Search engine marketing (SEM)

Back to glossary
glossary specific

Search engine marketing (SEM)

Next time you Google something, pay attention to the first three or four results. You’re likely looking at sponsored ads. 

How do they get there and why do businesses bid for these spots? The answer lies within search engine marketing (SEM). 

What is SEM? 

Search engine marketing is the practice of using paid methods to get your website at the top of search engine results pages (SERPs). 

While search engine optimization (SEO) focuses on getting your pages to rank organically, SEM uses pay-per-click (PPC) ad campaigns to obtain targeted website traffic. 

It’s easy to get the two mixed up, so let’s look at how SEM and SEO differ from one another in greater detail. 

SEM vs. SEO 

The end goal of SEM and SEO is similar: to rank high on a SERP for specific keywords and generate high-quality traffic. However, SEM and SEO are two distinct strategies.  

As noted earlier, while SEO primarily uses organic methods like website optimization and content marketing, SEM employs pay-per-click (PPC) ads to earn higher rankings. 

Using this method, a company will bid on specific keywords related to their webpage and only pay when someone clicks on their ad.  

Though they require different techniques, organic and paid search strategies produce the best results when implemented together. 

Why SEM is important

More than half (68%) of all online experiences start with search engines and three-quarters of internet users never scroll past the first page. Additionally, 75% of consumers say that paid ads make it easier for them to find what they’re looking for. 

And if that isn’t enough—on average, the return for Google Ads is about $2 for every $1 spent. SEM is undoubtedly a powerful vehicle. Here’s a closer look at why. 

  • See immediate results - It takes time to produce content, optimize a website, and see results from organic strategies. On the flip side, SEM produces immediate results. It’s timely and highly targeted, aimed at reaching the right audience at the right time.
  • Generate high-quality site traffic - By targeting specific keywords, you can drive quality traffic to your website. You can attract leads that, to an extent, are pre-qualified based on their search intent and have the potential to convert at a relatively high rate.
  • Gives you a competitive edge - SEM provides an opportunity for all organizations, regardless of market share or company size, to rank high on SERPs. You can also bid for competitive keywords (e.g., terms and phrases that include your competitors’ names) to reach shared audiences.
  • Supports other marketing efforts - SEM is a strong supplement to SEO strategies. SEM can help you engage a large audience and increase your visibility around strategic keywords, thereby reinforcing trust signals that search engines care about. And because SEM produces quick results, it can provide a space for testing new messaging that can be applied to other organic campaigns. 

Challenges of SEM

With all that said, it’s important to understand the common challenges of managing an SEM strategy.

  • Requires money - Nothing comes free with SEM. Paid search campaigns require money to remain active and if you plan on targeting highly competitive terms, you’ll need a larger budget to come out on top.
  • It’s very competitive - Because SEM is accessible to businesses of all sizes, it is a very competitive space. This can drive out businesses that are unable to allocate enough budget or time to implement paid strategies well.
  • It can be time-consuming - SEM campaigns require a lot of attention. You’ll ideally have at least one person dedicated to managing ads, tweaking the targeting, testing new variations, and monitoring bids. Otherwise, you may need to outsource to a third party to ensure that nothing slips through the cracks.

How to build an SEM campaign  

So, how can you go about creating an SEM campaign? Here are several basic steps to get you started.  

1. Identify and understand your target audience.

Use your current customers as a baseline. Identify their needs, interests, and search behaviors, then build campaigns that would appeal to people like them. Alternatively, if you don’t have a solid customer base, develop personas based on thorough research.

2. Conduct keyword research.

Find keywords that your target audience is likely to use when searching for a company or product like yours. Keyword research tools like Semrush and Ahrefs can be instrumental in finding keywords that are relevant, affordable, and highly searched.

3. Create supporting assets.

Prepare a landing page that supports your campaign. Pointing users to a landing page that tightly aligns with your ad copy rather than a generic site page typically results in better engagement and ad positioning.

4. Set up your paid ad campaign.

Follow the setup instructions provided by Google Ads, which will prompt you to select a campaign type, goals, and budget (among other things). At this stage, you’ll also need to whittle down your list of keywords and organize them into logical campaigns and ad groups. Learn more about ad group best practices.

5. Create your ads.

Create a few different ad variations that include your keyword in the headline and description. Make sure to use engaging copy that will resonate with your audience, and to develop an A/B testing plan that makes it easier to track what’s working and what’s not within your search ads. 

6. Choose a bidding strategy.

Google or Bing will provide a recommended competitive bid, like $1 per click, but you get the final say. Bidding higher or lower than the recommended bid may affect where your advertisement is placed on the results page. You can manually choose your bid or have your search engine automatically bid for you.

7. Monitor ads and optimize.

Like any marketing or advertising campaign, you’ll need to continuously monitor the performance of your ads. A low clickthrough rate (CTR) could indicate that your messaging isn’t landing with your audience, while a high CTR but low conversion rate may indicate a lack of continuity between your ad and landing page. Google Ads additionally provides metrics, like quality score, to help steer you in the right direction.

Make SEM work for you

SEM tactics, in conjunction with SEO strategies, can help your business get in front of the right audiences—and ultimately generate more leads. Although it requires you to set aside budget and time, paid search can return lots of value and positively impact your other marketing initiatives.