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Search Engine Marketing: Key Component to a Search-First Strategy

Combining SEO and SEM can help you create a data-focused search-first strategy perfectly geared to your target audience. Here’s how SEM fits into the equation and best practices to help you hone your tactics.

Dec 29, 2023

9 m read

Search engine marketing (SEM) is a great way to start gaining traffic as quickly as possible. When paired with a winning search engine optimization (SEO) strategy, SEM can help you capture multiple positions on search engine results pages (SERPs). 

But what is search engine marketing, and how can it benefit you? Let’s dive in! 

What Is SEM?

Search engine marketing, sometimes simply known as search marketing, is a digital marketing strategy that focuses on paid search engine advertisements. 

SEM is also closely associated with SEO since they both focus on search traffic. However, SEM places a special emphasis on paid search ads, not organic search traffic, and the terms SEM and PPC have pretty much become interchangeable.

Ultimately, SEM aims to improve visibility on SERPs, and investing in a comprehensive SEM strategy can help your site gain more exposure and more clicks from search engine users.  

Search engines prioritize paid ads, giving them the highest visibility on SERPs. This increased visibility can benefit websites that are just getting started with SEO. Plus, a solid SEM strategy can be a great way to hedge against any possible SEO struggles — for example, if you just can’t capture your desired ranking for a certain keyword, or in case future algorithm updates or new competitors cause fluctuations in your rankings. 

How Search Engine Marketing Works

Paid ads let you jump to the front of the line by placing your paid search result above all of the organic search results on the page. But in order to score that prime real estate, you’ll have to win it at auction. 

SEM is effectively the process of purchasing ad space through auctions and crafting targeted ads to capture clicks through that ad space. To get a better idea of how SEM works, let’s take a closer look at Google Ads auctions. 

How Google Ads Auctions Work

Auctions are how search engines like Google and Bing sell ad space on their SERPs. But they don’t just sell ad space to whoever is willing to pay the most. 

There are five different factors that Google considers when deciding which ads appear on a page and in which order they appear. 

1. Bid Amount

To be competitive in Google Ads auctions, you should strategically set your bid amount. This amount represents the maximum you’re willing to pay for a click on your ad. A higher bid can increase your ad’s chance of being displayed, but it’s not just about outbidding competitors. It’s crucial to balance bid amount with budget constraints and ROI objectives. Consider the value of a click in the context of your overall marketing goals and set bids accordingly to maximize efficiency and effectiveness.

2. Quality Score

Quality Score is a metric that Google uses to estimate the quality of the paid ads on your account when compared to other advertisers. Quality Score ranges from one to 10, and the more relevant your ads and landing pages are to search users, the higher it goes. 

3. Ad Rank 

Ad Rank is another Google metric that seeks to determine the quality of an ad vis-à-vis its competitors based on several different factors, including your bid amount, ad quality (as indicated by your Quality Score), and the expected impact of extensions and other ad formats. A higher Ad Rank increases the likelihood of your ads being shown and in a better position. You can improve your Ad Rank by increasing your bid, improving your ad quality, or making better use of ad extensions and formats.

4. Context

The context of your ad matters significantly. It should match the search intent of your chosen keywords. This includes the user’s intent (informational, navigational, transactional), the time of day, location of the search, and the type of device used. Ads that align well with the context of the search query are more likely to resonate with users, resulting in higher engagement rates.

5. Assets

Google may feel the assets attached to an ad (phone numbers, call buttons, location info, etc.) could make it more valuable to searchers than higher-bidding ads that lack them — thus giving these ads a higher position in the SERP even though they don’t have the highest bid. These assets, often referred to as ad extensions, enhance the functionality and visibility of your ad. Utilizing relevant ad extensions can improve your click-through rate and provide additional value to users, which in turn can positively impact your Ad Rank and overall ad performance

Google weighs all of these characteristics and determines whether or not to sell a particular ad space with lightning speed. But not every search generates ad results. The search engine typically reserves Google Ads space for searches with commercial or transactional intent. So don’t expect to see or display any ads for vague terms like ‘music’ or ‘TV shows,’ as these kinds of broad informational searches will usually only return organic search results. 

How To Win an Ad Auction

Winning an ad auction primarily involves selecting your keywords and placing a high enough bid. Once your campaigns and budgets are set up, Google will automatically enter you into the bidding for your selected keywords (provided the campaign is active). 

Sounds simple, but make sure to take care of your Quality Score. This metric affects more than just your ability to obtain the highest ad placement on the page. Some PPC strategists have suggested that Quality Score can affect the cost of each click, and, thus, the ROI of your entire campaign. Improving your Quality Score will not only make your ads more visible, but it may also decrease your costs for that improved visibility. 

How can you improve your Google Quality Score? Some things you can do include choosing highly relevant keywords, organizing your keywords into groups for each individual campaign or ad style, writing targeted ad copy to match those ad groups, developing optimized landing pages for each ad group, and making the most of negative keywords to exclude irrelevant or unrelated search terms. Best of all, optimizing for Quality Score should also work to boost your Ad Rank, too. 

SEM Strategy and Best Practices

Paid search ads can be an expensive endeavor — especially for companies in industries that need to target high-CPC keywords. That’s why it’s important to make the most of your limited budget through efficient campaigns that prioritize high-conversion keywords and minimize wasteful spending. 

Here are a few factors you should focus on when crafting a successful SEM campaign. 

Keyword Research

Just as with SEO, solid keyword research is the foundation of all search engine marketing services and optimizations. Choosing the right keywords means getting your ads in front of the right people for the least amount of money. 

So which keywords are best for your campaign? That can depend on many factors, including the search intent you are targeting, your budget and ideal spend per ad group, the competition level, and more. 

You can start by brainstorming terms that fit your site’s products/services/themes and that customers are likely to use when looking for them online. A good keyword research tool can help you determine which of these terms actually receive search volume and how much competing for them would cost. Not sure which tool to use for search engine marketing analysis? Here are a few that we recommend for kickstarting your Google SEM campaigns

When conducting keyword research for your SEM campaigns, focus on finding keywords that are not just high in search volume but also highly relevant to your product or service. While high-volume keywords can drive more traffic, they often come with greater competition and higher costs. 

Instead, aim for a strategic balance by incorporating both broad and specific keywords. Give special attention to long-tail, lower-volume keywords, as they can attract a more targeted audience and lead to higher conversion rates at a lower cost. Remember, the goal is to connect with users whose search intent aligns closely with your offerings. This approach ensures a more efficient use of your budget and maximizes the potential return on investment from your SEM activities.

Check out our handy guide to performing keyword research for SEO to learn more about finding the right keywords for search engine marketing. 

Google Ads Account Structure

Structuring and categorizing your ads is crucial to SEM success. Carefully structuring your ads lets you be more meticulous with the keywords you target, the clicks you attract, and how your overall spend is distributed. There are four structural elements to Google Ads: campaigns, ad groups, keywords, and ads. 

You can think of the ad as your actual ad copy, the keywords as the keywords you’ve chosen to target in that copy, the ad groups as groups of different keywords organized by theme, and campaigns as sets of ad groups with certain shared characteristics. Here’s what the hierarchy of a Google Ads account looks like:

google ad hierarchy

Why bother with account structure? 

Instead of having several high-cost keywords eating up your entire budget and tanking your Quality Score, structured accounts help you spread your keywords out over multiple groups so that clicks roll in for all of your targeted keywords and copy variations. 

Some examples of account structure in action include grouping your keywords/ads according to the product or service categories you offer, the locations you offer them in, or even just by the structure of your website. 

Ad Copy

Keywords connect you with search users, but the ad copy is the clincher. Good copy seals the deal by pulling in the viewer’s attention and providing them with a more appealing result than they would find further down the SERP. 

ad example

Don’t worry too much about the URL — this should just be a simplified version of your landing page URL that gives the reader a general idea of where they’re headed. 

The headline, on the other hand, is arguably the most important part of your copy because it’s the largest thing people see. A good headline should use direct language that signals intent and naturally incorporates your chosen keywords. A good description should feature a compelling CTA and enticing copy that gives search users a good reason to click through. 

Assets also serve to make your ads more compelling and come in multiple forms. The image above has content assets, while this image features sitelinks.

sitelinks example sem

PPC Landing Pages

Well-optimized landing pages can give your Google Quality Score a boost. Google likes landing pages that give users what they’re looking for by remaining consistent from ad copy to landing page. Additionally, sites should be mobile friendly and offer user-friendly loading speeds. 

Google recommends using your on-page conversion rate as a proxy for the health of your landing pages. But you can also inspect the SEM health of your landing pages a bit more directly by looking at your Quality Score. In your Google Ads dashboard, head over to Audiences, Keywords, and Content → Search Keywords → Columns (on the page, not the dashboard menu) → Quality Score. From here, you can add specific Quality Score elements directly to your future reports for closer inspection.

what is sem keyword planner

Google won’t give you a numerical grade, but it will let you know if your landing page performance is ‘below average,’ ‘average,’ or ‘above average.’ If you’re using Bing, you can similarly find your Quality Score in the campaigns section of your Bing Ads dashboard. 

Revise and Refine

Analyzing your competitors’ ads and performing split testing on your own can help you develop more successful campaigns with greater ROI and higher click-through rates. 

You don’t have to do it all by hand, either. Search marketing software like Semrush or SpyFu can provide you with valuable information regarding your competitors, like what keywords they target, how much they pay per click, the contents of their ads, and even what kind of ad tests they’ve run. See what’s working for them and what isn’t, and consider how you can incorporate their successes into your own campaigns. 

Plus A/B split testing capabilities are built right into Google Ads. You can access them from the Experiments tab in the dashboard menu. From there, you can create ad variations that test out different headlines, descriptions, assets, and other components. While each campaign can run up to five experiments, only one experiment can be active per campaign at a time. 

Try out different ad variations and see which ones perform best for the lowest cost. Give your variations enough run time to produce an accurate pool of data, and keep an eye out for any that outperform the original ad. 

Create a Powerful, Search-First Strategy 

It’s estimated that Google generated nearly $225 billion in ad revenue last year, and it’s no surprise why — Google Ads can be a great way to get more people through the door. 

But PPC is just one piece of the puzzle. Combining SEM with a comprehensive SEO strategy can help you capture even more real estate on search engines. Ultimately, you can leverage both PPC and SEO to develop a more comprehensive search marketing campaign that produces better results than either one could on their own. Schedule a free SEO consultation to learn more about how your SEO strategy can support your PPC efforts.

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