The major search engines - Google, Yahoo (a directory as well as a search engine) and MSN - generate "natural" or "organic" search results or listings, as well as sponsored (advertiser paid) listings, whenever someone performs a search on particular keywords or key phrases. As you might imagine, listings that appear on the first page of results - whether paid or organic - tend to attract the vast majority of clicks on the links included in their listings and, consequently, traffic to their websites. Therefore, if you know that the target market for your website typically uses particular keywords or key phrases to search for the kinds of information, products or services you offer... you want your listing to appear as high as possible in the search engine ranking pages or "SERPs".

While it might seem as though your best bet is to be ranked number one in the SERPs for a certain keyword or key phrase, this may not always be the case. Most search marketing practitioners certainly advocate becoming first in the organic results. However, there are diverging views about the efficacy of being first in the paid results. Some search engine marketers believe that it's more profitable to be in the middle of the list of the paid results, as long as your ad appears on the first page of results. Additionally, the question arises: should you advertise in the paid results as well as strive for a high ranking in the organic results? There's no hard-and-fast answer; it's really something to experiment with.

Since SEM incorporates both paid and free search engine rankings, the means of getting high up in the free versus the paid results necessitates a some what different methodology. Search engine optimization (SEO) is how marketers get their websites and web pages ranking highly in the free results. This is part-science, part-art. The SEOs use complex math to rank different sites and pages. Therefore, if you understand how this math works, then, presumably, you'll know what to do to get a high ranking. Trouble is, no-one knows how this math works! The SEOs keep their algorithms close to their chests. Consequently, it's a bit of an art to try to work out the science!

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