Search engine marketing, or SEM, is a digital marketing strategy that uses paid ads and SEO to make a brand’s website more visible to target audiences via higher rankings on the search engine results page (SERP). The higher the rankings, the more traffic, conversions, and ROI.

Here, you’ll find:

Search engines have become one of the most powerful tools on the internet and essential to our daily lives, as Statista reports. Not only that, but nearly one-third of global web traffic is generated via online search usage.

If you’re a modern-day marketer or business owner, you can’t ignore the impact and reach of search engine platforms (such as Google and Bing, though there are others).

In this guide, HawkSEM CEO Sam Yadegar shares how to leverage SEM for business growth and ROI in this comprehensive guide.

What is search engine marketing?

Search engine marketing (SEM) is a form of digital marketing designed to increase your website’s visibility in the SERP. It combines organic content marketing with search engine optimization (SEO) and pay-per-click (PPC) marketing via sponsored search ads.

How does it compare to other marketing activities, like SEO?

How SEM works

SEM is a combination of SEO and PPC marketing. On the SEO side of the coin is keyword research, high-quality content, and optimized headlines and web elements which aim to gain high organic rankings on the SERP. Google’s algorithms assess your website content based on relevance and rank web pages accordingly.

On the PPC side, bids on keywords place your search ads atop the organic results. You pay for every click, which gets pricey, but requires less labor than SEO.

Google Ads determines which ads appear in Google Search and its products like Google Shopping, Maps, and YouTube. However, SEM isn’t necessarily limited to just Google.

Any search engine that offers ads in its results has an ad system you can use.

These ad networks can include other search engines like Bing Ads, social media marketing ads, and also search engines like Amazon.

How SEM Works

Mechanically, the paid side of SEM (PPC) works on a keyword basis. You perform keyword research, choose a keyword or a group of relevant keywords, a match type, and various parameters to expand or limit your ad’s audience. Whenever someone searches for a keyword that fits your parameters, Google runs an ad auction in the background.

Your bidding rules and budget limits determine how much you bid, and the auction results determine which brands rank highest for those keywords. The more you bid, the higher you’ll rank.

There’s a lot of nuance to this, including questions to ask like:

  • Which keywords do you choose?
  • What match types do you choose?
  • What bids should you make?
  • Which bidding and optimization types should you use?
  • What additional targeting parameters should you use?

Learning all of this and tailoring it to each ad campaign is what SEM is all about.

SEM vs. SEO: what’s the difference?

SEO and SEM are both forms of marketing meant to enhance your site’s visibility on the SERPs, but they operate uniquely.

While SEM often refers exclusively to paid search marketing, we consider SEO as a category under the SEM umbrella, since both involve search engines. But SEM encompasses both SEO and PPC marketing. Here are some ways SEO differs from the broader SEM. The primary dividing factor is simple: money.

SEO is organic

SEO requires an investment in content optimization and other web tactics to improve rankings. However, that investment goes toward expertise and labor.

SEM also includes PPC marketing, which requires an investment for every click (more on that shortly). Essentially, PPC (and SEM) include advertising costs, while SEO does not.

An SEO strategy aims to understand how a search engine analyzes and ranks your website. Usually, “search engine” means Google, but of course, there are others like Bing that are worth exploring. Search engines use crawlers to index and assess your web page’s content, and algorithms to decide how relevant it is to your audience’s search queries.

With SEO, you can organically adjust elements like headings, content topics, site architecture, and overall user experience to better appeal to algorithms for higher rankings.

Instead of paying to rank, you invest time into web pages hoping they’ll perform well organically.

Keyword Placement

(Image: Wordstream)

Outside of SEO, SEM is paid

Search engine marketing strategies other than SEO are all about paid search marketing and PPC. Paid ad campaigns are much faster to start with and see results, but they can be challenging to fine-tune, scale, and make the biggest splash with your budget.

Even ranking #1 or #0 in the search results may not do the trick to get your share of the incoming clicks. But remember, SEM is a one-two punch. The best organic results fall below paid ads, which means that investing in both will give you the total knockout visibility you want at the top of the SERP.

Google Ads Results Example

But what if you don’t have a big enough budget? Yadegar says you can always start with SEO, but the best results come from using both:

“SEO may be a little bit more budget-friendly out of the gate, but it may take much longer to drive returns,” explains Yadegar. “The combination is where we see the best performance — you can quickly test which keywords and topics are working with PPC and then from there, make deeper investments in SEO without all the guesswork and longer result cycles that SEO needs.”

The average Google search lasts less than a minute. People have an idea of what they want to find, browse the top few results, and click one that looks promising. If you rank too far down the page, you won’t get more than a small share of those clicks.

A robust SEM strategy also helps prevent traffic poaching, which is when a competitor pays for ads using your own branded keywords. This means they may rank higher on the results page via a PPC ad than you do:

SEM strategy

Notice how Oracle doesn’t even show up in any of the top ads? People might want to actually buy Oracle software as shown in the search bar, but these brands poached their traffic.

But does SEM offer any ROI in exchange for all this work? You bet.

The importance of using SEM to reach your marketing goals

The main way search engine marketing can help you reach your online marketing goals? First, it puts you on the radar of potential customers through higher search rankings.

Sure, you could have a stellar product or service, but if no one knows about it, you’re not going to see the return on investment (ROI) you want. Nobody wants to get lapped by the competition, which is why it’s crucial to leverage SEM.

Yadegar points out that SEM gets you in front of a highly qualified portion of your target audience — the ones closest to a purchase:

“SEM allows you to speak to the exact audience you want,” says Yadegar. “It’s not spray and pray; it’s dialed in, and when done right, it will bring in website traffic from people who are ready to ‘buy.’”

Second? You can maximize ROI through performance analysis. SEM makes it possible to attribute every tactic, keyword, and dollar to revenue, according to Yadegar.

So, how do you gel all of this into an effective SEM strategy that drives more conversions and revenue? Walk with us through our go-to SEM best practices.

The 6 keys to effective SEM

Effective SEM requires knowledge of several critical aspects of paid search advertising. Let’s dive in.

  1. Campaign types
  2. Keywords
  3. Search intent
  4. Targeting
  5. Ad elements and testing
  6. Budget and bidding

Campaign Types

1. Campaign types

Google Ads has eight different campaign types. Depending on your audience, industry, and goals, you may not need most of them for your digital marketing strategy.

  • Search: Ads that display in your Google search results
  • Display: Ads that often have images, and can appear in search results, as well as other websites that your audience browses
  • Video: YouTube video ads that play before a video starts
  • Discover: Ads on YouTube post-videos, sidebars, and other locations, as well as the mobile Discover queue and Gmail ads
  • App: Mobile ads that appear in mobile SERPs, as well as Google Play, YouTube, Discover, and the display network
  • Shopping: Ads that are displayed in Google Shopping and Gmail
  • Local: Ads visible on Google Maps, the display network, and YouTube
  • Performance Max (or PMax): Automated ads that appear in various forms mentioned above, with additional tools to manage it

Picking the right SEM campaign type determines your ad’s performance. This includes what kind of copy you need to produce, what targeting can work best, and even where your audience is likely to come from.

2. Keywords

Keywords are the foundation of every ad and determine what kinds of queries the ad will appear for in the SERP. The most important part of SEM is picking and analyzing the right keywords, bar none.

If you choose the wrong search terms, you risk wasting money and ending up with ineffective ads. Similarly, you might blow through ad spend quickly if you accidentally bid twice on the same keyword (aka duplicate keywords).

Let’s look at an example of keywords for a California brand that sells wholesale snacks.

They might want to bid and rank for keywords like:

  • Wholesale chips supplier San Francisco
  • Big batch cookies Los Angeles
  • Wholesale foods retailer near me

But what if crackers aren’t part of their snack offerings? They’ll want to rank for the keywords above and similar variations, unless they include the word “crackers”. In this case, they’d include these in a negative keyword list to avoid paying for irrelevant traffic:

  • Wholesale crackers supplier San Francisco
  • Big batch crackers Los Angeles
  • Wholesale cracker retailer near me

Keywords have various essential metrics to help you identify the ones that offer the most traffic, reach, and overall value and ROI to your marketing goals, like:

CPC (cost per click)

This is the amount of money you’ll pay for each click the ad generates to your website. CPC varies depending on the keyword and competition. Higher-competition keywords will have higher CPCs, meaning you’ll have to pay more to rank higher than your competitors.

Search volume

Search volume is the number of times people search for a particular keyword each month. Generally, the more specific the keyword phrase (like long tail keywords), the lower the search volume. You can view keyword search volume right on your Google Analytics account:

Keywords in Google Ads

However, we like to leverage SEO tools to get even more keyword insights. For example, Dominos was typed into Google over 11 million times last month in the United States. We can see this data in Semrush’s Keyword Magic Tool:

Semrush’s Keyword Magic Tool

(Image: Semrush Keyword Magic Tool)

Keyword difficulty

A keyword with millions of monthly searches generally has a high competition. If you wanted to rank for “Dominos”, you’d have a pretty hard time. This is known as keyword difficulty, and this branded term is 100 (very difficult):

Keyword difficulty

Keywords with a KD of 10-30 tend to be more reasonable for brands to see results with. This means you won’t have too much trouble ranking above competitors.

3. Search intent

It’s not enough to know what someone searches for. You need to understand why they’re searching for it. Search intent is either:

  • Informational: Seeks general topic information
  • Navigational: Seeks specific information about a brand or company
  • Commercial: Seeks comparison research about specific products
  • Transactional: Seeks to make a purchase

Search intent example: Oracle

A small business owner might seek information about payroll software — what it is, how it helps their operations, and ideas of payroll software on the market:

Informational intent

Informational intent

This is an informational intent search query. It characterizes a member of your audience who isn’t at all ready to make a purchase — they might not even know you exist.

But you can put yourself on their radar like Oracle does with informational blog content like this guide atop the SERP. Keep in mind that instead of a PPC campaign here, Oracle opts for organic content marketing, which falls under the SEO umbrella of SEM.

Oracle’s readers might have a general idea about payroll software and Oracle’s services. But if they want to dive deeper into why Oracle is a worthy option? They might navigate to a page that covers Oracle’s standout features:


(Image: Oracle)

Navigational intent

When a reader considers an individual product’s features or brand values, they have navigational search intent. Oracle guided the reader here with this CTA on the original blog article:


But you can also guide readers with navigational search intent to your product pages by ranking for branded keywords:

  • “Oracle payroll software”
  • “Oracle brand”

Commercial intent

Moving down the customer journey, the reader might want to compare Oracle to other types of payroll software, indicating commercial intent. They might search any of these on Google:

  • “Oracle payroll vs alternatives”
  • “Oracle payroll software comparison”
  • “Best payroll software 2024”

Transactional intent

And once they make a decision? They’ll move onto transactional intent, which means they’re ready to buy:

Transactional intent

Notice all the paid ads atop the SERP? These brands knew it was worth it to pay a higher price for PPC advertising and higher bids on these transactional intent keywords.

Oracle might consider bidding higher in their Google Ads campaign to compete.

Search intent allows you to provide organic content and ad copy that resonates with the

searcher and encourages them to click on your ad over the others on display.

4. Targeting

While keywords choose the broad audience that your ads can reach, audience targeting options narrow your reach to specific sub-sections of that group. Ad targeting on Google is among the most robust of any search engine.

Targeting options include various audience segments and broad qualities shared by that group of people. These include lifestyle choices, habits, interests, life events, and others.

Ad Targeting

At HawkSEM, we inform client targeting with information about:

  • The business’s audience: Who interacts with your brand and buys your product
  • Desired acquisition cost: The average price to acquire every new customer
  • Customer lifetime value: How much you’d like a customer to spend throughout the lifetime of their interactions with your brand

Why are these important?

“From there, you can back in the proper ad spend and traffic needed to reach business goals,” says Yadegar.

The right targeting options narrow your ad audience and help you improve ad performance and relevance, resulting in better click rates, conversion rates, and a better quality score.

5. Ad elements and testing

For SEM, each ad displayed looks more or less like an organic search result. The ad will have:

  • A large and blue title operates as a headline to attract attention
  • A display URL showing the user what domain they’ll eventually land on (this URL may be different from the actual URL and does not show tracking parameters and other data)
  • A description, equivalent to a webpage’s meta description, as your general ad copy

Other ads may have images, videos, or ad extensions like a phone number attached to them as well. A considerable SEM task is to create and test various ad elements to find the most compelling way to reach your audience.

Ad Element

You can test and improve upon every part of your ad over time. For example, you can A/B test elements like primary keywords, headlines, structure, or landing page CTA buttons to assess which are most effective.

A huge part of managing a successful marketing campaign is iterative testing and implementing improved designs. Tools like our own customized tech system, ConversionIQ, can help you transform all that data into actionable insights.

6. Budget and bidding

Google Ads offers a variety of bidding strategies, from manual control to automatic optimization.

Picking the right marketing strategy helps ensure you spend your budget in the most effective way possible. How much money should you put into it?

Budget and Bidding

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to SEM costs. They can range anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 per month, depending on your needs and budget.

The brilliant part of SEM is that, when done effectively, every dollar invested results in more than a dollar’s worth of value to your company. Successful reinvestment allows you to expand your SEM budget to increase ROI over time.

How to start a successful SEM campaign

SEM is complex and potentially expensive, but it’s a very doable task. You just need to lay the correct groundwork, take your time, and regularly test and monitor your ads.

Here’s your step-by-step guide to launch a SEM campaign:

Define your objective

What’s the goal of your advertising? Do you want to build brand awareness, generate leads for your sales team, convert interested users into customers, promote a sale, or do something else?

Knowing your objective allows you to refine your copy and target to reach the people most likely to complete that objective.

How to Start a Successful SEM Campaign

Establish target keywords

We went over the function of keywords a little earlier. To put the concept into action, identify keywords that align with your objectives, with the right search intent behind them. Pick an effective match type and build a list of negative keywords to exclude.

Choose targeting options and a bidding strategy to most effectively reach that audience for the least amount of money. Set budget caps to avoid running over.

Create your ad copy

Ad copy is an art of conciseness, creativity, and persuasion. We’ll look at this example of a 3D printing ad from Xometry and dissect each section of copy:

Create your ad copy

Optimize a creative headline

The headline is the ad’s anchor text of about 30 characters that links to your landing page. It should contain a primary keyword and channel intrigue without coming off as too sales-y. Xometry does a great job communicating its product while plugging in social proof:

creative headline

Persuade with a valuable meta description

Usually in about 160 characters, ad descriptions promote your product or webpage content persuasively. We love the value ads of diverse materials, free shipping, and customization in Xometry’s ad description:

meta description

Add supportive ad extensions

Ad extensions are links to other relevant web pages on your site. Xometry links to more product-specific pages to attract both audiences more knowledgeable about 3D printing, as well as audiences with more commercial and transactional intent:

ad extensions

Create a simple, descriptive URL

The ad URL appears in the address bar of your landing page, and just above the headline of your search ad. This isn’t the place for flowery copy — you want to get straight to the point about what your audience can expect on the landing page like Xometry does:

descriptive URL

Your goal with ad copy? Capture your audience’s attention enough to encourage a click. And that’s no easy feat. We know what it’s like to brainstorm for hours for the perfect headline and description, and the trick is practice, which HawkSEM has decades of.

How do we know what’s working? We look at the most relevant metrics.

Track performance and measure success

Google Analytics helps you track ad performance but you can track additional attributes via custom goals, conversion actions, and UTM parameters. Google even allows you to track phone calls, e-commerce sales, and in-store visits with the right conversion tracking setup.

Common key performance indicators (KPIs) for PPC include:

  • Clickthrough rate (CTR): Compares how often your ad is seen with how often your audience clicks on it
  • Cost per click: How much you pay each time an audience clicks on your ad
  • Cost per conversion: The average cost of converting a member of your audience into a customer
  • Conversion rate: The percentage of your audience that completes an action on your website, usually a purchase

All of these metrics speak to your ad’s effectiveness in terms of organic traffic, conversions, and revenue. Google actually assesses many of these metrics, as well as your ad rank and historical performance, on their end to determine:

Quality score

Quality Score and CPC

With this information, Google estimates how well-composed your ads are, their user experience and relevance, and how likely people are to click on them. Then, Google gives you a score based on that estimate known as “Quality Score.”

This score itself does not directly impact your ad performance; instead, it reflects factors that do. Nevertheless, it’s critical to do what you can to maintain a good quality score.

For SEO success, you can use a tool like Google Analytics or Semrush to view things like backlinks, keywords you rank for, and how you’ve risen through the SERP ranks, along with how much traffic you’re bringing to your website and how.

Yadegar reminds us that different businesses might prioritize different performance metrics, but tracking revenue attribution is vital for all brands:

“Ecommerce performance goals are more straightforward — SEM strategies can be directly measured toward revenue and tracking yearly revenue uplift based on campaign performance,” says Yadegar. “Whereas B2B gets a little tricky, but solid attribution tools like ConversionIQ can trackback leads to end revenue.”

person using a tablet

Search engine marketing is the heart of a well-rounded digital strategy. (Image: Rawpixel)

Disadvantages of SEM

A quick look at our SEM results shows skyrocketed conversions, ROAS, traffic, and customer loyalty. It’s hard to consider the disadvantages, but we’ll discuss a few challenges every brand might have to face in an SEM strategy:

  • Time-consuming: SEM has a lot of moving parts. With bids to monitor, multiple ad campaigns, competitive analysis, keyword research, and an entire SEO content marketing strategy, it’s easy to get lost in the sauce. The time needed to manage an SEM strategy could feel overwhelming for some businesses, especially new ones.
  • Ongoing and upfront investment needed for best results: We’d estimate that 40% of your marketing budget should go toward search engine marketing. And that’s a hefty allocation you just can’t get around. While SEO costs are more gradual with your content production, PPC costs can demand a high upfront investment.

But if you want to make the most out of those dollars? Make sure to dodge these common SEM mistakes.

What to avoid when building SEM campaigns

Experience has shown us that the most effective SEM programs require a hands-on, human-first approach, rather than relying too heavily on automation tools. But because we’re human, sometimes mistakes happen.

Digital marketing requires regular optimization and tweaking as tools, industries, and audiences evolve. The good news? When you know what red flags to look out for, you can better avoid them.

Common SEM mistakes include:

  • Not testing landing page forms
  • Having sluggish site speed
  • Failing to optimize for mobile
  • Making headlines and ad copy an afterthought
  • Not testing your campaign elements
  • Not promoting your content marketing
  • Neglecting technical SEO practices
  • Not leveraging negative keywords
  • Not using lead scoring
  • Focusing more on search engines than people

Yadegar says that last point is paramount:

“Produce content as if you are helping a friend or relative understand the topic,” he advises. “Google continues to get better and better at understanding ‘what’ your piece of content talks about as opposed to just ‘looking for keywords.’”

When you prioritize helpful content, you satisfy Google’s E-E-A-T principles (Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness).

Your end goal? To deliver the most helpful piece of content on your topic.

The takeaway

We’ve said it before, but we’ll say it again: SEM is a constantly evolving strategy. That means it requires ongoing work to do successfully. Market trends, interests, keywords, offers, and more affect SEM. You can’t set it and forget it – you must run it on an ongoing basis if you want to see the best results.

If you’d rather keep your marketing in-house, you can use a wide range of professional tools to help you identify and optimize every aspect of SEM. Tools like Semrush, Wordstream, and SpyFu are all great.

But if you don’t have the time, team, or bandwidth to manage all the search engine marketing aspects on your own, the best thing to do is to contract a top-tier company to do it for you. As one of the industry-leading SEM companies, that’s what we do. If you’re interested, feel free to drop us a line.

You can also check out ConversionIQ, our enterprise-grade SEM improvement platform. It makes managing thousands of ads easy, with full-funnel attribution and powerful insights on your best and worst performers. If you’re interested, you can book a demo with us.

This article has been updated and was originally published in September 2022.

Christina Lyon

Christina Lyon

Christina Lyon is an entrepreneur and writer from sunny SoCal. She leads Lyon Content, a tight-knit team of bold creatives, and crafts engaging written content that helps brands sparkle and scale.