What You Need to Know About Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

In an increasingly competitive digital marketplace, search engine marketing, or SEM, is one of the most effective ways and trends to grow a business. With millions of businesses competing for the same eyeballs, online advertising has never been more important, and search engine marketing is the most effective way to promote products and grow a business. In a world where there are 5.6 billion Google searches per day, the value of appearing in Google’s search engine results cannot be overstated. This is why SEM is critical to the success of a business. But what is it exactly? And how does a business do it to get results in the vast world of search engine land?

What is Search Engine Marketing (SEM)?

Search engine marketing (SEM) is a digital marketing strategy that is used to increase a website’s visibility in search engine results pages (SERPs). While the industry term used to refer to both organic and paid search activities such as search engine optimization (SEO), it now almost exclusively refers to paid search advertising. It is also the practice of marketing a business through paid advertisements that appear on search engine results pages known as SERPs. Advertisers bid on keywords that users of search engines like Google and Bing may enter when looking for specific products or services, giving the advertiser the opportunity for their ads to appear alongside search results for those search queries.

SEM is also known as paid search or pay per click (PPC). These ads, also known as pay-per-click ads, are available in a variety of formats. Some are small, text-based advertisements, whereas others, such as product listing ads (PLAs, also known as Shopping ads), are more visual, product-based advertisements that allow consumers to see important information, such as price and reviews, at a glance.

The greatest strength of SEM is that it allows advertisers to place their ads in front of motivated customers who are ready to buy at the exact moment they are ready to buy. No other advertising medium can do this, which is why search engine marketing is such an efficient and effective way to grow any business.

Why is SEM important?

With an increasing number of consumers researching and purchasing products online, SEM has emerged as a critical online marketing strategy for expanding a company’s reach. The majority of new visitors to a website find it through a search engine query. Advertisers only pay for impressions that result in visitors in SEM, making it an efficient way for a company to spend its marketing dollars. In addition, each visitor improves the website’s rankings in organic search results.

When compared to other sites such as social media, where users are not explicitly searching for something, consumers entering search queries with the intent of finding commercial information are in an excellent state of mind to make a purchase. Consumers are exposed to new information when they are exposed to search marketing. PPC advertising, in contrast to the majority of digital advertising, is non-intrusive and does not interfere with their tasks. SEM produces immediate results. It is arguably the quickest method of driving traffic to a website.

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) vs. Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Search Engine Marketing SEM marketing

Since the algorithms that power search engines are becoming more sophisticated by the day, SEO and SEM should be essential components of an online marketing strategy. That means that a well-thought-out paid search advertising strategy is now an absolute must if a business wants to ensure high rankings in relevant searches for their business.

What is the difference between SEM and SEO?

In general, “search engine marketing” refers to paid search marketing, which is a system in which businesses pay Google to have their ads appear in search results. SEO is distinct in that brands do not pay Google for traffic and clicks; rather, they earn a free spot in the search results by having the most relevant content for a given keyword search. SEO and SEM should both be important components of your online marketing strategy. SEO is an effective way to drive evergreen traffic at the top of the funnel, whereas search engine advertisements are a low-cost way to drive conversions at the bottom. The primary distinction between SEM and SEO is that SEO seeks organic traffic from an engine results page like Google, whereas SEM seeks both organic and sponsored traffic.


PPC is an acronym that stands for ‘Pay-Per-Click,’ and it refers to a type of online advertising. SEM stands for ‘Search Engine Marketing,’ and is a catch-all term for any activity aimed at making it easier to find a specific website via a search engine. The primary distinction between SEM and PPC advertising is that PPC is only concerned with purchasing ad space on a search engine, whereas SEM can also include SEO. 

Devising an SEM Strategy

The essence of SEM strategy is optimizing paid search ads with a specific goal in mind. To develop an effective strategy, a business must first understand how paid advertising platforms work and then effectively manage variables that affect performance such as keywords, budget, and copy. With this in mind, here are some of the factors that should be included in the strategy if paid ads are to be successful:

Keywords Intent

The pay-per-click (PPC) strategy begins with selecting the appropriate keywords to bid on. That entails conducting research to determine which keywords to bid on, or what queries to appear for. Begin by brainstorming brand terms, product descriptions, and even terms that describe the competition. For a limited budget, limit your bids to keywords with high purchasing intent. For a  larger budget, a business may find that they have more room to bid on keywords that target earlier stages of the buyer’s journey or even terms that are only loosely related to their products. 

Keyword Volume and Competition

If no one searches for a brand’s target keywords, their ads will not produce any results. At the same time, keywords with extremely high volume attract more competition (and, in some cases, lose relevancy). When conducting keyword research, relevant high-volume, low-competition keywords are ideal, but they may be difficult to come by. It then becomes a balancing act between demand (volume) and budget (competition).

Keyword Cost

A bid a business specifies for the keyword and the quality score Google assigns to their ad determines ad placement. Higher bids and better ads win the best placement. Keeping this in mind, high-competition keywords are more expensive. Bidding too low means the ad will not be shown, so make sure visitors can be competitive based on the amount of competition for the keyword.

Ads, Account, and Campaign Structure

In theory, a business could group all of its keywords into a single bucket and display a single ad for the entire group. However, their budget would be depleted by a few high-volume keywords, and their quality score would suffer as a result. That is why properly structuring their Google Ads account is critical. Google Ads campaign organization is divided into several levels:

  • Ad – The copy that appears for the keywords that are selected.
  • Keywords -Queries on which they are bidding.
  • Ad Group – A collection of related keywords organized by theme.
  • Campaign – The highest level of ad group management.

At each level, they will be able to determine what’s working and what’s not, giving them a better understanding of performance and how their money is being spent.


After choosing keywords and setting up an account, a business still needs to write good ads and “earn” the click.  An advertisement is made up of several parts:

  • Title
  • URL Display
  • Description
  • Anatomy of a Google Advertisement

Understand what searchers are looking for with their queries and see if you can write a great ad that makes your offer appealing.  Remember that SEM is not a set-it-and-forget-it activity. Ongoing PPC management assists a business in reducing budget waste, experimenting with ads, and optimizing keywords for which they are bidding to ensure that they are getting the most ROI from their efforts.

Other Marketing Factors

In three easy steps, a business can create a strategy for SEM. Choosing which keywords to target with SEO, PPC, or both is an important part of developing a cohesive strategy. The method to choose is determined by a few factors. The first step is to conduct keyword research. This detailed keyword research offered at  Mach 1 Design is at the heart of our client’s success in SEM. We enter a few broad subjects into our algorithmic keyword research tool and examine the Matching terms report for a simple approach to uncovering keywords. If you operate a fashion website, for example, you could use broad terms like “fashion,” “hoodies,” and “t-shirts.”

Matching terms report results

Then we sift through the suggestions for anything that has a high search volume and is likely to be searched for by clients. Once you’ve identified some keywords, we utilize a decision tree below to determine whether you should use SEO, PPC, or both to target them:

Decision tree showing how to choose between SEO PPC or both

We ask ourselves the following questions.

  • Are people looking to learn or buy something?
  • Do we think we’ll be able to rank anytime soon?
  • Are there a lot of clicks on the ads?

Question 1: Are people looking to learn or buy something?

We’re looking at the search intent of a keyword for this query. There are two types of searches you’re looking for:

  • Informational
  • Transactional

Analyze the SERP for informational vs. commercial purposes to discover which type of search a keyword is. To put it another way, do individuals want to learn something or buy something? Take, for example, the keyword “fashionable sneakers.” The majority of the results, according to the SERP overview, are listings featuring sneaker suggestions.

SERP overview for 22fashionable sneakers22

This indicates that the keyword is largely informative. Learners are on the lookout for information. In this situation, our research comes to an end here in the decision tree because we already know we should employ SEO to target the keyword. Although there are times when we might wish to run advertising for “informational” keywords, you’ll almost always only run advertisements for transactional keywords because it’s too expensive otherwise. When we search for “hoodies” in the SERP, all of the results are e-commerce pages offering hoodies:

SERP overview for 22hoodies22

This indicates that the keyword in question is transactional. As a result, searchers are looking to purchase. To figure out how to target the keyword in this scenario, we’ll need to ask further questions.

Question 2: Do you think you’ll be able to rank anytime soon?

It’s a matter of keyword ranking difficulty here. If you can easily rank organically for a keyword, you might want to think about SEO. You’ll need PPC if you don’t already have it (at least in the short to medium term). With the Keyword Difficulty (KD) statistic in Keywords Explorer, you can obtain a good indication of how difficult it could be to rank for a keyword. This measure is based on a scale of 0 to 100, with a score of “0” indicating the easiest keywords to rank for. When we enter the keyword “T-shirt” into Keywords Explorer, for example, we see that its KD score is 74:

Keywords Explorer overview for 22tshirt22

This indicates that ranking and retargeting for this keyword will be difficult. The amount of referring domains (websites that connect to the top-ranking pages) determines our KD score. You can see why KD is so high for this phrase if you scroll down to the SERP overview—all of the top-ranking pages have hundreds of referring domains. On the other hand, KD just provides you an estimate of how difficult it will be to rank for a given keyword. It can also be deceiving at times. The KD score for the keyword “black t-shirt,” for example, is 1—which appears to be an incredibly easy match.


However, if you go down to the SERP page overview, you’ll notice that Amazon, Target, Nordstrom, Zara, and Kohls dominate the first page.

SERP overview for 22black tshirt22

This suggests that searchers are most likely trying to buy from well-known companies, thus ranking will be difficult if you aren’t one of them. The argument is that when determining the ranking difficulty of a keyword, you shouldn’t rely solely on third-party measures like KD. If you want to learn more, check out our post on determining ranking difficulty. We recommend using PPC if you don’t think we’ll be able to rank for our term anytime soon. We suggest using SEO if we believe we can rank in the short to medium term. Even if we can rank, we might want to think about using PPC. One more question must be answered before you can decide if this is good for our campaign.

Question 3: Are there a lot of clicks on the ads?

Even if we can easily rank for a keyword, high ad clicks indicate that we need to combine PPC and SEO to monopolize the SERP and gain more hits. In Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer, hover over the green, yellow, and orange bars in the Volume box to see how many clicks the keyword ads are getting.

Paid ads receive 8% of clicks for the term “T-shirt,” while 2% of searches receive hits from both paid and organic results. As a result, about 10% of queries result in at least one ad click. This appears to be a low number. 63 percent of searches, on the other hand, result in no clicks at all. Only 37% of the time do you get clicks. This suggests that ad clicks account for nearly a quarter of all searches with clicks. Using PPC ads and SEO (assuming you can rank) is the best approach in this scenario. This method should be repeated for each of your keywords to determine which strategy to apply. Check out our SEO vs. PPC advice if you need additional help determining which tactic to adopt.

SEO and PPC Marketing Fundamentals

Now you should have a spreadsheet full of keywords and determine which ones you’re going to target with SEO, PPC, or both. Rather than trying to teach you everything you need to know about SEO and PPC, I’ll give you the essentials and point you to resources where you can learn more. You’ll need to launch an SEO campaign for your SEO keywords. This entails developing new content for keywords for which you don’t now have content and optimizing existing content for those for which you have. In essence, SEO is made up of three key activities:

To learn more about how to achieve these tasks, click on the links below. If you’re not sure where to begin, check out our SEO basics for beginners. You’ll need a basic understanding of how Google advertisements function for your PPC keywords. It all comes down to this when it comes to advertising:

  • Select the ad type and objectives for each term.
  • Having excellent ad copywriting skills.
  • Choosing the most appropriate keyword topics.
  • Making a financial plan.
  • Becoming familiar with Google’s ad auction.

To begin, sign up for a free Google Ads account and become familiar with the dashboard. Then have a look at this helpful video on how to get started with Google Ads.

What is the Google Ad Auction and How Does this Ad Work?

Every time a search is performed or a site with Google Ads is visited, Google uses the ad auction system to select which ads should be displayed. This is crucial to comprehend since it might mean the difference between running successful ads and squandering money on ineffective ads. This considers three primary elements when deciding which ads appear on a page:

1. Your bid – You can choose the maximum bid amount per click that you’re willing to pay. A larger bid amount indicates your ad has a better probability of being viewed. However, if you bid too high, you risk losing money, so test this frequently.

2. Ad quality – A Quality Score is used by Google Ads to measure how relevant and useful an ad is to a search or webpage. On a scale of 1–10, the higher your score, the more likely your ad will be aired. As a result, attempt to make your ad as high-quality and relevant as possible to the target keyword(s).

3. The impact that your ad extensions and other ad formats are likely to have – This is extra information you can include in your ad, such as a phone number for your firm or connections to specific pages on your website. Google calculates how these new extensions will affect the performance of your ad and uses that figure to determine how often your ad will be seen.

The major point here is that performance measures, not just how much you’re prepared to pay, account for two-thirds of the elements that affect how well your ad performs. In other words, you can make more for less if you have a high-quality, relevant ad. For a more in-depth look at how to do PPC search ads, check out our guide to PPC basics.

Examples of Search engine marketing

Let’s look at a few instances of organizations that have used the full breadth of SEM to build their business now that you know what it is and how to do it.

1. Ahrefs.com

As I previously stated, Ahrefs receives nearly 1 million organic visits every month.

Site Explorer overview for ahrefs.com

Ahrefs blog features content that ranks for practically every SEO-related term you can think of, and they’ve spent hundreds of thousands on PPC advertising. Here are a few keywords they’ve been targeting with PPC ads, as seen in Ahrefs’ Site Explorer’s Paid Keywords status software.

Paid keywords report results

Some of our most popular high-ranking articles in terms of SEO content are as follows:

  • Affiliate Marketing for Newbies: What It Is and How to Get Started
  • Google Keyword Planner isn’t the only free keyword research tool available.
  • Google’s Top 100 Searches

We used Site Explorer’s Top Pages analysis to figure out which of our pages are the most popular.

Top pages report results

Canva is the second option.

Then there’s Canva, my go-to graphic design app. Every month, it receives a remarkable 70.3 million organic visits!

Site Explorer overview of canva.com

Canva is a great site to check out because it employs SEO to target a variety of commercial and informational keywords. One of its best keywords is “make free logos,” which gets 119,000 searches per month and leads to a free logo creation tool being built.

If we look at its Paid keywords data, we can see it’s bidding on over 900 keywords.

Paid keywords report results 1

Take a browse through its blog to get some ideas of how it approaches SEO and content creation.

3. The Wandering RV

The Wandering RV is a digital publisher for RV owners. It receives over 100,000 organic visits per month.

Site Explorer overview of thewanderingrv.com

It made a spot on this list because of its skillful use of statistics pages to build links. By ranking for keywords like “how many people die in car accidents” and “RV industry statistics,” the two pages have received links from 500 referring domains.

Best by links report results

These aren’t just any links. We’re talking about high Domain Rating (DR) links from websites like iHeartRadio, AOL, and Life Hacker.

List of domains with corresponding data like DR Ahrefs Rank etc

While link building is one of the hardest parts of SEO, building statistics pages like these is one of the easiest ways to acquire high-quality links with minimal manual outreach.

link building SEO

SEM is crucial for almost all brands these days. If you have customers who use Google, you should probably be implementing some form of SEM. Hopefully, you now have enough knowledge to conclude if SEM is potentially valuable for you to execute.