Guide

Search engine marketing (SEM)

Definition, importance and how it works

Search engine marketing (SEM) is the process of advertising to help your brand and content appear higher in search engine results. SEM uses a pay-per-click model to help companies reach target audiences and improve their visibility in search engines.

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Nowadays, when you want to learn more about something, chances are you type your question into a search engine to find the quickest answer. Many consumers around the world use search engines to help them find content, information and answers to questions they are asking. Advertisers have also used search engine result pages (SERPs) to help bring visibility to products, brand(s) or website(s) through a digital marketing strategy known as search engine marketing (SEM) or paid search.

SEM is one of the ways marketers can grow your business in a competitive marketplace. In this guide, you'll find an overview for beginners on SEM basics, tips and strategies.

What is search engine marketing (SEM)?

Search engine marketing, also called SEM or paid search, is a paid digital marketing strategy used by advertisers to increase the visibility of your website or product to audiences through SERPs.

Before we jump into tips and strategies about SEM, let’s discuss how it got started. After the invention of the internet, search engines created an opportunity for advertisers to leverage SERPs in marketing strategies. The company OpenText Corporation created the first pay-per-click (PPC) ads, which created the first form of SEM.1 However, the marketing strategy didn’t get its official name until 2001.2 That’s when technologist and journalist Danny Sullivan created the term in an article he wrote for his search engine marketing publication.3

User interaction

The creation of this term helped recognise SEM as its own marketing field. As more devices enabled consumers to browse the internet, post on social media and discover new products, search engines helped guide audiences to content and websites. Over time, SEM gained popularity among advertisers. Now, it’s a multi-billion-dollar industry. Here’s what you need to know about SEM.

Why is SEM important?

SEM helps brands raise awareness. Ultimately, the higher a brand’s ads appear or rank on search engines, the higher the chances are that those ads are being seen by audiences. Being at the top of SERPs can help drive awareness, consideration and trust for brands.

Additionally, SEM can be an important way for marketers to drive traffic to websites, landing pages and product pages through SERPs. The ultimate goal of SEM is to increase a website’s visibility, using a variety of techniques and strategies to generate more audience visits. Marketers can also use paid search, contextual advertising and organic search rankings to increase website visibility.

When it comes to paid ads, SEM can offer better click-through rates (CTR) and higher conversions than other passive forms of marketing. And its PPC model allows businesses to easily tailor campaigns, allowing brands to focus on specific keywords to help reach relevant audiences.

What is the difference between SEO and SEM?

You’ve probably heard of search engine optimisation (SEO). It’s an important marketing strategy that can help brands attract consumer attention, drive website traffic and grow your business. But it’s important to know the difference between SEM and SEO.

The key difference between SEO and SEM is that SEM uses paid strategies to appear in SERPs, whereas SEO uses organic strategies to appear in search. SEM uses paid tactics to rank highly on SERPs and increase search visibility to help drive traffic to a website or specific web pages. An example of these tactics would be setting up and optimising ads as well as setting a budget that pays for the placement of ads.

How does search engine marketing work?

SEM uses paid advertising to ensure that your brand’s products or services are discoverable in search engine results pages (SERPs). When a user types in a certain keyword or search term, SEM enables your brand to appear as a result for that search query. Advertisers pay for impressions, which can help bring visitors to your website, landing page, social media channels or products.

Simply put, marketers are paying or bidding for the top space in SERPs on a certain keyword.

Keywords and account structure

As we mentioned, search engine providers are commonly used for paid search strategies. This is where brands conduct keyword research and create campaigns for specific keywords that are relevant for your industry, products or services. When users search for those keywords, they may find the sponsored ad at the top or bottom of SERPs. If users click on the ad, the brand is charged each time a user clicks on the ad. This is referred to as cost-per-click or pay-per-click advertising.

How to develop an SEM strategy

Since this is a beginner’s guide to understanding what SEM is and how you can use it to help grow your business, we’ve proposed seven simple steps to help develop a SEM strategy:

  1. Set clear goals: Once a user finds your ad on top of a SERP and clicks on it, what action do you want them to take on your site? Do you want them to purchase a product or download an app? What are the KPIs and OKRs for your campaign? Having a clear vision about what you want customers to do once they reach your site or product will help you reach your SEM goals.
  2. See what others are doing: Before placing bids, it’s best to do a little research. It’s important to assess the paid search landscape in your category. See whose ads are ranking highly for keywords in your category. Doing this research can help inform your own strategy and techniques.
  3. Select a PPC search engine: Different search engines offer different values. Some have higher search volumes, but PPC rates could be expensive. Choose a search engine that fits your needs.
  4. Research relevant keywords: Selecting the right keywords for the brand or product in a PPC campaign is key for success. Based on your goals, you’ll want to select keywords that have various levels of search volume. Learn more about keyword strategy.
  5. Set a budget: SEM can get expensive. Research and set advertising budgets before you start spending. Sometimes, businesses will consult with PPC advertising agencies to help give them guidance on SEM budgeting strategies.
  6. Get creative: Compelling ads could help you attract audiences. Therefore, think about the copy and creative you’re using in your ads, and consider what will help your brand stand out.
  7. Test and innovate: SEM doesn’t always have instantaneous success. Rather, it can take some time to see results. Test your SEM strategy, reconsider your keywords or change your budget if you’re not seeing the results you want.

Advertising in Amazon shopping results

Developing a strong SEM strategy can be an effective way to drive visibility in search results anywhere customers spend their time and help increase sales of your products. And Amazon Ads’ Sponsored Products can help increase sales of your products by creating ads that appear in related shopping results and product pages on Amazon. By appearing in more places, you can help shoppers find your product offerings. Learn how Sponsored Products can help your marketing strategy.

1–3 “The Master of Google’s Search Algorithm Sits Down for a Q&A,” Smallbiztrends.com, September 5, 2017.
4 “Global market share of search engines 2010-2022,” Statista, Global, March 2022

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