Got goals? Let this guide help you tailor your search engine marketing strategy for maximum performance (and revenue) in 2023. 

Here, you’ll find: 

  • How we define search engine marketing (SEM)
  • Why now’s a great time to update your SEM strategy
  • Successful SEM strategy examples — and why they work
  • Tips to implement new approaches into your campaigns

If you had to name one thing you couldn’t live without, Google probably wouldn’t be your first answer. 

But could you truly imagine a world without it? 

Google gets a whopping 3.5 billion searches every day. People turn to the search engine for everything from looking up facts and finding restaurants to discovering new music, shopping, and everything in between.

As a result, Google and other search engines allow businesses a huge opportunity to reach bigger audiences than we could have ever imagined decades ago.

That’s why SEM is so critical to your ad campaign’s success. 

Use this guide to make sure you’re up on the latest SEM basics and check out some examples of notable campaigns you can use for inspiration in your 2023 strategies. 

marketers in a strategizing meeting

Before you start building, updating, or expanding your search engine marketing strategy, you’ll need to find relevant keywords to target. (Image: Adobe Stock)

What is a search engine marketing strategy? 

A search engine marketing strategy is the plan you or your marketing partner create to reach your target audience successfully through paid search (also called pay-per-click or PPC) ads that show up on search engine results pages, or SERPs. While Google is the most popular search engine, other PPC options worth exploring include Bing, Yahoo, and Amazon.

When you search for virtually any term on Google, you’re likely to see ads before the organic results. For instance, if you searched for “divorce attorney,” you’d see ads for local attorneys before scrolling down to the standard results. 

divorce attorneys la paid search ads

These ads are just one example of search engine marketing or SEM, which involves purchasing ads that will appear on search engine results pages (SERPs). Pay-per-click advertising (aka PPC) is arguably the most well-known example of SEM, so you may already be familiar with the concept without even realizing it.

For us, we consider organic search engine optimization (SEO) tactics under the SEM umbrella along with paid search, but not all marketers or agencies do. The difference is that paid search requires payment, while SEO involves “free” strategies you can implement to increase your organic search traffic.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on the paid advertising SEM aspects.

How does SEM work? 

SEM all starts with the search engine. Most likely, you’ll be dealing with Google Ads, but the ad platform will change depending on the search engine you want your ads to surface on. 

Before you start building, updating, or expanding your search engine marketing strategy, you’ll need to find relevant keywords to target. Thankfully, keyword research doesn’t have to be complex. 

There are dozens of online keyword tools you can use (including Google’s own Keyword Planner). You can also find inspiration on the SERP for other keywords you’re targeting by doing your own searches. 

Compile both short- and long-tail keywords to make the most of your research. Short-tail keywords are usually 1-2 words, while long-tail keywords are typically 3-5 words or more. 

You might also make a list of negative keywords that you want to exclude from your PPC campaigns, which can help avoid matching with irrelevant search queries. 

When you’re performing keyword research for your ad campaign, you can ask questions like: 

  • Which keywords are currently bringing the most organic traffic? 
  • What words or phrases are already integrated throughout our website? 
  • Which keywords are competitors ranking for? 
  • Does this word or phrase have a reasonable amount of monthly search traffic? 

You’ll then create your PPC ad (or several ads) with your keyword in mind. The last step before your ad can go live is uploading your ad to your account with the search engine. 

Now that your ad is ready to go, you can move forward with your campaign. You’ll likely be asked to specify:

  • Campaign type: Google Ads offers eight campaign types to choose from, including Search, Video, App, and Shopping. Your copy and imaging can vary depending on the campaign type you choose.
  • Days and times: A bit of market research can reveal the days and times when your target audience is typically online. Running ads during these windows can maximize ROI. Try sending out surveys or seeking relevant industry reports to find this info. (In time, you may consider dividing your audience into unique ad groups based on when they’re active online.)
  • Budget: You can break down your budget per day, week, or month. The amount you spend will decide your cost-per-acquisition (CPA) and cost-per-click (CPC). 
  • Metrics: Tracking key metrics will help you identify which ads or ad elements are most effective. Use those results to improve future marketing campaigns. To track your metrics, you can specify campaign goals in Google Ads and see your results in Google Analytics. 

When a searcher enters one of your designated search terms, Google will automatically run an ad auction. Since you’ve set a budget and bidding rules ahead of time, your ad will automatically be in the running when the auction begins. Google’s algorithms will decide which ads are best to appear with the search in question, and the highest bidders will get the top positions for that query.

The entire process happens in a matter of seconds, presenting the search with the chosen ad almost instantaneously. 

Even if your budget is small, you can still win ad auctions. Try these tips: 

  • Improve your Google Quality Score, which is determined by your expected clickthrough rate (CTR), ad relevance, and landing page experience. 
  • Target specific keywords that bring less competition than broader, more common keywords. (Competitive keywords are often harder for beginners to rank for.)
  • Enhance your landing page by making sure it’s visually appealing, easy to navigate, relevant to your audience, and quick to load. It’s all about the user experience here! 

Why is SEM important? 

SEM is one of the most promising digital marketing strategies largely because of its extensive reach. Social media advertising, for instance, can be restrictive. Maybe your target audience isn’t too active on social media or gravitates toward just one platform, limiting the number of potential eyes on your ads. 

But search engines are used by nearly any market segment, regardless of age, gender, income level, employment status, or any other demographic. You’re virtually guaranteed to reach the audience you’re seeking. 

Beyond that, paid ads will appear at the top of the search engine results, which is key to bringing attention to your brand. Having the coveted top spot in a search query is a huge advantage for your business, considering over 25% of web users click the first Google search result. Even if you can’t get that top spot yet, simply being on the first page of SERPs is a huge accomplishment.

An SEM campaign can also bring much quicker results than an SEO strategy alone, especially for new businesses just delving into search engine marketing. It can take a while to build out your website, ensure everything is optimized, find and include relevant backlinks, and reap the benefits of organic traffic. But paid ads perform much more quickly and are guaranteed to be placed in front of high-quality leads. 

Tools like ConversionIQ can help ensure revenue-generating leads as well, especially when combined with the results of your paid ad campaigns. ConversionIQ, HawkSEM’s proprietary software, shows you exactly who’s clicking and converting. Compare these findings with your ad campaign metrics to better understand your target audience and personalize your messaging. 

Here are a few more notable benefits of pursuing a search engine marketing strategy: 

  • Builds brand awareness: Even web users who don’t (yet) click on your ad will see your company’s name. Ads spread the word about your brand and help it stick in customers’ minds. 
  • Ensures simple budgeting: SEM doesn’t have to be expensive. You can set your budget per day for maximum results without any monetary waste. 
  • Provides quick results: SEO marketing can be slow to provide results, but with SEM, you could see leads come in immediately after your ad goes live. 
  • Offers measurable feedback: Ad campaign metrics let you see how your ads are actually doing in terms of ROI, so you can shift gears or continue as planned depending on performance. 

Finally, SEM is an incredible avenue for pushing your businesses toward its short- and long-term goals. HawkSEM Lead Strategist Sarah McKraken weighs in: 

Companies can utilize SEM for their short-term goals by collecting data on their best-performing locations, time of day, demographics, etc. and advertising more heavily in those areas. After you have a suitable amount of data collected and you are achieving consistent conversion volume, you can transition to creating long term goals in relation to achieving better ROI or scaling for increased revenue volume. Then, you can compile a strategy based on your goal and data points.

5 promising search engine marketing strategies to consider

Now that you’re ready to dive into SEM headfirst, the first thing to do is create an ad campaign. Before you start writing your first ad, ask yourself: 

  • Who is my target audience and what are their pain points? 
  • What stage of the buyer journey am I targeting? 
  • What sets my product/service apart from competitors? 
  • How can I get my readers’ attention fast? 

While you’re creating your first few ads, you can also implement these tips to produce unique and compelling content.

1. Set yourself apart 

Customer trust is a critical element to your company’s success. Over 80% of consumers say that trust is a deciding factor in their buying decisions. 

But how can you make someone trust you when they’ve never heard of your brand before? 

Proving your expertise doesn’t have to sound flashy or over the top. Check out how MyOutDesk does it: 

virtual assistant paid search ad for myoutdesk

The ad immediately makes it clear what MyOutDesk does: helps customers find virtual assistants. But the next phrase is the key. 

MyOutDesk lets searchers know that their services surpass all their competitors. Why look somewhere else when you’ve already found the top virtual assistant company three years running? 

It’s obvious that plenty of customers have already put their trust in this resource, which may prove to skeptical leads that it’s okay for them to do the same.

2. Make it urgent

Drumming up interest in your business is great. But your time and money will be wasted if those leads don’t convert. 

Putting a deadline on your offer is an effective way to give on-the-fence buyers the extra push they need to commit. 

web design paid search ad

Let’s say you want to learn more about Google Ads (formerly Google AdWords) but haven’t yet invested in a course. An ad like the one above sparks a sense of urgency and can even make users realize their FOMO (fear of missing out). 

This ad basically says, “We’ve got what you need, but you need to get it now.”

3. Offer a deal

Who doesn’t love a great deal? 

Running a promotion can be the catalyst that gets an interested buyer to take the leap. Putting your current deal in the headline of your ad is a great attention-grabber. 

cerebral paid search ad

Cerebral, an online therapy service, lets readers know about their sign-up promotion right off the bat. The additional links and the promise of services that are “100% online” are helpful, too, but potential customers are likely intrigued by the price right away.

4. Address pain points

When someone types a search query, there’s a good chance they’re looking for an answer to a problem. You’ve probably already identified your customers’ biggest pain points and how your company can help. The headline of your paid ad is the perfect place to reiterate, like so:

moving company paid search ad

One of the biggest reasons why people hire movers is to make the process less stressful. The above company recognizes that, and it makes it obvious with the first words in the ad. 

Once the advertiser has gotten your attention with the headline, the body of the ad expands on exactly how the company delivers on its promise.

5. Make it easy to convert

People want results, and they want them now. If a lead has to jump through hoops to learn more about your company, sign up for a mailing list, or make a purchase, they’re probably going to go elsewhere. 

Adding actionable links to a paid ad allows searchers to understand what your company does and how they can easily take advantage of your services. 

upwork paid search ad

Upwork provides a great example here. The Upwork team understands that their ads appeal to several groups of people, including freelancers and employers. The links underneath the main ad copy offer something for everyone and make it easy to get started on the platform. 

In a world where speed and efficiency are everything, the presence of these extra links is invaluable when it comes to increasing conversions. 

The takeaway

SEM is a biiig concept with plenty of nuances and best practices that will change depending on your budget, industry, and audience. But with a bit of research and planning, you can implement a successful search engine marketing strategy in no time. 

It’s no secret that it takes time and effort to craft, launch, and reflect on your paid ad campaigns. But you don’t have to do it alone. Reach out today to learn how HawkSEM can help. 

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Alexandra Thompson

Alexandra Thompson

Alexandra Thompson has been in the content marketing world since 2017 and is a proud member of the Hawk writing team. When she's not writing, she's probably got her nose in a book or a Disney movie on TV.