A search engine marketing strategy is a plan that helps you increase your reach through PPC ads. Use this guide to tailor your SEM strategy for maximum performance and revenue.

Here, you’ll find:

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

As a result, search engines give businesses a huge opportunity to reach bigger audiences than we could have imagined decades ago through organic and paid search.

A search engine marketing strategy is the key to increasing your reach through pay-per-click ads. This strategic plan lays out exactly how you’ll create winning PPC ad campaigns to boost your website’s visibility and attract customers who are ready to buy.

Let’s dive into what an SEM strategy is and how to create your own with advice from the experts.

What is a search engine marketing strategy?

A search engine marketing strategy is a plan designed to increase reach through paid search ads (also called pay-per-click or PPC ads) that show up at the top of the search engine results page (SERP). Google is the most popular search engine, but you can also run PPC campaigns on Bing, Yahoo, and ecommerce platforms like Amazon.

When you search for any term on Google, you’ll 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

SEM vs. SEO: What’s the difference?

SEM drives paid traffic from search engine ads, while search engine optimization (SEO) drives organic (or free) traffic. The main difference between SEM and SEO is that SEM requires an ad budget, and SEO doesn’t.

Some marketers consider SEO tactics to be part of SEM along with paid search, but others don’t. For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on paid advertising when we talk about SEM.

How does SEM work?

Search engine marketing works by increasing your visibility on search engines with paid advertising. Advertisers pay each time someone clicks on their ad.

When a user types in a search query, the search engine will perform an auction to determine which ads are displayed in what order and how much the advertiser will pay for clicks. If you’re targeting that specific keyword, you’ll automatically be in the running when the auction begins.

The Google Ads auction process considers which ads get the top positions for that query based on:

  • Bid amount: How much an advertiser is willing to pay for a click
  • Quality Score: A metric determined by your expected clickthrough rate (CTR), ad relevance, and landing page experience
  • Ad relevance: How relevant your ad is based on the search query. The auction may also consider ad format and ad extensions when determining rank.

Once the auction is complete, the winners are determined. The ad with the highest combined score gets the top position, with the lower-scored ads appearing in descending order. The ads are then displayed on the search engine results page or social platform, and the advertiser is charged every time someone clicks on the ad.

How to win the ad auction

There are no guarantees, but there are ways to improve your chances of winning the ad auction to appear at the top of the search engine results, right above the organic search results:

  • Improve your Google Quality Score by optimizing your ad copy and landing pages to be more relevant for target keywords.
  • 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 ensuring it’s visually appealing, easy to navigate, relevant to your audience, and quick to load. It’s all about the user experience here!

13 expert search engine marketing strategies

Now that you’re ready to dive into SEM, it’s time to create your search engine marketing strategy.

Use these expert tips for the best results with your SEM campaigns:

  1. Set yourself apart in your ad copy
  2. Make it urgent
  3. Offer a deal
  4. Address pain points
  5. Make it easy to convert
  6. Use keywords that match search intent
  7. Target a specific audience
  8. Select keywords based on high volume and low competition
  9. Choose the right ad campaign structure
  10. Use conversion rate optimization for landing pages
  11. Monitor analytics and reports
  12. Advertise on the right social media platforms
  13. Raise your ad Quality Score

1. Set yourself apart in your ad copy

More than three-fourths of consumers say trust is a deciding factor in their buying decisions. One way to build trust and set yourself apart from the competition is through social proof.

Here’s a great example of a company using social proof to stand out from the competition in its PPC ad:

virtual assistant paid search ad for myoutdesk

The ad immediately clarifies what MyOutDesk does — helps customers find virtual assistants. However, the ad goes further to explain why this company differs from others.

MyOutDesk lets searchers know it has 800+ verified 5-star business reviews, demonstrating how it stands apart from competitors while providing trust-building social proof. Why look elsewhere when you’ve already found the top virtual assistant company three years running?

According to the ad, many customers already put their trust in this business, which proves 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, expiration, or limit 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 but haven’t yet invested in a course. An ad like the one above sparks urgency by mentioning there are less than 20 spots left. This language gets the reader to act quickly while activating FOMO (fear of missing out).

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

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 an 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 “100% online” services are helpful, too, but potential customers are likely intrigued by the price right away.

4. Address pain points

Search engine users often turn to Google to find 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 that you have the answer to their problems.

moving company paid search ad

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

Once the advertiser gets 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 an email list, or purchase, they’ll probably go elsewhere.

Adding actionable links to a paid ad helps searchers 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 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, these extra links are invaluable for increasing conversions.

6. Use keywords that match search intent

Before building your search engine marketing strategy, find relevant keywords to target in your campaigns. There are dozens of online keyword tools you can use (including Google’s 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. Also, list negative keywords to exclude from your PPC campaigns to avoid matching with irrelevant search queries.

Choose keywords that align with search intent. Search intent typically falls into one of four buckets:

  1. Informational: Users are looking for information about a topic
  2. Navigational: Users are looking for a specific website
  3. Commercial: Users are looking to purchase a product or service
  4. Transactional: Users are looking for a specific product or brand

While looking for PPC keywords, keep the goal of your ad in mind. Choose keywords with search intent that align with this goal and your call to action (CTA).

For example, the keyword phrase “Monday.com vs. Asana” has a commercial intent. That means when someone types it into Google Search, they want to make a purchasing decision. The Monday.com ad that appears for this search query has the goal of getting the search engine user to purchase the software.

Commercial keyword intent example

7. Target a specific audience

Before building your SEM campaign, identify the specific audience to target. Audience targeting helps you reach the right people with your ad (and product or service) by narrowing your reach to those most likely to purchase.

Google Ads audience targeting allows you to target people based on:

  • Demographics like marital status, education, and employment
  • Affinity segments like food & dining, home & garden, and lifestyles & hobbies
  • In-market segments like beauty & personal care, arts & crafts supplies, and autos & vehicles
  • Life events like graduating, getting married, or moving

Google also allows you to target an audience based on interests and products or services they’re searching for, the types of websites they browse, and the types of apps they use. You can even use your data to retarget people who have visited your website, app, or YouTube channel.

8. Select keywords based on high volume and low competition

When doing your keyword research, consider search volume and keyword difficulty. The right keywords for you to target will be those with a higher volume and lower difficulty. These keywords provide the best chance of ranking higher in the ad spots because they’re less competitive.

Use keyword research tools like Semrush or Ahrefs to find this information. These tools will also analyze average cost-per-click and keyword intent, which will play a role in your chosen keywords.

SEMrush keyword overview

9. Choose the right ad campaign structure

Google Ads offers different campaign types, each designed to meet different advertising goals and target audiences. Understanding the structure and purpose of each type can help you choose the most effective strategy.

Here are the main types of Google Ad campaigns:

Search Campaigns

Google Search ad campaign example

These campaigns display text ads on the SERP when users search for keywords related to your products or services. This ad type attracts high-intent users actively searching for specific information, products, or services.

Display Campaigns

Display campaigns show visual ads across Google’s Display Network, which includes over two million websites, videos, and apps. This ad type is ideal for building brand awareness and reaching users based on interests, habits, or previous website interactions.

Shopping Campaigns

Google Shopping ad campaign example

Shopping campaigns promote products by giving users detailed information about what you’re selling before they click the ad. These ads show users a photo of your product, title, price, store name, and more. These are ideal for retail and e-commerce businesses.

Video Campaigns

Video campaigns show video ads on YouTube and across Google’s Display Network. This ad structure increases brand awareness and drives conversions, allowing you to target users based on demographics, interests, and viewing behaviors.

Local Campaigns

Google local ad campaign example

Local campaigns drive local consumers to call or visit physical store locations. These ads appear on Google or Google Maps for local searches, such as “electronics store near me.” This is a great option for businesses with physical store locations that want more local foot traffic.

10. Use conversion rate optimization for landing pages

Optimizing your landing pages for conversions will help you reap the full benefits of PPC advertising.

Here are several conversion rate optimization (CRO) tips for PPC landing pages:

  • Use clear and concise messaging that communicates the value of the product/service. (Less is more!)
  • Include a compelling call-to-action that stands out on the page and uses clear, concise language so there’s no question about the next step.
  • Incorporate social proof, such as reviews, testimonials, and screenshots on the landing page to build readers’ trust.
  • Design a user-friendly page with a clean, simple design that’s easy to navigate and read.
  • Use relevant images and videos to help customers better understand the value of your product/service.
  • A/B test different headlines and CTAs to find the copy that provides the best conversion rates.

In addition to CRO, make standard on-page optimizations for user experience to ensure the page loads quickly and is easy to navigate. Remember, Google takes user experience into account during the ad auction.

11. Monitor analytics and reports

Monitoring analytics and tracking key metrics over time helps you understand your PPC ad performance. It also identifies opportunities for improvement and ways to optimize your PPC ad campaigns for maximum performance.

Here are a few of the key metrics to track PPC performance:

  • Quality score: A low Quality Score suggests you need to make changes to your keywords, ads, or landing page.
  • Cost per click (CPC): Monitoring cost-per-click and comparing it to ad revenue identifies wasted ad spend.
  • Clickthrough rate (CTR): CTR gauges ad relevance to improve CTR and boost your Quality Score.
  • Conversion rate: The conversion rate tells you how many people take the desired action and provides insight into the effectiveness of your ad copy and landing page.
  • Cost per acquisition (CPA): This metric measures overall PPC ROI and shows how effectively you spend your ad budget.
  • Return on ad spend (ROAS): ROAS determines if your ad campaigns are profitable and identifies your most profitable PPC channels.

It’s amazing how monitoring PPC analytics can provide such powerful insights into how to improve campaigns. By implementing a proper tracking and analytics strategy for AppDymanics, HawkSEM helped the company increase its conversion rate by 20% while doubling targeted traffic.

Tools like ConversionIQ can 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.

12. Advertise on the right social media platforms

Don’t forget: PPC advertising isn’t just for Google. You can also run PPC ads on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Pinterest. The key is to choose the social media platforms where most of your audience is.

To get inspiration for your paid social ads, look at competitor ads. Meta makes it easy to see other brands’ ads with its ad library. It’ll tell you when the brand ran ads and what Meta platforms they advertised on. It also lets you view the different ad versions to see the ad creative.

Meta ad library example

13. Raise your ad Quality Score

Quality Score is a metric that Google uses to evaluate ad quality and determine ad rank. It’s calculated based on:

  • Expected click-through rate: Google determines how often people will likely click on your ad based on historical data.
  • Ad relevance: Google measures this based on how closely your ad’s target keyword and copy align with what the user is searching for.
  • Landing page UX: Google considers factors like page load speed, content relevance, and mobile responsiveness.

Based on these criteria, there are a few ways to improve your Quality Score. First, select the most relevant keywords to ensure your ads reach the people most interested in your offer.

Once you have the most relevant keywords, ensure your ad copy aligns with keyword intent. If the keyword intent is commercial, then your ad should reflect that.

Another way to improve your Quality Score is to optimize your landing page. Align the landing page copy with user expectations based on the ad copy. Also, ensure your landing page is mobile-friendly, loads quickly, and is easy to navigate.

Best SEM tools to improve your ads

Using SEM tools to implement your search engine marketing strategy will help you save time and money. Here are some of our favorite SEM tools:

Google Keyword Planner

Google Keyword Planner is a free tool anyone with a Google Ads account can use. This tool simplifies discovering new keywords to expand your keyword list. It also gives you access to search volume and trend data to identify which PPC keywords make sense for your brand to target.

Google’s PPC keyword tool can also help you effectively plan your PPC budget. It gives you a top of page bid for both the low and high range based on historical data.


Semrush dashboard

Semrush is an all-in-one digital marketing tool with excellent SEO and PPC features. With this tool, you can identify your search competitors and see which PPC keywords they’re bidding on.

You’ll also be able to do Google Shopping research to see who your competitors are, what their pricing strategy looks like, and what keywords they’re using.

The PPC keyword research tool is also helpful while designing and optimizing your PPC ad campaigns. It’ll give you data on CPC, search volume, and competition level—all in one report.


SpyFu is an SEO and PPC keyword research tool that identifies keywords your competitors target for organic and paid search. You can find any website’s paid keywords and ad spend history, allowing you to gain inspiration and insights from competitor ad copy and keyword groups.

The Google Ads Advisor feature recommends the best PPC keywords based on your competitors’ successes. These recommendations also consider your domain, providing a tailored keyword list to prioritize what keywords to bid on.

Why is SEM important?

Search engines are used by nearly any market segment, regardless of age, gender, income level, employment status, or other demographic. So you’re guaranteed to reach your target audience through search engine marketing.

Here are a few notable benefits of search engine marketing:

  • Builds brand awareness: Paid search ads can increase brand awareness by 80%. Even web users who don’t (yet) click on your ad will see your company’s name. Ads spread the word about your brand so sticks in customers’ minds.
  • Ensures simple budgeting: SEM doesn’t have to be expensive. You can set your daily budget for maximum results without any monetary waste.
  • Provides quick results: SEO marketing can be slow to provide results, but with SEM, you can get new leads immediately after your ad goes live. In fact, PPC traffic converts 50% better than organic site visitors.
  • Offers measurable feedback: Ad campaign metrics let you see how your ads are doing in ROI, so you can shift gears or continue as planned depending on performance.

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

“Companies can use 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,” shares McKraken.

“After you collect a suitable amount of data and achieve 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.”



The takeaway

SEM is a biiig concept with plenty of nuances and best practices that’ll 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.

This article has been updated and was originally published in January 2023.

Sarah Jane Burt

Sarah Jane Burt

Sarah Jane is a copywriter and content strategist with more than 12 years of experience working with everyone from multi-billion dollar tech brands like IBM to local real estate agents. She specializes in creating personality-packed sales content and thought leadership. When she’s not writing words on the Internet, she’s throwing axes competitively or romping around with her two weenie dogs.