What is SEM?

May 20, 2023

SEM stands for Search Engine Marketing. Some people call it Pay-Per-Click (PPC) or simply Google Ads. These terms are often used interchangeably.

When we want information, when we want to find a product or a service, when we want to find music lyrics – we’ve all done it! – we go to a search engine like Google and begin a search. Out pops a page full of search results that Google thinks are the most relevant to your keyword search terms and those links at the top are likely paid (or sponsored) SEM ads.


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How is SEM different than SEO?

I’m glad you asked! We did an SEO video previously and talked about how Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) are two very different concepts. We’ll focus on SEM today, but if you’re interested in SEO you can check out our YouTube channel, or the What is SEO? post to dig into the nuances of SEO.

My thoughts on SEM for businesses

Before we dive in, I just want to note that, in my opinion, Search Engine Marketing is one of the most important tools you should have in your digital marketing toolbox. I think everyone should be using SEM. It is cost effective. It’s very, very strategic. It puts you in front of your ideal target audience at the moment they are taking time to look for you or services you offer. SEM is like the screwdriver that should be in every toolbox!

Why is SEM so important?

Ok, back to the blog post! When you look at a list of search engine results, often times, the top results have a note that says “sponsored” or “ad” next to them.

These top links are paid search engine ads.

Search Engine Marketing results

When you don’t have big arrows pointing to them, the notes can be subtle and people often don’t notice them. However, the important point here is between 70 and 80% of all clicks on search engine result pages (SERPs) are on the top 3 to 5 links. So if you want to be seen by your customers, and have them clicking your links, you really need to be doing Search Engine Marketing.

What are the benefits of using SEM?

  • Unlimited impressions means free exposure. SEM ads pop up in search results that match for their keyword search but you only pay for ads that are clicked on.
  • Customers are already interested. SEM ads appear when customers are already looking for your product or service, or they may be looking for you specifically. That puts them further down the funnel and more ready to purchase.
  • SEM has a strong Return on Investment (ROI). You can be strategic on the keywords and geography you select, and adjust the campaigns to reallocate underperforming segments.
  • Capture great data. SEM provides outstanding data opportunities that can be used to guide other marketing decisions. Reports tell you what keywords are performing best (or not performing), the geography breakdown of people who clicked, your cost per conversion, and more.

How does SEM work?

Search Engine Marketing is a bidding scenario. You are bidding against other advertisers wanting to use the same keywords in the same geographical areas.

  • Some keywords have more competition than others, so they will be more expensive.
  • Typically, urban or densely populated areas will be more competitive than rural areas because there is likely to be more competitors in those urban areas.

For example, I live in Northwest Washington state. I’ve seen keywords have relatively low competition, making them less expensive, in rural areas when those same keywords in Seattle are much harder to win. You definitely want to invest time in keyword research before building these campaigns, and give thought to what keywords people are looking for and where (geographically) you want your ads to appear. This is where that strategic approach is really important. You want to get the most bang for your buck and not spend money competing in a bidding war you can’t win.

When should you use SEM?

SEM works best in the middle of the funnel, when customers are interested in the product or service and considering their options. And you most definitely want to have your SEM ads appearing during the intent phase, because this is when customers are most likely to take the action step toward conversion.

Digital Marketing Funnel

The importance of SEM in those critical mid-funnel steps is why I strongly believe that Search Engine Marketing is one of the most important tools in your digital marketing toolbox. I think every business who sells a product or service, or wants traffic to come to their location, should be utilizing SEM. SEM is very effective, its strategic, and each month you should have a treasure trove of data to improve all of your marketing efforts.

I often talk with clients who say, “I’m spending a lot of money on Google Ads but I’m not sure what I’m getting.” If this sounds like you, or if you aren’t currently using SEM for your business, contact our team. If you don’t know your cost per conversion with your PPC campaigns, it’s time for a change!


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