If you’re trying to promote your business online, you’ve probably heard the term “search engine marketing” or SEM at one point — and for good reason.

With the ever-increasing value of conquering the top of search engine results (Google now averages 90 billion visits per month), search engine marketing has become a crucial marketing channel. But what is it, and how can you build an effective campaign?

This article will guide you through the key terms and tools of SEM and provide a step-by-step strategy for creating your first successful campaign. Read on to learn more and start strategizing.

What is search engine marketing?

Search engine marketing (SEM) lets you pay for search ads to advertise at the top of a search engine results page (SERP) for specific keywords and search phrases.

Example of search engine marketing ads

Though that may sound simple enough, there’s a lot to consider. You can’t just throw together an ad and expect to be profitable. You need to consider many different aspects of SEM to come up with an effective strategy:

  • Which search keywords should you target?
  • Do these keywords receive enough traffic? Is the traffic relevant to your business?
  • Are your competitors already ranking for or advertising for those same keywords?
  • Do the keywords align with your products or services?
  • What offer can you make to help you stand out from the competition?

And the list goes on. Unfortunately, SEM isn’t quite as simple as forking over half your marketing budget to Google and hoping for good results.

Like any marketing strategy, SEM requires careful planning, organization, and planning to get good results.

As you may have guessed, identifying the right keywords is the start of any search marketing campaign. With the right keywords lined up, you’ll quickly identify cost-effective areas for generating search traffic and conversions.

But just like identifying a target market in a conventional marketing strategy, identifying keywords is only the first step. Even if you manage to achieve a high rank for the right keywords, you’ll still need to create alluring ads and use the right tools to measure their effectiveness.

  1. Conduct keyword research and choose the right keywords
  2. Create targeted ads — by using a strategy like Single Keyword Ad Groups (SKAG)
  3. Set a budget and bid on keywords — or leave the bidding to algorithms
  4. Optimize your campaign

You might be wondering whether SEM is worth the investment. Though search engine optimization (SEO) is a great marketing channel, SEM has several unique benefits that you won’t be able to find elsewhere.

Why use SEM?

There are many reasons to use search engine marketing in your next campaign, like increasing your brand awareness or driving sales with no build-up period. And did we mention the main SEM platform, Google Ads, can reach 90% of global internet users?

Here’s why you should use SEM to promote your business in 2022:

  • Instantly market your business on the front page of Google. Where SEO can take months (if not years) to achieve organic search results, SEM lets you pay for ad space on any page — regardless of your SEO efforts. While SEO is a crucial long-term strategy, SEM is an effective way to get off the ground and attract new customers as quickly as possible. Plus, almost half of all users can’t identify paid results from organic ones.
  • Reduce your cost per acquisition (CPA) and increase your marketing return on investment (ROI). Some companies report an up to 53% decrease in CPA, which leads to a much better ROI.
  • Reach a wide range of potential customers. Instantly reach potential customers without the required up-front long-term investment in SEO or social media marketing. If you do things right, you can boost traffic, leads, and sales within your first week!
  • Increase brand awareness. What were the last few products you shopped for? There’s a good chance that you found at least one of them through a Google search. You’re not alone. 48% of consumers start their product search with search engines, making SEM an excellent way for businesses to increase brand awareness.
  • Refine your audience. An SEM campaign is also a great way to expand your customer data and get to know your audience. You can see data points on not just clicks and sales but also what they’ve searched for previously and why they found your ad. You can use this data to refine your audience and potentially expand to other effective keywords.
  • Pay only for performance. Where many ad publishers charge for views, SEM works on a pay-per-click basis — you only pay when someone clicks your ad. And since you can limit your campaign to keywords relevant to your business, you only pay when your ad attracts a potential customer — unheard of in other marketing efforts. SEM Platforms also let advertisers set a daily or monthly cap on how much to spend on clicks, so you’ll never “break the bank.”
  • Compete with established competitors. Whether you’re a new or long-standing business, it’s hard to draw attention away from competitors who have already invested millions in marketing campaigns. With SEM, you can quickly outrank and outperform them if you do things right.
  • Supplement existing marketing efforts. Just like any other marketing tool or effort, SEM doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Instead, SEM is just another great tool to add to your marketing arsenal. For example, while you achieve organic rankings and customer rapport through SEO and social media, SEM can fill in the gaps by delivering targeted traffic from markets you’re just starting to reach.

With all this talk of keywords and search engine rankings, SEM might not seem all that different from SEO. And while they’re both ways to leverage search engines, SEO vs. PPC does have a lot of differences.

What is the main difference between SEO and SEM?

Where SEO seeks to achieve high search rankings through backlinks, optimized content, and other “organic” factors, SEM does the same through paid advertising.

Search results for "email marketing" showing locations of PPC and SEO listings.

Though SEO is a more sustainable option, it takes a lot of time and effort to achieve consistent results. As a result, the most effective search marketing campaigns use both SEO and SEM in tandem, with SEM helping to reach untapped markets instantly before you can even start an SEO campaign for the new keywords.

By using SEO and SEM together, you’ll be able to work on long-term campaigns without sacrificing short-term results. You can also use keywords and insights about your audience from SEM campaigns to refine and improve your SEO efforts.

If you don’t know where to start, the next section will cover some of the key tools, terms, and strategies essential for any successful SEM campaign.

Search engine marketing building blocks: tools, terms, and more

Now that you know the basics of SEM, it’s time to learn the tools, terms, and tricks of the trade.

Diagram of SEM building blogs

In the interest of time, we don’t cover all the jargon but rather focus on the essentials you need to set up an effective search marketing campaign.

Pay-per-click (PPC) ads

Simply put, pay-per-click (PPC) ads are the cornerstone of search engine marketing. It’s the advertising model. When you pay to rank for a certain keyword or search query, you aren’t paying for your website to stay at the top for X length of time. Instead, you pay for every click on your ad — fairly self-explanatory.

74% of brands say PPC is a huge driver for their business, so PPC and search marketing are crucial to any high-level marketing strategy.

Many search marketers use the terms SEM and PPC interchangeably, but some define SEM as the overarching discipline, including organic SEO and PPC.

But the scope of PPC ads goes beyond search engines to other mediums, such as YouTube or display ads. Social media ads also fall under PPC since it’s only an advertising method where you pay for a specific interaction like a click, landing page view, or other engagement.

Important metrics to keep in mind are cost-per-click (CPC) and cost-per-mille (CPM), the cost per thousand views. Most platforms charge your PPC campaigns based on these metrics.

As performance-based channels, PPC and SEM are some of the most cost-effective ways to advertise your business.

Keywords in SEM

If PPC is the cornerstone of search engine marketing, keywords are the bricks. Keywords help SEM campaigns target the right audience at the right time.

Whenever a user enters a search phrase into Google, they’ll prioritize the top results. As a result, companies compete and bid on listings here, with some SEO campaigns costing millions and lasting for several years.

On the other hand, SEM offers even the smallest company a chance to feature at the top. However, good keyword management is crucial to driving meaningful results. It’s one thing to rank for any keyword, but it’s another to rank for a keyword that’s relevant to your target audience. So, SEM keyword research is the foundation of any paid search strategy.

Once you’ve identified keywords, you need to decide how to target them. Google Ads offers three different match types with different characteristics:

Board match, phrase match, and exact match keywords briefly explained.(Image Source)

  • Broad match keywords target variations of a term, such as similar phrases or even misspellings. For example, broad match keywords for “accountant” might be “public accountant” or “bookkeeper.”
  • Phrase match keywords target a core phrase plus any other words. For example, the keyword “Portland accountant” will match search terms like “best Portland accountant” or “Portland accountant reviews.”
  • Exact match keywords target either exact or close matches to the intended keywords. Variations might include hyphens, apostrophes, or other small variations that don’t distract from the intent or meaning of the keyword. (In 2018, Google updated this to also allow results that “match the intent.”)
  • Negative keywords let you exclude specific search terms from your campaign. They aren’t words that would damage your reputation but keywords irrelevant to your campaign. For example, if you’re a bakery selling custom cakes, “cake recipes” should be a negative keyword since you don’t want to target people who want to make their own cakes.

One thing to keep in mind when doing keyword research is the concept of search intent. When you examine a possible keyword, think of the motivation of those searching it. While one person searching “cake shops” and another searching “cake recipes” may both be interested in cakes, only one of them is looking to buy a cake.

Does this all sound a bit complicated? If you want seasoned experts who know the algorithm inside out to identify high-impact keywords for your campaign, check out HOTH PPC.

Targeting beyond keywords

So you’ve found the perfect keywords, but what if you only want to rank for certain demographics or locations?

Don’t worry, Google and other SEM/PPC providers offer several targeting options, including:

  • Location targeting: Limit your campaign to users within a certain radius of your zip code, or certain cities, states, or countries. This type of targeting is crucial for local marketing campaigns.
  • Scheduling: Only show your ads during certain times of the day. If you’re marketing to local customers, scheduling can save you money by only targeting search results while your shop is open.
  • Device targeting: Only show ads to users on certain devices. For example, if you’re trying to market an app specifically for mobile devices, then you’d want to use device targeting to limit ad impressions to mobile users.
  • Audience targeting: Target your ads based on demographics, including age, gender, location, and previous search history.

You can save valuable marketing funds by targeting specific locations and audiences, only advertising to relevant traffic. Even with the best SEO and social media campaigns, you can’t get highly targeted results like this.

You can also set up retargeting campaigns, where you target users based on past engagement with your business, such as visiting your website or using your app.

SEM platforms

There’s an SEM platform for every search engine, but there are only two you need to focus on, and Google’s the main player (unless you’re targeting China, specifically).

Graph of worldwide search engine market share

  • Google Ads. The vast majority of SEM campaigns begin and end with Google Adwords. As the most popular search engine globally, Google accounts for 92.2% of all search engine activity. That’s more than enough to drive traffic to even the most obscure keywords. All this data also leads to more complete audiences and often better results.
  • Microsoft Advertising and Bing Ads. While considerably less significant than Google Ads, Microsoft Advertising and Bing Ads cover about 2.6% of all Internet users. While that may not seem like a lot, these searchers are often unavailable through Google. As a result, if you want to target Microsoft, Windows, and Bing users, this platform is the only way to do it.

Ad copy

SEM ad copy should catch the attention and lure in potential customers with enticing wording and value propositions.

Standard search ads on Google must follow these guidelines:

  • Up to three headlines of 30 characters each — use these to grab the attention of a potential customer.
  • Up to two description blocks of 90 characters each — describe what your business brings to the table in a way that’s directly relevant to the search phrase and its users.

But you have more options than just headlines and descriptions alone. Here’s an example of one of our paid ads in Google:

Search engine results page showing a paid search result from The HOTH.

As you can see, this ad includes a lot more than just a headline and description. It also takes advantage of:

  • Site extensions. Why list just one page? With site extensions, a single result can also link to several other relevant landing pages on your website. These come after the description and other extensions.
  • Callout extensions. Typically under the description, callout extensions help promote unique offers and services to potential buyers. One ubiquitous example is “free shipping,” which could be enough to entice a user to click on your ad if shipping is notoriously expensive for a product.

These are just a few possible extensions you can include in your SEM ad copy. Depending on the keyword, your location, and your business, you can also have things like review ratings, phone numbers, and more in your ads.

Bidding and ad auctions

Once you’ve identified the right keywords, it’s time to secure your place in their search results.

But just setting up a campaign doesn’t automatically mean you’ll show up in every result for your targeted search terms. You have to win the bidding war for each specific result.

Platforms like Google Ads use multiple factors to decide which ads to display.

  • Max CPC bid is the maximum amount you want to pay per click.
  • Quality score is Google’s way of making sure that your ad is relevant to a specific keyword. Google tracks and calculates it over time, and it affects your Ad Rank and how much you pay per click. While there’s no official algorithm, it strongly correlates with high click-through rates and long dwell times. To keep quality scores high, always write ads that are relevant to the keywords you target, and make sure the landing page matches the search intent.
  • Ad Rank is the rating your Google gives to your ad for a specific keyword auction. It’s calculated by multiplying your max CPC bid with the quality score. The higher the rank, the higher your placement. If it’s too low, your ad won’t show up on the front page and will lose out on most potential reach.

Creating a successful search engine marketing campaign

It’s finally time to start using your SEM knowledge to build a successful search marketing campaign.

An SEM strategy drawn on a map.

Keywords are key to any successful SEM campaign. But how can you identify the right ones, and where do you go from there?

Thankfully, creating a successful campaign comes down to just a handful of major steps. While each step has its nuances, following the strategy outlined below is a great way to start generating targeted traffic.

1. Conduct keyword research

There are many ways to research keywords, but where should you begin? First off, you can use the official Keyword Planner inside Google Ads. You can also use other free keyword planner tools to help with your research.

The Google Ads keyword planner showing statistics for various keyword.

(Image Source)

Simply enter a keyword that’s relevant to your business, and you’ll find a list of relevant keywords. In the Google Ads Keyword planner, you also get access to the following metrics:

  • Average monthly search volume — how many people search for that word, on average.
  • Top of page bid, high and low — how much someone is willing to pay for that particular keyword.
  • Any data from existing Google Ads campaigns.

Don’t be afraid of lower volume keywords. Long-tail keywords may receive less traffic, but they are often hyper-targeted and can lead to more conversions than popular keywords.

2. Set up your ad groups to target these keywords

By conducting keyword research using a keyword planner, you can narrow down which keywords are best for promoting your business.

Then you need to sort through these keywords and structure them into ad groups in a way that makes sense.

One popular strategy is called single theme ad groups (STAG). You focus on a specific keyword (or small group of keywords) directly related to one particular service or product.

Diagram of a single theme ad group

While many keywords roughly match your offerings, it’s best to stick to the most relevant. Doing so will keep your budget in check and help you precisely target specific demographics.

For local PPC campaigns, be sure to use narrow location targeting to ensure that results only get displayed to nearby users.

3. Create targeted ads and landing pages

Once you’ve created your first few ad groups to target highly relevant keywords, it’s time to work on ads and landing pages.

Many businesses make the mistake of only creating different ads but sending them all to a generic landing page. That can confuse users and lead to high bounce rates (rates of people who leave without engaging with your site) and low quality scores.

Instead, create unique ads and landing pages tailored to each keyword.

  • Use the keyword in your ad headline and your landing page headline.
  • Make sure the landing page and ad match the search intent of each keyword.

If you need help to create professional landing pages, that’s a big part of our process at HOTH PCC.

4. Set a budget and bid at ad auctions

Finally, it’s time to decide how much to spend on PPC and SEM. When starting out, settle on a daily budget you can easily afford — even if it never leads to a sale. Without a cap, campaign costs can balloon into thousands of dollars within days.

The Google Ads smart bidding tool showing ad costs by potential return on advertising spend (ROAS).

Make sure you compare your budget against your max CPC to maximize impressions and clicks.

5. Always be optimizing

SEM doesn’t stop at setting up your first campaign. Like any other digital marketing strategy, search marketing is an ongoing, long-term commitment. As the marketplace changes, so must your tactics.

Use tools like Google Analytics to measure your campaign’s performance and PPC metrics in real-time. Use the insights to optimize ads, bids, and landing pages.

Google Analytics showing a performance chart for a website.

(Image Source)

You can then use A/B testing to optimize conversion rates and campaign results over time.


It’s not easy, but SEM is one of the most effective ways to boost your company’s exposure.

For best results, you need to seamlessly integrate PPC and SEO into an overall search marketing strategy.

That’s not an easy task for a beginner. If you want expert guidance on how to leverage both paid and organic search for your business, schedule a call with our SEM experts today.