Search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) are two important ways to improve your website’s visibility on search engines such as Google, Yahoo and Bing. Well-executed SEO and SEM programs make your site appear higher in search result listings, which makes it easier for online searchers to find your site.

SEO means developing your company’s website so it ranks highly in “organic,” or unpaid, search results when a relevant search term is used. To be effective at SEO, you need to determine which keywords will draw your target site visitors and make sure they are built into your site development.

SEM, also known as “paid search,” requires less technical know-how. You simply buy pay-per-click ads through Google AdWords, Yahoo or other paid search providers. This approach is powerful because you can reach customers at the moment they are trying to find what you sell; it is cost-effective since you pay only when someone clicks on your ad.

Many business owners like to use SEO and SEM together to maximize their visibility.  Here’s a crash course on how to use both SEO and SEM to increase your site traffic:

Identify the right keywords.
Your website will rank higher in “natural” or organic search results if you know what keywords customers use to find products and services like yours and work them into your site content. This can include everything from your “About Us” page content to your photo captions to your blog postings. Google, Bing and Yahoo all offer free keyword research tools that will help you identify the terms people use to search for sites similar to yours. Other free or low-cost tools include Wordtracker, Keyword Discovery, Wordze and WordStream.

For both SEO and SEM, focus on terms customers really use. Prospects may not naturally gravitate to the flattering ones you use in your marketing materials. Say you run a value-priced barbershop in Seattle. If your customers tend to search for “cheap men’s haircut Seattle,” pay attention and consider setting up some keyword campaigns using those terms—even if the word “cheap” isn’t what you’d put in your company tagline.

Keep your search terms specific.
If you sell a common product like perfume, it may be hard to dominate the search rankings for it. It may be easier to pull in visitors by focusing on something like “handmade perfumes” or “Italian fragrances.” Some small businesses find that “long tail” keywords – phrases that use several words or even a question – work best. For instance, if you sell children’s footwear, you might try “Where can I buy kids’ shoes?” or “kids’ shoes with wheels” instead of just “kids’ shoes.”

Make the most of social media.
A 2013 survey by Searchmetrics found that the top common factor for pages that ranked highly in Google natural search results was the number of shares on Google+™, Google’s social network. As a result, you should consider setting up a profile on Google+ and using it as one of your social media outlets. Other top factors were Facebook shares and the number of links back from other sites. Search engines change their algorithms periodically, which may affect your strategy, so reading sites like Searchmetrics SEO blog and the Moz blog can keep you up to date.

Optimize your budget.
Incorporating your keywords into the articles and other content you post on your site to improve its SEO doesn’t cost anything except your time. However, in SEM, the advertiser who pays the most often gets the best placement. Sometimes, going after the second or third position on a major search engine costs much less than the top one and can still get you a lot of exposure. In general, some experts suggest setting aside about one-third of your marketing budget for social and search strategies.

Test your results.
Site analytics, a report on your site traffic and activity, will help you to learn what works best to attract customers. You can see which terms people use to find their way to your site and then hone your efforts based on this knowledge. In your paid SEM campaign, you will be able to tell from the campaign reports whether your instincts on keywords are working. Since you pay per click, you’ll know which terms are winners by how many clicks you are getting. Either way, the key to success is continual experimentation to determine what works best for your business.


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