potential clients for my SEO-consultant services, I mutter silently in Hebrew to myself each time they ask this (reasonable) question: “How soon will I see results?”
The honest answer is: “I don’t know. It always depends, and it is different for every website.” Here’s a secret among SEO experts: We never really know what Google wants — we only have a good idea of what will work at any given moment. Google is always rumored to tweak its search-algorithm regularly. But the general theory does produce eventual results. Anyone who promises a definite amount of traffic by a specific date is either a liar who is after a client’s money or someone who uses black-hat SEO software. So, I generally tell potential clients something like, “You will receive a significant jump in traffic within several months that will have the potential to increase further as we measure the results and make changes as necessary.”
I admit that it is hard because I never lie, but I do not want to sound like I do not know what I am doing.
Still, good keyword research and placement, website design and optimization, and a mix of SEM techniques will always produce improved results in general. A good start is to develop a strategy in HTML search-engine optimization and pick good SEO software to help guide your online path. Then, develop ongoing SEM and SMM strategies as described in the SEOmoz article — even if you still prefer to call it “off-page SEO.” In the end, it is the results that truly matter.
Samuel J. Scott, a former journalist in Boston turned Internet marketer in Israel, is the founder and publisher of My SEO Software and Director of Digital Marketing and Communications and SEO Team Leader at The Cline Group. You can follow him at Google+, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. His views here and elsewhere do not necessarily reflect those of his company and clients.