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What Search Marketing Is

Search marketing is a form of digital marketing (or Internet marketing) that consists of a variety of tactics to promote your business by increasing visibility of your content to searchers. Search marketing usually begins when a searcher enters a keyword into a search engine, such as Google or Bing, and sees a search engine results page (SERP) that contains a series of search results.

Each country in the world has a set of search engines that attract the bulk of the searchers in that market. We talk mostly about Google Search and Microsoft’s Bing search because they are by far the two most important search engines in the United States. (Yahoo! continues to operate a search site, but Microsoft technology engine powers Yahoo! results in most countries.)

If you engage in search marketing outside the United States, Google and Bing might still be the most important search engines to you in those countries, but you’ll want to investigate their market shares to be sure. In the Nordic countries, for example, Google has nearly a 100% market share. In China, Baidu is the leading search engine. In Russia, it’s Yandex. For some up-to-date information about which search engines matter in various country markets, check out our website (SEMincBook.com/country-search-engines).


You might never have paid attention to all the different kinds of search results on a page, but search marketers distinguish between two main kinds, organic search and paid search. Exhibit 1-1 shows which results on the screen are organic results and which are paid.

Exhibit 1-1

Exhibit 1-1 A search results page. Search engines show paid and organic results on the same page, but do identify the “sponsored results” as being paid for by advertisers.

Organic search is also called search engine optimization (SEO) or, less commonly, natural search. Organic search results are typically on the left side of the page, often below a paid search ad or two. Organic search results consist of a title and a preview of the content—text from web pages and blog posts, or photos for images and videos.

Search engine marketing (SEM) is a broader term than SEO that encompasses any kind of search results (organic and paid). Some people, however, use the term search engine marketing to refer to paid search only, contrasting SEO with SEM, so you need to judge its meaning from context.

Paid search goes by other names, such as pay per click (PPC), cost per click (CPC), paid placement, or sometimes search engine advertising, but we stick with the name paid search in this book. Paid search results tend to be at the top and on the right side of search result pages, but you can find them at the bottom of the page sometimes, too. Paid search ads have traditionally consisted of a title and a description—all words—but search engines are beginning to experiment with bolder forms of advertising that include images.

Let’s look at a partial list of the different kinds of search results and where they come from, as shown in Exhibit 1-2. You can see a mixture of these result types on the page, and some have tabs that searchers can press to isolate to a specific type (all images, for example).

Exhibit 1-2

Exhibit 1-2 Types of search results. Search results come in many different flavors and are drawn from many different places.

  • Web pages: “Web pages” takes in a lot of ground, everything from eCommerce sites to message boards, blog posts, and anything that doesn’t fall into one of the other categories below. You’ll see them on the results page with a link to the web page (drawn from the title on the web page) and a snippet of text from the page that usually contains the search keywords, as shown in Exhibit 1-3.

    Exhibit 1-3

    Exhibit 1-3 Organic search results. Organic search results usually contain a title, URL, and snippet, but can also include other items.

  • Ads: Paid search results are ads that you create, consisting of a headline and a description that each provides details on the offer, as you can see in Exhibit 1-4.

    Exhibit 1-4

    Exhibit 1-4 Paid search results. Paid search results include a headline, description, and display URL, but sometimes have more.

  • Products: When the search is for a retail item, a picture and price of the item is displayed with a link to the store that sells it. These products are drawn from Google Product Search or Bing Shopping from product listings submitted by retailers; you can see an example of dog grooming supplies pictured in Exhibit 1-1.
  • News: Some keywords match breaking news stories drawn from known news sources that have been approved by Google or Bing.
  • Local businesses: If a search seems to be looking for a nearby location, such as a store, the search results include a map with “pins” for locations near the searcher, or a merely a text list of nearby places.
  • Images: A search might include a gallery of photographs or other pictures, sometimes from image sites such as Flickr, but they can be drawn from any site on the web.
  • Videos: More and more, search results include videos that can play right from the search result page. Google mostly shows videos from YouTube (which is owned by Google), while Bing shows videos from both YouTube and other video sites.
  • Social media: Some people consider video and image content to be social media, but there is a lot more social content in the search results. Wikipedia, blog posts, and content from other social venues such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Pinterest have all begun showing up in search results.
  • Direct answers: Some specialized searches produce results designed to provide the answer right on the search result page, obviating the need to click through to a new page to get the answer. You’ll see this for searches as varied as the weather, stock ticker symbols, airline flights, events, and anything famous enough for a Wikipedia entry. Google provides some direct answers through its Knowledge Graph, which it has been rolling out in multiple languages in recent years.

In recent years, both Google and Bing have aggressively integrated these different types of search results onto their main search result pages, referring to this approach as blended search (or in Google’s case, Universal Search). Some of these different kinds of search results can be isolated from the rest, as you can see in Exhibit 1-5.

Exhibit 1-5

Exhibit 1-5 Search result navigation. Searchers can drill down to isolate results of a certain type in various ways.

It was once commonplace to use entirely separate search engines to look for these kinds of results. Product search engines, also known as shopping search engines, such as Shopzilla and NexTag allow searchers to shop for products across retailers, comparing prices and shipping times to make their purchase. Internet Yellow Pages (IYP) sites, such as Superpages and YellowPages.com allow you to find local businesses. Nowadays, many of these so-called vertical search sites are fading in importance, as Google and Bing invest in integrating these specialty types of searches into their own mainline search results. In fact, some verticals have very little independent competition these days; Google and Bing show the lion’s share of video and image searches, for example.

Not all vertical search sites are fading. Travel sites, such as TripAdvisor, Kayak, and Expedia, still receive lots of traffic. Yelp provides reviews of local businesses. Some searchers head straight to these sites to do their searches, whereas others may stumble across them in the mainstream engines’ search results. But clearly Google and Bing have such sites in their sights, so to speak, and they come under more pressure every year.

Other specialty searches are under attack, too. Try searching for an airline flight and you might see flight choices displayed right on the search results page. You can still use travel search sites, such as Kayak, but Google and Bing will be happy to book your reservation for you with their own proprietary reservation facilities. A few years ago, the searcher might have been sent to Expedia or Priceline.

When the mainstream search engines have not been able to co-opt the search results of vertical search engines, they’ve bought them. Google owns YouTube, the largest video search facility. Microsoft owns Travelocity, the travel search and booking site.

Google has been under pressure lately from government regulators for favoring its own properties in its search results, but as of this writing, no changes have been forced. Google does favor its own video results from YouTube, for example, but that isn’t any different from what Microsoft does with Travelocity results in Bing.

Social media items have become more prominent in the search results, including multimedia (images, audio, and video), social network conversations, and blog posts. Microsoft has a deal with Facebook to show results, and you’ll sometimes see results from Twitter and LinkedIn. Google, of course, will show results from its Google+ social network when relevant. One of the most interesting aspects of social media results is that they are often personalized—not every searcher sees the same results.

Although many websites, led by Amazon, have personalized their user experience, until the last few years search engines have been decidedly retro. Different searchers, by and large, were getting the exact same results when they type the same keyword into a search engine.

A quick review of the history of search technology reveals that the vast majority of improvements have been based on the content: analyzing it better, understanding it more deeply, and assessing its quality. But what about applying the same kind of thought to the searcher? After all, what makes a successful search is the best match between the content and searcher, so why have search engines focused on analyzing the content so much and ignored the searcher?

In part, the maniacal focus on content stems from the fact that understanding the content is easier than understanding people. However, despite the inherent difficulty, search engines are increasingly emphasizing personalized search results based on several factors, including the following:

  • The searcher’s location: As we saw with local search results, search engines already try to show results from companies nearby, often by picking out place names within the keywords. The search engines also use the IP address of the searcher’s device to approximate location. With the rise of GPS capabilities in mobile devices, search engines can sometimes pinpoint location with startling accuracy. When GPS data is less accurate or unavailable, WiFi hotspot locations can also help identify searcher locations.
  • The searcher’s device: Closely related to location, search engines are increasingly showing search results differently on phones, tablets, and computers. Google in particular has been experimenting with a “tablet” interface that shows fewer ads—often at the bottom of the screen. Mobile searchers tend to click on fewer paid search ads than computer users, so expect the search engines to continue to try new approaches to appeal to mobile searchers.
  • The searcher’s interests: Could search results be improved if search engines knew searchers’ interests? When searchers enter “jaguar,” are they looking for the car, the animal, the football team, or the Apple operating system? If search engines understood the searchers’ interests, they might be able to take a better guess. Google, especially, is mining information from searcher’s Gmail discussions and from where they navigate on the web to determine which sites might be of more interest than others. Data collected by Google Analytics and Google Wallet might someday allow Google to show results based on previous purchases.
  • The searcher’s friends: As noted earlier, Bing sometimes personalizes results based on what a searcher’s Facebook friends like, as shown in Exhibit 1-6. Expect Google to do the same with its Google+ social network.

    Exhibit 1-6

    Exhibit 1-6 Social media search results. Social media can show up in the search results, sometimes personalized based on searchers’ friends.

Now that you know more about what search marketing is, it’s time to begin exploring what you can do about it.

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