by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 10/15/2005

When you search on SEO vs. SEM in Google, the #1 result is a discussion on a Google community message board. It just shows the fundamental misunderstanding of SEO vs. SEM, even among those who do it for a living. On the surface, this crowd believes that SEO is on-site factors while SEM is off-site factors. Nothing could be further from the truth. Search engine optimization is non-paid factors, while search engine marketing are paid-factors—paying the search engine companies themselves, that is. The analogy is exactly that of how advertising and public relations relate to each other. In advertising, you are paying the media outlet that carries your message. But with PR, the media outlet carries your message “for free” because it is a valid and appropriate part of the editorial content.

So, it is fair to say that SEM is the equivalent of paid advertising, while SEO is the equivalent of PR. And with public relations, you don’t stop at just adjusting the company’s message (on-site factors). You take it to every un-paid media outlet that reaches the appropriate audience. This may be trade publications or TV news or newspaper reporters. It may be online or offline journalists. And it may be in the form of a stunt designed to capture public attention and be carried in the news. In other words, public relations is very concerned with “off-site” factors. Similarly, an SEO campaign that only tweaks site code is only doing half the picture. Opportunities must be identified and human relationships forged for an SEO campaign to be effective. And true to the moniker, you actually are optimizing the search engine.

Of course, not all online outreach can be called search engine optimization, because if the traffic is being driven directly through word-of-mouth, and type-in URLs, then the search engine isn’t the traffic broker. This is how Google itself rose to dominance. One friend told another, and so-on. This viral marketing buzz is actually traditional public relations. But once Google rose to dominance, it became the broker of so much Web traffic, that the game became to optimize for it, thereby leveraging it’s own phenomenal public relations. There is still a naming challenge, because traditional public relations still factors in so heavily, but online outreach and SEO is so important, and so clearly in the domain of public relations, due to it’s nature as un-paid publicity outlets. Sometimes, I think of this as search relations or PR 2.0.

SEM, on the other hand is a clear deal, exactly analogous to a media buy. You may not be buying column inches or seconds of prime time television airtime. But you’re buying something better: click-through on uniquely pre-qualified traffic. It’s so well pre-qualified because they performed a search on related words. An IdeaLabs company called GoTo originally pioneered this concept, and Google brought it to massive popularity through AdWords. Since, it has become a major media outlet in its own right—and by that, I mean a channel by which to reach potential customers, a.k.a. prospects. SEM is also a good deal—but not as good of a deal in my opinion as SEO. After all, the paid adds are the minority of the page, and are not the main draw of sites such as Google. It’s the genuine search results. And being in there is the realm of SEO and PR.