Search Engine Marketing (SEM): What It Is & How to Do It Right

The image states the importance of SEO and Search engine marketing in web

The Ultimate Guide To Search Engine Marketing (SEM) In 2022

When was the last time you needed to buy a product? Chances are you turned to a search engine such as Google to start your research. The companies you see first paid to get their listing at the top—they’ll be marked as ads. This is search engine marketing (SEM) in a nutshell. Read on to learn how SEM can help your business grow and where to get started.

Search engine marketing (SEM) refers to the practice of improving how customers find your product or service on a search engine (such as Google or Bing) through paid advertising. SEM once referred to both paid and organic advertising, but it is now used to refer to paid advertising alone.

Why Is SEM Important?

SEM is used by small, medium and enterprise businesses to get in front of potential customers at the exact time they are looking for the product or service you offer. It’s also a nonintrusive form of advertising as a potential customer is actively searching for similar services you provide. SEM is also cost-efficient for advertisers because they only pay each time someone clicks on their ad (this is often called pay-per-click, or PPC, in online marketing).

Who Should Use SEM?

Anyone with a product they want to sell online can benefit from SEM. Plus, these campaigns are easy to target and measure. “The best way to think about [SEM] is starting with the premise: a user goes to a search engine with a question in mind. If you can provide that answer—and it’s profitable for you to do so—you can benefit from SEM,” Michele Dappert, Senior Media Specialist at Planit, told Forbes Advisor.

Benefits of SEM

  • Highly intent-driven. SEM enables you to meet customers as they search for the products and services you are offering. “You’re reaching people in ‘market’—for whatever reason—at exactly the moment they are looking for an answer or solution. Capturing lower-funnel activity means you can ‘nudge’ someone to purchase your product or service without first convincing them of a need,” Dappert explained.
  • Visible, fast. SEM is an easy and quick way for newer businesses to get started. “When you are a newer product in a crowded field, targeted SEM campaigns allow you to show up immediately next to more established competitors, getting your name out there with their coattails,” Dappert said.
  • Real time, measurable. SEM allows you to see the ratio of people who click on your ad compared to those who buy your product or service and make changes accordingly. “Anyone who has a clearly defined goal—whether that be increased website sales, lead generation form-fills or increased blog readership—can use SEM to quickly measure increased traffic to the destination where people can complete that goal. And if you see a campaign isn’t working, it’s easy to turn that tactic off immediately and reallocate dollars without being set in a sunk cost,” Dappert said.
  • Targeted. SEM also allows you to get very specific about the potential customers you want to target. “SEM dollars are spent at the keyword level. But any campaign can be geo-targeted, device-targeted, flighted for certain times of day or seasons and is, in general, a way to expand your reach to a target profile without spending too much (or relying on cookies),” Dappert explained.


Many factors determine which websites rank highest in organic search, including relevant keywords, the overall quality of the website content and the number of backlinks (how many other websites link to yours). Increasing SEO requires an upfront investment of time and effort, but once a website begins to rank high, the traffic directed to the web page is free. On the other hand, SEM advertisers are paying for each click. Read our guide to the best SEO software for small businesses in 2022.


Both SEO and SEM should be fundamental parts of your online marketing strategy. SEO is a powerful way to drive evergreen traffic at the top of the funnel, while search engine advertisements are a highly cost-effective way to drive conversions at the bottom of the funnel.

Keywords are the foundation of search engine marketing. As users enter keywords (as part of search queries) into search engines to find what they’re looking for, it should come as little surprise that keywords form the basis of search engine marketing as an advertising strategy.

SEM Keyword Research

First, you need to identify keywords that are relevant to your business and that prospective customers are likely to use when searching for your products and services. One way to accomplish this is by using WordStream’s Free Keyword Tool.

best keyword research tools: wordstream free keyword tool

In addition to helping you find keywords you should be bidding on, thorough keyword research can also help you identify negative keywords – search terms that you should exclude from your campaigns. Negative keywords aren’t terms with negative connotations, but rather irrelevant terms that are highly unlikely to result in conversions. For example, if you sell ice cream, you might want to exclude the keyword “ice cream recipes”, as users searching for ice cream recipes are unlikely to be in the market for your product.

This concept is known as search intent, or the likelihood that a prospect will complete a purchase or other desired action after searching for a given term. Some keywords are considered to have high commercial intent, or a strong indication that the searcher wants to buy something. Examples of high commercial intent keywords include:

Keywords and Account Structure

Logical keyword grouping and account structure can help you achieve higher click-through rates, lower costs-per-click, and generally stronger overall performance, and keyword research can help you think about how to best structure your account.

google ads account structure overview

Ad campaigns can, and should in many cases, focus on similar products or services. For example, if you run a hardware store, one ad campaign could focus exclusively on autumnal products such as leaf blowers, rakes, and leaf bags, whereas another might focus on power tools and so on.

Ad groups allow for each campaign to be further subcategorized for relevance. In our hardware store example, one ad group could be for different types of rakes or varying models of leaf blowers. For the power tools campaign, one ad group might focus on power drills, while another could focus on circular saws. This level of organization might take slightly longer to set up initially, but the rewards – namely higher CTRs at lower cost – make this effort worthwhile in the long run.

How to Build an Effective SEM Strategy

SEM allows you to place an ad in front of users that are in the right phase of the marketing funnel. In other words, customers who are ready to convert. But to ensure that your search marketing campaign will have the highest ROI, you’ll need to target the right keywords, as well as watch out for a few more things.

What Google Looks for in Ad Auctions

The maximum bid refers to Google’s automated bidding strategies, and you have full control over it. The same is true for ad extensions that might impact the performance of your ad. The Quality Score, however, is assigned to you by Google and it’s the reason why your ad only wins auctions for relevant queries.


The Quality Score makes it so that if your ad matches too many irrelevant and generic queries, the costs of your paid search will go up exponentially without yielding the results you hoped for. This damages your ROI and gives off the wrong message to networks like Google.

How to Create a Solid Ad for Your SEM Strategy on Google

If you choose highly relevant keywords, you will win auctions for very well-placed ads at a lower price than your competitors, even if they choose a higher maximum bid. That’s because your Quality Score is higher, meaning you’ve understood the end-user better than your competition.

How to Build an Effective SEM Strategy: Best Practices

One way to sharpen up the targeting of your ad is to craft highly relevant Ad Groups. This means filtering out all keywords unrelated to your business. The PPC Keyword Tool is the easiest way to optimize Google Ads campaigns.

This tool not only supports you during the keyword research but also helps you determine search intent and the right volume/cost ratio. Explore the Recommendations in the tool and clean up your keywords list, which will remove less profitable opportunities.

PPC Keyword Tool Recommendations image 1

Use the PPC Keyword Tool to organize your keywords at both the campaign and ad group levels. But don’t forget to set up negative keywords! These are terms that you can mark as irrelevant if you don’t think they’ll lead to conversions.

PPC Keyword Tool Recommendations image 3

You can also use the Keyword Magic Tool to find more keywords, adding them to Keyword Manager and moving them to the PPC Keyword Tool afterward. In order to get the most out of the keywords you choose to target, make sure you add them to the PPC Keyword tool as a final step before setting up your campaign in Google Ads.

Get Rid of Duplicates in Your Keyword List

In the PPC Keyword Tool, you can store negative keyword lists that are valid both at the ad campaign level and at the group level, so you can run multiple ads for the same campaign without creating the same list of keywords repeatedly. To avoid any competition between groups, you can also use the cross-group negatives function.

PPC Keyword Tool Recommendations image 6

The same is true also for removing duplicates from regular keyword lists. Click on the “Remove duplicates” button on the top-right corner and the tool will automatically present you with the newest duplicates it detected. All you’ve got to do is delete them.

PPC Keyword Tool Recommendations image 7

Narrow Down Your SEM Strategy with Laser-focused Keywords

The possibilities with the PPC Keyword Tool are almost endless. That‘s because it supports you during the difficult task of refining your keyword lists with several filters and metrics. In particular, we made sure you could:

PPC Keyword Tool Recommendations image 13

Search Engine Marketing Remote Targeting

The essential purpose of ad campaigns is to target search ads to a narrow audience to maximize conversions. Therefore, it becomes necessary to display your ads for users looking for vendors who offer products or services similar to your business. The key point to remember is to probe for users who would likely do business with you.

We elaborate on the ad campaign structure in this section. You will learn how to organize and create campaigns. All you need to do is group themes and keywords relevant to your niche to start a campaign within your registered account.


Every campaign shares a distinct goal, budget, bidding strategy, and targeting settings as the topmost level within an account. You may also have options for group-related campaigns. This grouping may be based on the brand’s products/services/target audience/promotion type, etc. For instance, weight loss campaign for young adults and inch loss campaign for obese teenagers can be grouped under a single theme Youngsters.

2. Ad groups

3. Keywords

The Take Away

Search engines are a great way to find business online. They offer “passive” marketing approaches for those who don’t want to get into “active marketing”. SEO can be incredibly powerful, but it’s often too slow for someone who needs clients today (rather than in six months’ time) to be a good marketing strategy when you launch your business. It’s cheap (though it’s not free – your time is worth money too), and it can be very effective in the medium to long term.

SEM, on the other hand, costs money but can deliver very rapid results. Your website must be optimized to make sales or at least drive a customer to get in touch (GIT – in marketing terms) so you can make a sale. You should approach SEM with care and make sure you completely understand how much money you have exposed at any one time. Start slow and evaluate your results.