Holistic: [adj] Emphasizing the importance of the whole and the interdependence of its parts.

Holistic Theory: [noun] The theory that the parts of any whole should be considered in relation to the whole, and that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Although "holistic" is often used to describe a particular approach to medicine (in which the emphasis is on treatment of the whole individual), it is also appropriate to apply it to other disciplines, including search engine marketing (SEM).

Three Primary Components

SEM consists of three major components (and many minor ones, but we won't touch on them here), and they are often used individually to great effect. But only when the three are effectively used in unison does the whole become greater than the sum of its parts.

The following are the primary components of SEM:

  1. Pay-per-click (PPC). Also referred to as pay-for-performance, PPC is very close to a pure form of advertising. Companies bid to have their ad copy show up for specific search terms related to their business. That ad copy usually shows up in a special section of the search engine results page, typically labeled "sponsored." Companies that use PPC are rewarded with targeted visitors to their Web sites and have to pay the bid amount for each visitor they receive.

  2. Natural search engine optimization (SEO). Searchers who understand the difference often consider PPC advertising less trustworthy than natural search results. These ostensibly nonbiased search results can be likened to articles in a trade magazine, while "sponsored" results can be likened to advertisements. The mention of a company in an article will usually garner a more favorable impression than a company's advertisement in the same magazine.

  3. Web site conversion. The most overlooked of the three components, Web site conversion is equal in importance to the other two. It is the art and science of determining predominant user behavior on your site and trying to improve it—in other words, attempting to influence visitors to take a specific action on your site that eventually leads to a sale.

How They Work Together

Although each of these components can, by themselves, return excellent results, the power of each is multiplied when they are used effectively together. The results returned by any combination of the three pieces applied simultaneously will almost always surpass the collective results of the same pieces applied separately.


Recent studies have indicated that SEM is an effective brand builder. This branding effect is amplified through placement both in the natural search results and in the paid results. This makes perfect sense. On most search engines, you have two unique opportunities to present your company and products/services for every search query. By taking advantage of both opportunities, you greatly increase your chances of being "first in mind," from the searcher's perspective, at the time of the search and beyond.

A popular approach by some search engine marketers is to use only PPC for keyphrases when the site does not achieve high natural rankings. Although this approach can certainly save money, it runs counter to the branding benefit (since it ensures that a site listing will be in either the paid results or the natural results, but never both).

If your company's average sale amount is high, and you have a chance to favorably impress visitors with dual exposure before they visit your site, it usually makes sense to take that opportunity.

SEO and/or PPC With Web Site Conversion

Often, firms are willing to spend thousands of dollars to increase traffic to their site, but not a penny on Web site conversion. In a medium that makes it so easy for a searcher to look elsewhere, conversion is critical—and the net effect of raising your conversion rate from one to two percent is the same as doubling your traffic (and in one sense it is even better, since it means that far fewer people have left your site unsatisfied).

Conversion naturally works independently of any SEM initiative (provided that your Web site gets any traffic at all). But the combined effect of increasing your conversion rate and your traffic naturally yields more impressive results.

Say, for example, that your Web site provides you with only two solid sales leads per week. By doubling your conversion rate, you will get four leads, and doubling your traffic on top of that will yield eight.

However, that example does not take into account the quality of search engine traffic from targeted keyphrases. Often, current site traffic is not particularly targeted (a look into a site's Web logs will often reveal a large number of search engine-referred visitors that found the site using non-targeted phrases).

It is not uncommon for conversion rates to skyrocket as the quality of traffic improves due to targeted keyphrase advertising or organic search engine optimization. With PPC campaigns, you can further boost conversion rates by sending visitors to highly targeted landing pages—another example of how seemingly separate disciplines can work together so well.

The Bottom Line

Just because these components are most effective when used in concert does not mean that each should not be tracked separately. But do not be surprised when your returns on two or more of these disciplines used together are greater than the sum of the returns from the individual components used separately.

And this presents a dilemma: a highly successful holistic SEM approach can make extracting exact ROI figures for the individual components difficult, since the whole has become greater than the sum of its parts.

But as many savvy companies are discovering, that is a nice problem to have.

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image of Scott Buresh

Scott Buresh is founder and CEO of Medium Blue, an award-winning search engine optimization company.

LinkedIn: Scott Buresh