SEO and SEM: introduction and tips for beginners


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SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is one of those topics that you can’t ignore if you are approaching the world of Digital Marketing because the success of your business could depend entirely on this element. 

SEM (Search Engine Marketing), instead, can be defined as advertising on search engines. For example, the first results on a search results page are usually ads that can be created with a SEM strategy. If you have a business and want to be found easily by your customers, SEM could be the digital marketing strategy that suits you best. 

Along this article, you will learn all of this and even more. In fact, we will start talking about search engines to better understand how to use SEO and how to set realistic SEO goals. In addition, you will learn what is SEM and how to use it.

Search engines basics to get started with SEO

It is already obvious that search engines and SEO are strictly connected and, exactly for this reason, you need to really understand the history and the functioning of search engines before getting started with SEO.

Search engines were born in 1990 with “Archie”, which was used to search for the names of web pages, although Archie couldn’t tell what was inside those pages.

A few years later, new search engines (such as Google, Bing, Yahoo!, etc.) started to arise with a big innovation: they used very sophisticated programs to browse a huge amount of web pages. 

Today, most search engines work the same way. In fact, when someone wants to find something, they type into the search engine a word or a phrase, which is called “search query”. Then, the search engine starts looking for that query among billions of web pages until it obtains the best matches for the user, which then appear on the search results page. Results pages can include links to websites, but also local business listings, images, maps, videos, advertisements, etc.

Have you ever wondered what is the mechanism behind a search engine? We want to answer exactly to this question.

Each search engine has its own software, but their functioning is almost the same. In fact, it consists of three steps:

  • Crawling: search engines scan the Internet to discover contents (web pages, images, video, etc.) by using programs called “bot”, “crawler” or “spider”. These bots never stop, as their only purpose is to find new links to add to the index.
  • Indexing: the contents found become part of a huge index, but if search engines find more copies of the same content it won’t be indexed.
  • Ranking: the way search engines rank pages is top secret, but the purpose is always the same, i.e., connect the user with contents that are as pertinent as possible with what he/she is looking for.

Another important thing to know is that search engines don’t look at web pages the way we do, but they look at the code, called HTML. Some parts of this code help the search engine to understand the topic of the web pages. An example is the title, which is included in the tag title. A more complex mechanism is applied to images, as they can’t see them. In this case too, they analyse the code and the “tag ALT”, which is an alternative text where you can describe the image. Obviously, most web sites can be edited using tools that handle HTML coding for you, which are called CMS (Content Management Systems).

When someone searches for something with a search engine, the page that appears includes both a list of organic results (or unpaid results) and a list of display ads (or paid ads). Talking about SEO, we will focus more on the first kind of results, while with SEM we will focus on the second ones.

If you want your website to be found among organic results, you will have to focus on the quality of your contents. In fact, you should always keep in mind that search engines want to help people find pertinent content for their query. Therefore, you need to make your contents valuable to make search engines understand that your website is what users are looking for. When you improve your website to make it appear in organic results, you are doing Search Engine Optimization, or SEO.

SEO: introduction and strategy step by step

The algorithm used by search engines to rank pages is constantly evolving, but the main elements taken into consideration for SEO until now are:

  • Popularity of web pages
  • Keywords 
  • Geographic location of the user
  • Type of device used by the user

What you should always keep in mind, however, is that you don’t create content for the search engine, but for users and the higher is the quality the better it is for them and for you too. 

Planning a SEO strategy is the key to have a clear path and don’t make mistakes. Let’s see how to plan it step by step.

The first step is the keyword research to understand what your potential customers are looking for. To complete this step, you can rely on some tools such as Google Search Console, which we will see in detail later.

The second step is about the related topics. Identifying these topics will allow you to find out more specific keywords and better matches with what your customers are looking for.

At this point, you need to verify the results. How many of your keywords or key phrases make your website appear in search engine results? If through this process you find out that there are some gaps, the next step is understanding how to fill them.

Another important step for your SEO strategy is called “backlinks”. In fact, if your website isn’t linked into other websites, search engines will never be able to find it. To avoid this issue, you could ask other bloggers of similar areas to give a look at your website. In this way, if you have valuable content, they will probably talk about you on their website.

These were the most relevant steps to plan your SEO strategy, but don’t forget to set a deadline for each activity and to evolve your SEO plan according to the changes made to the search engines algorithm.

How to choose keywords

As we anticipated, choosing the right keywords is one of the fundamental steps of a SEO strategy. But how can you find the right ones? There are three aspects to take into consideration:

  • Frequency: it is the number of times a word is searched for.
  • Competition: an already established website will more likely be shown among the search engine results for competitive keywords, but new websites can focus on less competitive keywords.
  • Relevance: the keywords that you select must match what you are offering.

How to set realistic SEO goals

An important part of SEO strategy is identifying your goals. What do you want to achieve online? What is your definition of success?

Once you have a list of your goals, you also need to measure them to be able to understand if you are achieving them. To do this, there are some important parameters to consider:

  • Conversions: monitor the number of visitors that land on your website and make a purchase. 
  • Acquisition and reach: track the number of times your business appears in search results and how often people click to visit your website.
  • Engagement: monitor what visitors read and interact with on your website or how many visitors become fans of your social networking activity.

To measure these parameters, you can rely on some analytics tools available online also for free, such as Google Analytics. If you want to learn more on this tool, please read also: Google Analytics: theory and practice for beginners and Google Analytics: advanced features to become an expert

SEO for international websites

There are some SEO guidelines for those websites that offer their contents in more languages. The first thing to do is make sure that each language has its own web page and avoid mixing more languages in the same page. This is important to facilitate the search engine job, as it can’t understand the language of the text.

Another thing that you should know is that search engines don’t like automatic translation and could consider web pages translated in this way as spam, so it is always better to rely on professional translators. If you want to learn more on translation tools, please read also Translation tools: more than 20 tools for startups

However, translation isn’t everything. If you want to create quality content in each language, you should rely on localisation too. It means that you need to consider different cultures. For example, you could indicate the right currency and the right opening hours of your activity in different time zones. In this way, the user experience of your foreign users will be better.

How to improve your SEO strategy 

Google Search Console is a free tool that you can use to improve your SEO strategy. Let’s see what kind of reports you can find on this tool:

  • “Research Analysis” report: it will help you answer some essential questions, such as what queries bring visitors to your website or when users click on your links.
  • “Links to Your Website” report: it lists the websites linking to yours.
  • “Usability on Mobile Devices” report: it tells you which pages don’t work well on mobile devices.
  • “Crawl” report: it allows you to check if Google can visit your web pages.
  • “Google Index” report: it shows you the information that Google has recorded on your website and if your web pages are accessible.

To get all these useful information, it may take a few days because the tool needs time to collect data and process them. If you want to learn more about this tool, please click on this link. 

What is SEM (Search Engine Marketing) and how it works

We have just talked about SEO and now we need to explain what is SEM. 

SEM allows you to use specific spaces of a search engine to place targeted ads to potential customers when they search for certain terms and phrases relevant for your business. These are the so-called “keywords”.

Another unique feature of SEM is that the advertiser only pays when someone clicks on the ad. Therefore, if nobody clicks on your ad, you won’t have to pay anything. These kinds of ads are called “pay-per-click”.

So, what is the advantage of relying on this strategy? Differently from traditional marketing, your ads can only be found when a user searches for that specific topic. It means that the user is really interested in what you offer because they searched just for that.

SEM is based on an auction system: each advertiser makes an offer and the higher it is the higher is the possibility that his/her ad will be chosen. However, the offer that you make (called “cost-per-click”) isn’t everything. What matters even more is the pertinence of your ads with the keyword in question. The score that you obtain in terms of pertinence is called “quality score”.

The mathematical calculation that is applied is the following: your bid multiplied by the score obtained in terms of quality. The ad with the highest result is the winner of the auction, which means that it will be the first result shown in the search results page when the user searches for a specific keyword.

How to make a keyword more effective

Measuring ad clicks will help you know if your keywords are effective or not, but before starting a SEM campaign you won’t be able to measure the value of the keywords you are generating. So, how can you do keyword research before adding them to your campaign? You have various options:

  • Ask yourself if the keyword describes your product or service in the best possible way
  • Consider the level of traffic that the keyword can generate
  • Keep in mind what the competition is doing

By considering all the steps that we just listed, you will be able to find keywords that have high levels of pertinence and traffic and low levels of competition.

Did you know that search engines might show your ads even when people search for other terms that you didn’t choose? This mechanism is called “broad match” and is very useful because it means that you don’t need to add every variant of the keyword you want to use, such as singular, plural, or incorrect spelling. On the other hand, it also means that sometimes search engines show your ads for keywords that aren’t pertinent with your activity. To avoid this issue, you can rely on two more types of matching:

  • Phrase match: to switch from a broad match to a phrase match, just put the keyword between inverted commas. In this way, only the exact keyword or minimum variations of your keyword will activate the ad.
  • Exact match: to switch from a broad match to an exact match, just put the keyword between square brackets. In this way, only the exact keyword or the plural of your keyword will activate the ad.

Another alternative is choosing some “negative keywords” to prevent your ads from showing in searches that are not relevant for your business. In fact, negative keywords block your ads whenever a search contains any or all these terms.

How to make your ads stand out

Have you ever noticed, after performing an online search, that the ads displayed on the results pages are similar to each other? This is exactly what you should avoid and here we will explain how to do it.

As we have already stressed enough, pertinence is a key factor in a SEM campaign. For this reason, the title and the meta description of your ads should match the words used by the user for the search. However, don’t forget that also your landing page needs to be pertinent with your ads.

Another tip that we would like to share with you is offering discounts and special benefits, which is an easy way to get attention if matched with a good CTA (Call to Action). In other words, you must tell users what you want them to do when they visit your website.

How to measure the results of SEM campaigns

One of the best things about SEM is the opportunity to measure the value generated by campaigns. To do this, you can use some tools provided by search engines such as Google or Bing. 

But which are the conversions that you should monitor? It depends on your goals. Do you want people to purchase your product? Do you want them to subscribe at your newsletter? Do you want them to download a PDF? These are already three different types of conversions: transactions, contact via forms and downloads.

Once you have identified the type of conversion you want to monitor, you must learn how to do it. The first thing to do is finding the right place to put the conversion tracking code, which could be the order confirmation page in the case of transactions. When the code is installed, you will start receiving conversion statistics. They are useful data to understand if your campaigns are working or not.

Conclusions on SEO and SEM

SEO can be a complex subject to understand, especially for beginners. For this reason, along this article we included all the main information that you need to know to get started in this field. But if you want to learn more, please have a look on the resources provided by Google at this link. 

At the same time, SEM is a digital marketing strategy that you should take into consideration if you run a company or even more if you run a startup. Along this article, we explained what it is and how you can take advantage of this strategy. Are you ready to start planning your SEM campaigns? If you want to learn more, please give a look at the Best Practice on Google ads at this link. 

If you are interested in SEO tools, please read also: SEO tools: the best ones for beginners

For more information read also the related white paper that you find on this page Digital Marketing for Startups