Dental Marketing on the Web – SEO or SEM?

Posted on December 19, 2011 in Dental Marketing

Since dental marketing on the internet has become so important over the past years, you’ve probably been bombarded with terms like SEO and SEM and promises of taking your dental website to the #1 spot on Google. So by now you’re probably wondering exactly what these terms mean, and if there is any merit to the #1-on-Google claims.

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization and SEM stands for Search Engine Marketing. While both tactics focus on driving traffic to your dental website through search engines, SEO centers on driving organic (aka: free) traffic by improving natural rankings and SEM drives paid traffic by utilizing the various search engine advertising methods.

In other words, the purpose of SEO is to get more “regular” search engine traffic, and the purpose of SEM is to get paid traffic through pay-per-click and other ads.

For most dentists, it’s a good idea to use a combination of SEO and SEM. Let me share an analogy I learned from an internet marketer:

From the website visitor’s perspective, SEO is akin to going to the grocery store to buy a gallon of milk while your baby is screaming and crying in your arms. All you want to do is grab a gallon of milk and get out of there as quickly as possible, so you stop at the first grocery store you can find.But as soon as you walk into the store, you find yourself in the produce aisle. You look to your left, but all you see is bread and other baked goods. You look to your right and you see boxes of cereal and dry goods. No milk to be found, at least you can seem to find it quickly and easily. Your baby is hungry; her crying is causing dirty looks from other shoppers.

But then, through the store window, you see a flashing, neon-lit billboard for the SEM-Mart across the street. The billboard obviously cost a fortune, you think to yourself. But it keeps blinking cute little pictures of neon milk gallons, so it must have what you’re looking for. Might as well give it a try. And you leave the SEO grocery store without any milk.

When you enter the SEM-Mart, you immediately find yourself in the dairy department. The exact brand of milk you want is right in front of you and the cashier is only 2 steps away. You quickly grab the milk and check out within minutes and you head to your car before your crying baby can cause any disturbance. (And before you can buy any additional groceries.)

But now imagine that it’s three days later. Your baby is home with Grandma and you have a few leisurely hours to yourself. You think it would be fun to try out your culinary skills, so you head to the nearest grocery store to pick out a few things.

You’re not exactly sure what you feel like cooking, so you meander the aisles trying to get some ideas. You come across your favorite candy bar. You grab one for an afternoon snack when you notice the in-store coffee bar is giving away free samples. You casually sip a miniature vanilla latte, and you realize it would make a great morning pick-me-up. You make a mental note to stop by this same SEO Grocery Store on your way to work tomorrow to grab a full-sized vanilla latte.

As you meander over to the produce department, you notice a buy-one-get-one-free advertisement for asparagus. You grab 2 bundles of asparagus, thinking they would be a great side dish for dinner that evening; but of course you’ll need to make some hollandaise sauce. Hhmmm, better grab all the ingredients.

You spend forty-five minutes nonchalantly strolling through the store, grabbing a few items here and there, until your shopping cart is packed full. You head to the check out and the clerk hands you a coupon good for your next visit, which you plan to use the following morning when you stop by for your vanilla latte.


So you can see why dentists should utilize search engine optimization in their web marketing. While it can be very time consuming, SEO traffic is basically free. Some types of SEO are:

  • proper utilization of keywords
  • correct formatting of web page meta tags
  • creation of incoming web links
  • utilization of XML sitemaps

The problem with SEO is that it can be difficult to control, and it must be constantly maintained. Your search engine optimization must be seen as an ongoing effort, not a one-time set up. Most SEO traffic comes to your website’s home page, and since you only have 3 seconds to provide your website visitor with exactly what she’s looking for, your SEO traffic might not stick around on your website very long.

On the other hand, SEM allows you the ability to drive traffic to an exactly-targeted page. When you create specific landing pages for each of your paid search campaigns, you have complete control over the information your visitor sees. If a web surfer is looking for information on root canals, you can take her directly to your root canal page. If she’s looking for an at-home tooth whitener, you can take her straight to your tooth whitening page.

Search engine marketing techniques can include:

  • pay per click advertising
  • paid directory inclusion
  • traditional banner ads
  • ad network participation

Search engine marketing generally has an immediate pay-off. While it could take days, weeks, or even months to start generating organic SEO traffic, your paid ad will be available as soon as you decide to go live. Your SEM efforts lead to immediate traffic, and, if you’ve done things correctly, immediate conversions.

If you’re serious about your dental marketing, and you want to generate significant traffic and find new patients, you should be utilizing both search engine optimization and search engine marketing for your dental website.

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