Search engine marketing, or SEM, has become a crucial part of marketing. As we search online for answers to all kinds of questions and queries, it’s become increasingly important for brands to know how to position their webpages above those of their competitors.
If you’re looking to start a business or get found online, the best place to start is by creating a website. Once you’ve done that you can pursue various avenues for site promotion. Some of the most important tactics to consider are SEO and SEM. While both SEM and SEO have similar goals and seem the same on the surface, they’re actually quite different. Here, we’ll take a deep dive into search engine marketing and look at how it differs from SEO as well as all the different elements that go into it. If you're looking for more advertisement examples, check out our guide.
SEM acronyms you should know
Before we dive into the topic, we wanted to help make sure that our terminology is clear and understandable. Adding another acronym to your marketing lexicon can seem daunting, so here’s a refresher of a few acronyms you should know in order to get a good grasp on this topic:
SEM - search engine marketing
SEO - search engine optimization
SERP - search engine results page
PPC - pay-per-click
ROI - return on investment
CTR - click-through rate
What is SEM? The basics
Search engine marketing is the act of using paid ads to increase a webpage’s visibility on SERPs. SEM can also be used as more of an umbrella term that often encompasses other types of digital marketing strategies, such as PPC and SEO. In general though, when we talk about SEM, we’re referring to advertisements and SERP optimization strategies that are paid rather than organic.
Since Google is the most popular search engine, a lot of marketers work with Google Ads to create paid ads, but there are some other platforms you can use as well, which we’ll cover below.
When you search for a topic on a search engine like Google, you often see text or product ads at the top of the page that is related to your search terms, and then below that, the organic results which are webpages that match your query. The ads at the top are what advertisers pay for. These are the first results a user will see on their SERP, making it a good way for brands to get their products, ads, blog, or promotions in front of an audience.
PPC ads help drive conversions by directing traffic from motivated users directly to your website or dedicated landing page, so using SEM is often a preferred way for businesses to advertise online. While you are spending more money on ad clicks as compared with a more organic method of gaining traffic, like SEO, marketers often see a high ROI when using this type of paid online advertising.
SEO vs. SEM: What’s the difference?
So, if SEM is all about placing ads at the top of a SERP, isn’t SEO the same thing? Well, not exactly.
SEO focuses mainly on organic search results, in other words, getting to the top of a SERP without paying for a click. With SEO, websites rank well on search engines by being the most relevant webpage for the user’s query, without spending a penny on the placement.
That being said, there’s no reason why you can’t use both SEM and SEO strategies together. In fact, you might get better results by using the two techniques side-by-side instead of focusing all your marketing efforts on only one avenue of traffic.
9 SEM components to get familiar with
There are a lot of different parts that make up search engine marketing. In order to ensure that your SEM strategy is most optimized, it’s crucial to have a good understanding of each one.
01. Keyword research
The first thing to familiarize yourself with when it comes to working with search engines, whether you’re focused on SEM or SEO, is getting used to keyword research. Keyword research is the process of discovering the terms that online searchers are using that are relevant to your product or business.
A keyword isn’t necessarily just one word, but usually, a short phrase that a user would use as their search query. The purpose of keyword research is to discover terms that are related to your business and that users typically use when searching online. If you do your research well, you can match the terms that someone searches for with targeted campaigns and ads and in so doing, gain a better shot of your website appearing on their results page.
There are a lot of different tools you can use to conduct keyword research. You can use free tools like Google Keyword Planner or Wordstream’s Keyword Tool, or opt for paid programs like Ahrefs or SEMRush. If you’re just starting out, play around with the free tools until you’re comfortable, and once you want more specific data, opt for a paid research tool.
02. PPC marketing
Pay-per-click marketing is when an advertiser pays every time someone clicks on their ad. PPC marketing can cover a number of different advertising directions including some banner ads and, of course, search engine marketing. This type of marketing differs from more static advertising with which you might pay a flat rate for your ad to appear for a specific amount of time, regardless of how many people interact with it.
However, PPC is a little more involved than just paying for clicks. If it were that straightforward, brands with higher budgets would dominate by simply dedicating more money to their ads. Instead, PPC platforms like Google Ads, subject ads to an auction where they are vetted before being displayed on a SERP. In this way, more advertisers have a chance of getting their product in front of an audience.
03. Ad structure
Depending on the search engine advertising platform you are using, there might be slightly different rules regarding your ad structure. However, generally speaking, SEM ads are composed of headlines, which are bold and easily visible to the searcher, and descriptions which sit beneath the headlines and provide more detailed information. Ads also usually contain a URL to let the searcher understand more about where they will land when they click.
There is usually a character limit to all ad components. It is therefore essential that you utilize the limited space allotted to you wisely. Choose actionable words that clearly describe your product or service. Make it clear to the searcher why they should choose your business over the competition. We suggest utilizing CTAs to help get searchers clicking on your ads.
04. Ad auction and set up
The auction an ad goes through is an automated process that begins every time a user searches for a query on a search engine. Essentially, the search engine considers numerous factors regarding the available ads for each query, and decides which ads best answer the searcher’s needs.
In an auction, the search engine will determine which ads get displayed on the SERP based on a few different factors. For example, Google will pick winners of ad auctions based on the ads’ relevance, maximum bid and what they refer to as an ad’s quality score, or in other words how relevant and clear your ad content is. These factors together determine the chances of your ads showing up on SERPs.
In order for advertisers to participate in ad auctions, they have to set up a few parameters. We touch below on setting up your Google Ads account, but generally speaking here are the essentials for getting your ads up and running. First, provide a list of keywords that you would like to generally compete for. Then, you must provide at least one ad that matches those selected keywords as well as set a budget that you are willing to spend for clicks on these specific ads.
When making these selections, refer back to your keyword research. You want to ensure that you’re spending your ad budget well and your ads participate in fruitful auctions. Choose keywords that your intended audience is actually searching for so that you don’t bid on clicks that are irrelevant to your brand. This way, searchers that end up clicking on your ads, will be relevant customers or leads for your business.
05. Quality score for ads
Your ad’s quality score, or essentially how on target your ad is, is a crucial metric that can be the determining factor of how often your ad gets displayed to the right users. Google takes both quality score and bid into consideration when placing an ad, so even if your bid is significantly higher than your competitors’, if your ad isn’t well written and relevant to the searchers query it might not get displayed as often. This also impacts how much an advertiser ends up paying per click as the stronger their quality score, the lower their bid may need to be in order to rank.
A quality score is a rank given out of 10, and of course, the higher your score the better. It is based on three main factors: the expected CTR of a given ad, the relevance of that ad to the query's intent, and landing page experience, or how relevant your landing page is when people click on your ad.
Therefore, to improve your quality score, focus on using keywords that are relevant and specific to the page you’re linking to, writing ads that relate to those keywords, and providing informative and pertinent landing pages. To create landing pages that display information clearly and help drive visitors towards conversion, we suggest using a landing page builder.
06. Ad account structure
When opening an account on a platform like Google Ads, you’ll need to invest time into setting up your campaigns so that they’re organized and strategized. With Google Ads you have the opportunity to build a structure that ensures that your ads are placed in a thoughtful manner and helps keep your strategy well organized.
You can create campaigns that are centered around a certain goal or alternatively a geographic region of your customers. Within your campaigns you’ll be able to set up ad groups which can revolve around a certain theme or type of keyword that you would like to target. Finally, within each ad group sit multiple keywords that you are targeting, as well as ads. These ads will be in line with the goals and keywords selected for your campaign and ad group.
You can write individualized ads per ad group, or you can create a general structure for your ad and then substitute in certain themes or keywords to fit the specific ad group in which they are located. In this way you can create targeted ad copy to match specific goals. We also suggest trying multiple ads within each ad group. This can help you match more than one keyword that is placed in that ad group, as well as enable you to test different ad variations.
For example, if you own a shoe store, you might want to focus one campaign on winter boots, and then an entirely different one on sandals for summer. The keywords, landing pages, and text you would use for each would be very different. You may also be willing to bid more money on one than the other, making it wise to split these campaigns up. It might seem time-consuming, but by getting your ads organized, you’ll have an easier time managing them.
07. Targeted ads
A good strategy when it comes to creating relevant ads is to target them based on the audience you’re trying to reach. If we continue with the shoe store example, it is likely more lucrative to advertise stiletto heels to women than men, so when setting up your ad campaign, you can opt to not show that specific ad to men in order to make the most of your ad budget.
There are a number of ways you can target your ads so that they’re seen by the right people, such as:
By age: set age ranges to show your ad only to a certain age group.
By gender: opt to display your ad only to men or women.
By location: if you have a promo in a specific location, you can set your ad to be displayed to people in the same region only.
By device: your product might only be relevant to a certain device, like a mobile app download, so set ads to be displayed to users browsing on specific devices.
By schedule: set ads to only be displayed between certain hours so you don’t waste ad clicks during hours when you’re not available or the ad isn’t relevant.
At first, you might think that you want your ads to be visible to as many people as possible, but the more constraints and targets you set on each ad, the more relevant they’ll become to the users who actually see them, in turn giving you a better ROI.
08. SEM platforms
We already mentioned Google a few times here as a popular SEM platform, but there are others you can consider using as well. Here are some of the main SEM platforms you can use:
Google Ads: as the largest search engine, it’s a no-brainer that running ads on Google will put you in front of the widest audience and generate a good ROI.
Microsoft Advertising: formerly known as Bing Ads, Microsoft Advertising is Google’s main runner-up, and it’s worth investing time and budget into this platform alongside your Google ads.
Verizon Media Native: what used to be Yahoo! Gemini, Verizon Media Native is now Yahoo!’s PPC platform and is a great alternative to Microsoft Advertising if you’re looking for a secondary SEM platform aside from Google.
09. Campaign and ad optimization
Even after you’ve started to run your ads, you should be constantly monitoring and updating them. Take a look at your campaigns regularly to see how they’re performing and adjust your ad spend, keywords or ad copy accordingly.
After some time, you’ll be able to see which keywords and ads are strong performers and which aren’t yielding the results you expected. The ones that are generating more clicks are the ones you should be paying more attention to, both because they’re gaining you more traffic and because you’re spending more on those ads.
Once you’re comfortable analyzing your ad metrics and you can pinpoint where you’re succeeding, you can then set negative keywords. These are keywords you’re telling a search engine you don’t want to rank for because they’re irrelevant to your brand and eating up your ad spend budget. You can also narrow down your targets such as demographic or location once you get a better overview of who your audience is and where they’re coming from.
How SEM is evolving
While search engine marketing has allowed advertisers to create their own ads and optimize their campaigns as they see fit for years, they are now shifting towards a more automatic, AI marketing approach. For example, you can set Google Ads to only display your best performing ads, so you don’t waste your budget on ads that have lower ROIs. Google also provides the option for you to feed the system multiple ad headlines and descriptions and it will automatically combine them for the most ideal ad in any given auction.
Another automated option is to give Google the landing page that you would like to lead searchers to, and allow Google to create the ad headlines for you. This is referred to as DSA, or Dynamic Search Ads. With this format, the search engine scans your pages, determines what they are discussing and then automatically creates related headlines to give searchers a true taste of what they are about to experience. These new options can free up time for search engine marketers and have the potential to shift the business going forward.