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Everyone wants something for free. People like to say there’s no free lunch.

To make it to the top of the free listings on Google you’re going to compete against companies that have been paying professionals to earn top placement.

For competitive terms, you don’t stand a chance. It’s more or less pay-to-play.

But there are some areas you can compete in for low, or no, cost. But first, let’s get some clarity on which parts of the SERP (search engine results page) are ads that you need to setup through Google Ads, and which are earned placements and “free”.

What’s the difference between SEM and SEO

SEM refers to paid ads and SEO refers to organic, free listings. Google charges for ad space, but not organic listings, which is where your opportunity lies. This short video explains the difference.

Transcript

Good afternoon!

This afternoon I am going to go over the difference between SEO and SEM. A little basic, but still important because there are still a lot of people that get this confused. So SEM stands for search engine markeitng and SEO stands for search engine optimization. SEM deals only with paid advertisements. SEO deals only with the organic or “free” listings.

I did air quotes for that one, I know you cant see but I did!

So SEM, good example, are these shopping ads right here. You also have a paid search ad right here from Phillips and this is for baby bottles. You can have between zero and four of these types of ads up at the top, and you also may have ads at the bottom. Down here we don’t have any but on other searches we would, and this can take other shapes and forms. That’s SEM.

SEO is right here. You don’t have to pay to be a part of these. Now you may have to pay a search engine optimization specialist to get ranking in here, which is why I air quoted the word free. But you’re not paying Google to be here and you cannot pay them any amount of money to show up in these listings. If you want to end up at the top, you have to bid for the ad space up here.

What are some edge cases? We have a search for “HVAC Chicago” and you’re seeing the LSAs (local search ads) show up here. These are the Google Guaranteed ads, these are sold on a cost per lead basis, you have to apply and be accepted, go through background checks, all that fun stuff. I don’t know if we’re necessarily considering this a part of SEM yet or if we’ve given it kind of its own category, but it is paid media so it is not a part of SEO, it is not search engine optimization. We’re only dealing with organic listings for SEO.

Something maybe a little bit more familiar, you have the map pack here. If you type in “plumbers near me”, which is what I did here, we have four ads up top and then the map pack with three organic listings. These are organic listings. It is a little bit different than ranking in here, there are two separate algorithms that determine whether you show up here (in the map pack) or here (in the organic listings), so you’ll get different results from each of those areas. They’re tied a little more closely together than they used to be, but you have to do different things to end up in here (the map pack) and that’s considered Local SEO. Not to make things too confusing, but sometimes you can have ads show up in here. They will always be labeled with a little ad marker.

That’s the difference between SEO and SEM, remember that SEM is search engine marketing, that’s pay to play, and SEO is search engine optimization, which is earned rankings for free listings.

That’s all, thank you!

How to get listed in Google’s Map Pack

This is one area that you can earn a spot in fairly easily without the need for an SEO company and has relatively few paid listings. You can optimize your business for this area by taking a few steps:

  1. Get your business listed on Google at business.google.com
  2. Set the appropriate business categories for your company
  3. Set the landing page URL (usually the homepage)
  4. Make sure your listing’s name, address, and phone number match what’s on your website

There’s obviously more you can do to optimize for this area, but not all of them are free. The one optimization tactic that you absolutely must do if you’re concerned about map pack rankings is earn reviews. Want to know how important it is? If I research just about any category of business that’s eligible to show up in the 3-pack, I can almost guarantee that people are looking for the “best”. If you type “best mexican restaurant”, “best plumber”, or “best mechanic”, Google will filter out any business with a rating below 4 stars.

That’s not all.

It’s a well known fact that earning positive reviews are one of the most impactful marketing tactics to drive new sales. This is an SEO tactic that you can do for free that also has the side benefit of immediately helping you earn more money. Ka-ching.

This really only applies for local terms, but wouldn’t you know it more and more searches are becoming local searches every day. You may need an SEO to audit your business and inform you how much opportunity there is in the local space for you, but trust me, there’s probably a local component to your business.

And remember, the map pack is usually at the top of the page.

Write content focusing on a specific problem

I’ll let you in on a trade secret:

There are dozens of keyword research tools out there, and most of them suck. As SEOs it’s our job to find one that doesn’t and use it to drive insights that help our clients rank. It takes time and money and knowledge that I can’t give you in a short snippet of text.

But you also don’t necessarily need it.

There’s something in our industry called long-tail keywords. These are low volume searches that people conduct that are hard to pick up on using traditional keyword research tools. These long tail queries are fantastic to write content for because very often you don’t need to do anything but make sure Google indexes it. From there, their algorithm matches you up to the long tail searches being conducted and starts to rank you. So how do you find the long tail keywords without doing any keyword research?

Focus on a specific problem that some of your customers are having and google it.

Let’s say you’re Honda, and your sales team is telling you that people are having a hard time setting up bluetooth on the Honda Pilot from years 2008-2014. Stellar, now Google it and try to find a result that answers everyone’s questions.

Oh, content that answers everyone’s questions doesn’t exist on page one? There’s your long-tail blog topic.

Because keyword research tools are based on historical data and people type long tail queries a bunch of different ways, it’s easy to miss these content opportunities. But if you’re in tune with problems your customers have and you can’t find the information that solves their problem easily on Google, then you have a solid content topic that can earn placement by itself*.

We used this strategy to help a client rank for the term “firewood for sale” in his area by writing a 2,800 word guide to buying firewood. Any question that he was asked by a client went into that article and was answered, including the best type of firewood to burn, seasoned vs. unseasoned wood, how much wood is in a cord, what to do about creosote, etc. We did this without doing any keyword research – we simply used our knowledge of his customers. He nabbed position one in less than a year, and has subsequently sold out of firewood, even though he put a premium on his prices. We did nothing to promote the content, we just focused on solving his customer’s problems.

*disclaimer: this is a solid tactic for earning rankings but it does not guarantee placement. 

How to Track SEO Results for Free

We’ve written about this before, but the best way for business owners to track progress to see if something is working or not is to install Google Analytics and track your SEO results that way. Rankings are a garbage metric – you care about money, not position, right? If I rank in position five but it’s not driving qualified traffic, then it’s not much of an SEO success story.

So do this instead. Go into Google Analytics and…

  1. Select the behavior menu on the left
  2. Select site content
  3. Select all pages
  4. Go into your segments at the top of the page and click add segment
  5. Select “organic traffic only” and deselect “all traffic”
  6. Hit apply
  7. Sort your pages by “entrances”, not “sessions”

When you’re done you’ll have a beautiful table that shows which pages are driving the most organic traffic. This is way better than rank tracking software because it’s A) free and B) more closely related to revenue.

Besides, rank tracking software only tracks the exact keyword you entered. In the Honda example, there are about a billion ways someone can search for the problem they’re having with their bluetooth not connecting to that specific model car. I would know, I’ve searched about four dozen of them. By creating content that flawlessly solves the problem, they’ll rank for all the terms connected with searchers Googling for the solution to their issue – but Honda wouldn’t know which keywords to track because the keyword research tools wouldn’t show all the different long tail keywords they could target. Instead, by using Google Analytics they could see traffic flowing in and rest easy knowing their SEO strategy is working, even if they don’t know the specific phrase someone enters into search.

Getting listed on Google for free is hard. And it’s not really free because your time is worth something. But it’s also not impossible to rank without spending money if you’re determined, work hard, and get a little lucky.

Thanks for reading! I hope you found the content useful and as always, if you’re looking for SEO services, please message us through the form below.

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