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A beginner's guide to search engine marketing (SEM)

Search engine marketing can be a great advertising channel for your business, or a colossal waste of money. The difference lies in how it's executed.
Jan 15, 2020 • 8 minute read
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Search engine marketing can be a major channel for your business' revenue

Search engine marketing (SEM) can enhance your brand's visibility on the Internet and boost your business revenues. In this guide, we'll show you how SEM works and how you can use it to grow your business.

What is SEM?

When you do a Google search, have you noticed the top three results with the little "Ad" icon next to them? That's search engine marketing in action.
Search engine marketing is a form of internet marketing that concentrates on using paid advertisements to increase the visibility of your websites on search engine results pages. Simply put, it is a technique used by advertisers to show up on the results pages of Google, Yahoo or Bing without the necessity of ranking organically.
Let’s explain further:
When you type a particular keyword (i.e., "hire freelancer") on search engines, you'll be greeted with a list of websites where you can find content that matches this keyword. These websites listed on the search result pages are usually ranked based on how relevant they are to the keyword you inputted. These are organic rankings.
However, if you want your website (i.e., to show on search engine results pages for certain keywords, regardless of whether it ranks organically, you'll need to pay search engine companies a certain fee for the service. With paid ads, your website will appear at the top of the search engine results pages, giving you the opportunity for clicks, traffic and, ultimately, revenue.


There's a huge difference between SEM and SEO. And the main difference is that unlike SEM, SEO doesn’t require you to pay for ads to get listed on search engine results pages. Your site shows up because it offers the most relevant content for a particular search query.
Sounds attractive? Maybe. But there is a catch.
Getting a nice spot on the results pages can take you at least a year of consistent effort. During this period, you need to spend copious amounts of your time making sure that your web content and web architecture are relevant to the keywords searched by users. Even if you do that, you may still not find your website on the first or second page of the results due to cutthroat competition.
SEM, however, puts you at the top of the search results pages immediately.

Pros of SEM

Access to potential clients: According to Internetlivestats, an average of 6 billion people worldwide use Google every day to search for content that matches their keywords.
Targeted reach: SEM allows you to target customers who are interested in your business. You can target your ads by location, device, interests, time of the day and browsing habits.
Accurate tracking of results: SEM allows you to measure your results. You can see what's working and what needs to be modified to attract more customers to your business.
Quick results: Unlike SEO which can take years to get results, SEM strategies open the doors for you to quickly get your website on the first page of search engines.
Great for mobile: SparkToro data shows that ads displayed on Google have an 11.38% clickthrough rate on mobile.
Consumers say ads are helpful: A survey by Search Engine Land found 75% of respondents believed search ads made it easier for them to find the information they were looking for, and 49% said they click on text search ads.

Cons of SEM

Not free: SEM is simply targeted marketing. If want your ads to rank higher on search engine results pages, you need to pay for it.
Users often ignore ads: According to SparkToro, paid search clicks account for about 4% of all searches. This means users often scroll by ads to get to organic search results. This means you need to put in serious work to make your ad irresistible to searchers.

SEM platforms

If you want your ads to be displayed on search engine results pages, you need to visit SEM platforms. The most popular SEM platforms are Google Adwords,Bing Ads and Yahoo Ads. These platforms provide search ads on all devices, including mobile phones, tablets, and desktops. But you may not have the resources to use all of them.
So which platform should you use for your business?
Here's why: As of today, Google controls about 75% of the search engine market share. If you include other Google properties like Google Image Search, Google Maps and YouTube, this number rises to 94%. Take a moment to let that sink in.
search engine market share
This means you're way more likely to attract more web visitors on Google than on other SEM platforms.

Commonly used SEM terms

To understand SEM in detail, you need to understand the following terms properly:
Ads impression: The number of people who viewed your ads on search engines. Let's give you an example. If you have 200 impressions on Google, this means 200 web visitors saw your ads on Google search engines.
Pay per click (PPC) advertising: This is the advertising model that allows you to pay search engine companies (i.e., Google) any time a web visitor clicks on your ads on a search engine results page.
Cost per Click (CPC): Mathematically, CPC = Advertising cost ($)/Number of ad clicks. So, if your advertising budget is $50 and your expected number of ad clicks is 100, your CPC is $0.50.
Click-through rate (CTR): This is the ratio of web visitors who clicked on your ads divided by the number of times web visitors saw your ads. Mathematically, CTR = clicks/impressions. So, if you have 10 clicks and 100 impressions, your CTR will be 10%. A high CTR indicates that users liked your ads, while a low CTR means many users didn't find your ads relevant, helpful or compelling.
Cost per thousand (CPM): The "M" actually means "mille", a Latin word for thousands. So you can also call CPM cost per mille. CPM is the amount you pay per 1,000 advertisement impressions on your website.
Quality Score: This is a metric that determines how relevant your ads are to users. Google rates your quality score based on the relevance of your ad to the keyword set, CTR, the quality of your landing page and your historic Google Ads performance. A high-quality score means that you'll pay less for your search engine ads.
Landing page: This is the page users land on when they click on your ad. The goal of a landing page is either to sell your product or service or to generate leads that you can nurture into sales. In a future guide, we'll show you how to create great landing pages.

SEM campaign types

The first step in using SEM is knowing what campaign type is appropriate for your brand. For SEM, you should choose the search network campaign. But if you're curious to know other types of digital campaigns, here are the types of campaigns offered by Google.
Search network campaign: Choose this campaign if you want your ads, which are usually in text formats, to appear on Google results pages.
Display network campaign: Select this campaign if you want your ads to appear on YouTube and other online platforms directly or indirectly affiliated to Google. Also, note that ads with the display network campaign are either image-based or video-based. This means your ads must be in a video format or an image format.
Shopping campaign: This campaign is specially designed for retailers and sellers who want to market their inventories and merchandise on the internet. Choose this campaign option if you want your ads to appear on Google and sites affiliated to Google. Like the ads of a display network campaign, the ads of a shopping campaign appear in a visual format.
Video campaign. Choose this campaign if you want your ads to display on YouTube and across the Google Display Network.
App campaign: Are you planning to advertise an app? Pick this campaign so that your ads can show on Google Play, Google, YouTube, Discover and the Google Display Network.

How to select the right SEM goal for your brand

After you’ve selected your campaign type, Google will ask you to choose your campaign goal. In a word, your campaign goal is the result you desire from the ads. They include:
Sales: Choose this goal to get people to buy your products.
Leads: Pick this objective to get information about web users interested in your brand.
Website traffic: Select this goal to draw more traffic to your website.
Brand awareness: Choose this objective if you want web visitors to know more about your business.
Product and brand consideration: Select this to get more calls about your brand.
App promotion: This goal helps you to promote your apps on various online platforms.

How SEM works

All SEM platforms use an ad auction system. Let's use Google as an example to demonstrate how SEM works in practice. Also, let's make one assumption: you're just using Google Ads Manager for your business for the first time.
Step 1: Click here to create a new account for your business.
google ads manager login
Step 2: Select your advertising goal. Choose "Get more website sales or sign-ups" and click "NEXT."
google ads manager new ad goal
Step 3: Type your business name and your website. After that, click "NEXT."
Step 4: Select the location of the customers you want to target and then click “NEXT.”
Step 5: Add all the keywords relevant to your ads and click "NEXT."
adding keywords to google ads
Step 6: Input your ad headlines. Make your headlines are precise and relevant to your business. As you're typing your headlines, Google will show you the layout of your ads at the top right corner of your screen. Also, make sure you proofread your headlines properly before you click "NEXT."
Step 7: Input how much you're willing to pay any time your ads appear alongside results associated with the keywords you selected. To do so, select one of the default budgets or click "ENTER YOUR OWN BUDGET." You can also select your preferred budget if you don't like the default budget.
adding budget to google ads
We recommend that you should start with a small budget. That way, you can know what works and what doesn’t work. After you have selected your budget, click "NEXT."
Step 8: Review your campaign settings. This is another opportunity for you to revise your campaign goals. You can click "BACK" if you want to change your settings. But if you're satisfied with your campaign settings, click "NEXT."
Step 9: Provide your payment details and click "SUBMIT."
After you've completed these steps, Google will review your ads. They'll confirm whether your ads are eligible for promotion and whether your payment details are authentic. This review process usually takes between 1–7 days. If your ads are approved, Google will add your ads to its ad auction and then choose where and when to display your ads on the results pages.
Note that Google's decision is usually based on two factors: bid price and quality score. This means your ads have a better chance of ranking higher on Google results pages if your bid price is high and if you have a high-quality ad.
The question is, how do you know your ad is quality enough? A major indicator of the quality of your ads is your CTR (click-through rate). A high CTR indicates that your ad is relevant to users. That means you need to put thought into the intent behind the search terms you're targeting, and write ads that match that intent.

Bottom line

The marketplace is becoming increasingly competitive every day. To overcome competition, you need an efficient way to market your brand across different geographical boundaries.
Whether you're a freelancer, a small business owner, or a startup founder, you need to attract more customers to your online platforms and increase your conversion rates. And the best way to generate maximum revenues for your business is to leverage search engine marketing.
However, search engine marketing can be tricky. In upcoming guides, we'll show you how to write headlines, how to bid, how to do keyword research and how to measure your results. But if done wrong, search engine marketing can be a blackhole for your marketing budget. Consider talking to a skilled professional to help you set up your SEM campaigns.
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