Nearly 93% of all web traffic comes through search engines, making search engine marketing a prime launchpad for raising brand awareness and driving more visitors (and, ultimately, more sales). 

As the biggest search engine, Google processes around 70,000 search queries per second, which adds up to around two trillion searches a year. That’s a lot of potential website traffic. 

And, with more people than ever carrying out research and shopping online, search engine marketing is one of the most important parts of your strategy if you want to increase your reach and revenue.


What is SEM


What is SEM?

Search engine marketing (SEM) is a digital marketing strategy that involves website owners paying to get certain pages on their site ranked at the top of the search engine results pages (SERPs). 

It’s also known as paid search or search advertising or Pay Per Click (PPC) marketing and helps businesses raise brand awareness by claiming the much-coveted top spots in search results.

According to research, for every $1 that a company spends on Google search ads, it makes $8 in profit, making it a difficult tactic to ignore. 

Search engine ads are positioned above organic search results - unpaid results that are ranked according to their relevance to the search term - in a prime location. If you type in a search term, you’ll see the first few results usually have the tell-tale “ad” signal next to them. These companies have paid for their sites to show up before the organic search results kick in.

What is sem What is sem

Note the “Ad” next to these listings for the search term “CRM management”. 

The most common search engines included in SEM are Google (Google Ads) and Bing (Bing Ads). 

Google’s main search engine marketing network is the Google Search Network, which serves ads on the search results pages. Brands can buy Bing Ads on both Yahoo-owned websites and Bing’s network. 

The Importance of SEM 

The biggest goal for many marketers is getting their websites to the top of relevant search results.

While organic SEO (search engine optimization) takes time to gain traction, SEM can get your ads served immediately to the target audience. Even better, these people are actively searching for a solution, which means their browsing intent is very high. 

Search engine marketing can help:

Increase Brand Awareness

SEM reaches prospects at just the right time: when they’re researching a product or solution. By positioning your brand consistently at the top of search results, consumers will quickly come to recognize your name. 

On top of this, PPC advertising isn’t intrusive and doesn’t interrupt consumers who are carrying out other tasks, like scrolling through their social channels.

Boost Website Traffic 

In search engine marketing, brands only pay for impressions that result in visitors (basically, you only pay when someone clicks), which makes it an effective way to drive traffic while keeping a close eye on your marketing budget.

The added benefit to this is that each click improves your website’s ranking in organic search results too. 

Drive Leads and Revenue 

Consumers that are running searches are often looking for information or a solution. This means they’re in the right state of mind to buy compared to other advertising platforms, like social media, where users are simply scrolling through their feeds or interacting with friends and family.


You might be wondering what the difference is between SEM and SEO - and rightly so.

Both revolve around search engine results, except SEO is the organic process of optimizing your site to show up in relevant results. Essentially, SEO is all about getting traffic through unpaid methods, while SEM is about buying traffic from the SERPs. 

  • SEO = unpaid tactics used to organically rank content in the search results

  • SEM = paid ads targeting relevant keywords


Combining the Power of SEO and SEM


Do you still need SEM if you optimize your website for SEO? 

In short, yes. 

It’s useful to implement both strategies to bolster your marketing efforts. Research shows that marketers that combine organic SEO and PPC ads see 25% more clicks and 27% greater profits. What’s more, the better your ads perform, the more clicks you get, and the more Google considers your organic rankings as relevant. 

Utilizing SEO and SEM in tandem ensures you’re getting your website to the top of search results in both paid and organic ways.



Search engine marketing can help you get results you can incorporate into your SEO strategy. Ads can be good to test what keywords are most relevant and what phrases and content your audience is most interested in.

You can immediately turn search engine marketing ads on and off, giving you a chance to review copy, target different audiences, and switch up your landing page content to see what gets the best results. 

Doing this through SEO is far more time-consuming, as search engine algorithms take time to crawl and rank content. 

SEO is a long game, while SEM gives instant results. Your SEO strategy grows over time as your website gains link juice and authority, while SEM is active as soon as you turn your ads on.


SEM vs Social Media Ads

What are social media ads? 


Social media ads are paid-for content that shows up in the social feeds of relevant users. They target people based on a variety of different attributes, like their location, their interests, and their life stage.

The ultimate goal is to attract new customers, raise brand awareness, and engage current followers to increase trust.


Social media ad Social media ad

How are social media ads different from search engine marketing? 


The very simple difference is that social media ads show up in the social feeds of users, whether that’s on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or LinkedIn, while SEM ads are reserved for search results pages and search engine networks. 

Search engine marketing ads are targeted by keyword, while social ads target users based on their interests or key demographic information. Neither one is better than the other, it purely depends on the goal you have in mind. 

The Advantages of SEM Over Social Media Ads

Target high-intent users:

Consumers searching on Google and Bing are often looking for something in particular rather than just scrolling through their social feeds

Drive traffic

People running searches are actively looking for content and want to click through to a relevant webpage 

Tap into relevant keywords

Search engine marketing ads let you target the search terms people are using rather than demographic information 

When to Use Search Engine Marketing and When to Use Social Media Ads


Both SEM and social media ads have their place. Social media gives you a platform to grow a loyal following, which leads to industry authority, trust, and social proof.

You can serve your ads to different social platforms at once, and they’re particularly useful if you want to target a specific type of person, like moms in Kentucky or millennials in Melbourne. 

SEM, on the other hand, attracts buy-ready searchers and brings them to your website. Ads target people further down the sales funnel who all but have their wallets out ready to purchase. 

In simple terms, social media marketing can be used for building brand awareness, encouraging word-of-mouth recommendations, and creating engaged fans.

Search engine marketing can be used to target bottom-of-the-funnel prospects and attract more website visitors.

Social media vs SEM Social media vs SEM

Important Terminologies of SEM

Pay Per Click

This term refers to the model of serving ads on websites or SERPs and only paying when a user clicks through. Search engine marketing is inherently a Pay Per Click (PPC) strategy since brands only get charged when a customer clicks on their ad and is redirected to a landing page. Running different PPC campaigns can bring in quick traffic to your website

Cost Per Click

Cost Per Click (CPC) refers to how much a brand pays for each ad click. This will vary depending on the keyword competition, how many other brands are in the same arena, and how often your ads are served. 

You have some industries with very high CPCs (like personal injury lawyers)”, says Dennis Moons, the Google Ads Strategist at Store Growers. “Within an industry, or even between advertisers that compete for the same keywords, the ability to make money can be very different.

One advertiser might convert 5% of visitors to her site, while another might struggle to convert 0.5% of visitors. This means the first advertiser is able to pay a lot more for a click - 10x as much, if all other things are the same.

Cost Per Lead (CPL) 

Whereas CPC refers to the amount an advertiser pays for every click, Cost Per Lead refers to the amount they pay for a conversion. If the CPL is relatively low and converting well, they can be safe in the knowledge that their ads are reaching the right people with the right message.

Ad Account

An ad account is the place where a brand logs in to monitor and set up their ads. Within the dashboard, you can create ad campaigns, choose keywords, set your budget, and get insights into your analytics.

Ad Campaigns

Ad campaigns are a group of ads with the same message or the same goal. Usually, they direct searchers to the same landing page, but might use different ad copy or target different keywords. You set up your ad campaigns in your ad account and from there can choose an overall budget for the campaign and monitor your results. 

Ad Groups 

Ad groups come together to form campaigns. They are essentially a cluster of ads that have a similar goal, whether that’s to drive sign-ups, increase brand awareness, or generate sales. 

Each campaign is made up of one or more ad groups, and they tend to be organized by theme. They might focus on a particular product, they might target a particular searcher, or they might direct consumers to a certain landing page.

Ad Auctions 

To get SEM ads to show up in search results, brands have to submit a bid. Ad auctions choose the ads that will appear under certain keywords on specific pages, but they also determine how much it costs to get ads showing up consistently. Like with anything, the higher the bid, the more chance you have at getting your ad shown right at the top of relevant search results. 

Ad auctions rank advertisers based on two things: 

  • Their bids

  • Their Quality Score

This means that the ads that get shown the most are those from the highest bidder, but the Quality Score ensures that searchers are only seeing content that’s relevant to them.

Quality Score

Quality Score is the rating system Google uses to determine the quality and relevance of SEM ads. The higher the Quality Score, the better CPC rate you have and the higher chance you have of reaching the top of the ad auction process. 

Your Quality Score depends on a number of things, including: 

  • Your click-through rate (CTR)

  • How relevant your keywords are to their accompanying ad group

  • The quality and relevance of your landing page

  • The quality and relevance of your ad copy

  • Your past performance with SEM

SEM Strategy


What is a Search Engine Marketing Strategy? 


Quite simply, your SEM strategy is what guides your search engine marketing efforts. It includes your end goal, the ads you’re going to include, the keywords you’re targeting, and the landing pages you’re going to promote. 

There are several moving parts involved in creating a SEM strategy. Here are the key factors that influence your ad rank: 


1. Search Intent

Discover what people are looking for when they come to your website. Start by thinking about who your audience is and who your competition is. Studying competitor strategies helps you refine your own strategy and get an idea about what works, but it can also help you get ideas for your own campaigns. 

Then, refine your audience. What do they search for? What action do you want them to take when they arrive on your landing page?

SEM - Search intent SEM - Search intent

Asana’s ad links to this page, which encourages users to sign up for free. 


2. Keyword Research


Keyword research is the act of finding out which keywords consumers are using to search for products or services like yours. Keywords are the terms typed into a search engine to deliver a list of results, so choosing the right once is paramount to the success of your SEM strategy.

Start by using a keyword research tool (SEMRush, Ahrefs, or a Chrome plugin like Keywords Everywhere are all good options) and typing in a term relevant to your product. You’ll then be served a selection of similar keywords that people use as well as a search density, which shows you how many people are searching for that keyword each month.

SEM - Keyword research SEM - Keyword research

For example, the keyword “employee engagement” brings up these related keywords on the Keywords Everywhere plugin. You can see that the term “qualtrics” is searched 368,000 times a month, while “types of employee engagement” get 590 searches. 


Once you’ve run your keywords through a keyword tool, you can dig deeper on a granular level to find out what questions people are asking when they search. An increasing number of people use Google to answer their questions, and you’ll find a lot of regularly-searched keywords start with who, what, where, why, and how.


To find out what questions people are asking around your products and services: 

SEM - Keyword research SEM - Keyword research

“Be careful with keyword match types when setting up your campaign,” says Adam Thompson, Marketing Director of Code Signing Store. “If you don’t carefully choose your keywords and keyword match types, you’ll end up paying for clicks on queries that aren’t really relevant to your business. If you’re not sure, start with exact match keywords. You can always expand to phrase or broad match keywords if the exact match versions are successful.”

3. Ad Formats


You can run a variety of different ad formats as part of your search engine marketing strategy, and it will totally depend on what your end goal is with each campaign. 

Here’s a breakdown of what’s available: 

Search campaigns: simple text ad results

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The top four results served for the search term “time tracking tool” are all part of a search campaign. 

Display campaigns: image-based ads that show up on websites in the search engine’s network


SEM - Search Campaigns SEM - Search Campaigns


Video campaigns: video-based ads served at the start or part way through a video on YouTube


video campaign sem video campaign sem


Shopping campaigns: product listings that let shoppers compare products side-by-side across different eCommerce websites.

Shopping campaign - SEM Shopping campaign - SEM

These are the most common types of ad formats, but you can also serve ads that: 


4. Budget


Think about how much you’re willing to spend on each ad. You’ll need an overall budget for your campaigns as well as a per-ad budget for each individual ad you create. 

Make sure you tie your costs into your overall marketing budget and consistently monitor and track results to see where your money could be better spent. 


5. Copy 


The Quality Score of your ads is a huge part of whether they will be served to the right people at the right time, and your ad copy plays a pivotal role in this. 

Make sure you:


“Inside every campaign we build an after-hours ad set that has specific messaging for anyone that converts outside of normal operating hours,” says Shane Pollard, CTO at Be Media. “The messaging changes from ‘call now’ to a more automated CTA, like ‘email us’ or ‘leave a message’. This has helped negate bad reviews and control lead handling. Doing this has increased engagement as it reduces bounce rate from ad click to landing page. When we used the standard ad copy, we noticed higher bounce rates, bad reviews, and a lower number of visitors returning.”

How to win ad auctions using Quality Score and bids


Your ads will only be shown if they have a decent Quality Score and your bid is better than most others out there.

If someone bids $5 on a keyword, but has a low Quality Score, they’re less likely to have their ad shown than someone who bids $4 on a keyword but has a Quality Score of 10. 

SEM Metrics


It’s important to keep a close eye on the performance of your search engine marketing. Regularly check your metrics to identify areas for improvement - the great thing is, you can tweak ads in seconds, meaning you can dramatically improve their performance really quickly. 

Here are the metrics you should keep track of:


This shows you how many people have seen your ad from the results page. It’s an indicator of how many people search your chosen keyword, and helps determine if your ad is attractive enough (a high number of impressions with a low CTR could mean your ad isn’t as compelling as it could be)

Click through rate

This shows how many people have clicked on your ad from the results page. Tracking this means you can map the journey of customers and gauge their interest in your product

Conversion rate

This shows how many people that clicked through carried out the action you wanted them to take (sign up or buy, for example). A high conversion rate shows your messaging is on point and that the search intent matches what your ads are offering

Top SEM Tools 


Getting started with your SEM strategy means pulling together a suite of tools. The tools we’ve covered here will help you carry out keywords research, set up your campaigns, and make sure your ads stand the best chance possible of showing up top.


1. Google Adwords

Google Adwords is Google’s in-built keyword research tool, giving you plenty of keyword inspiration for your campaigns. 

Advantages of Google Adwords: it’s owned by Google so there’s no ulterior motive and it’s fairly straightforward to use. 

Disadvantages of Google Adwords: it’s difficult to segment and it can be difficult to target the right audience.

Google Adwords Pricing: Adwords is free to use, but as it’s part of Google Ads, you simply pay when someone clicks your ad. 


2. SEMRush 

SEMRush is a marketing platform to increase your online visibility. Its top features let you run in-depth keyword research, carry out competitor analysis, build links, optimize content, and monitor your ranking. 

Advantages of SEMRush: provides comprehensive search engine data, helps dig into technical SEO, runs a full site audit, and the slew of features make it a search engine marketing must-have

Disadvantages: it can be complicated to get to grips with at first, there is lots of data but it needs an experienced eye to decipher it all, and the UX can be bulky. 

SEMRush Pricing: $119.95-$449.95 per month 


3. Wordstream

Wordstream offers a comprehensive tool for creating ad creatives, mapping out campaigns, and generating valuable insights.

Advantages of Wordstream: there are a lot of features to tap into including a suite of free tools, plus you can get an advisor to help you with your campaigns. 

Disadvantages of Wordstream: can be complex to use if you’re not a seasoned SEO expert and it can be difficult to sync your data to your Google Ad account. 

Wordstream pricing: $49 per month


Start Your SEM Strategy Today


SEM is an integral part of your overall marketing strategy, particularly if you want to raise brand awareness and drive more traffic to your site. It complements SEO and social media ads by targeting consumers with high purchase intent and attracting potential buyers who are searching for relevant keywords. 

If you haven’t started mapping out your search engine marketing strategy, now’s the time to do so, especially since more and more people are turning to search engines for research.