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Written by Caroline Cox on Jun 11 , 2021

SEM audits can reveal strengths and weaknesses in your campaigns, how you stack up against competitors, and more.

Here, you’ll find:

  • The steps to conducting an SEM audit
  • Why conducting SEM audits is a good idea
  • What to do with your audit’s findings
  • Expert tips when it comes to SEM audits

Here on the Hawk blog, we often talk about SEO and PPC (pay-per-click or paid search) as separate strategies. The term “search engine marketing,” or SEM, encompasses both. And, if you ask us, each of these pieces is crucial to building a proper marketing plan.

Our experience tells us that, to be on the front page of Google, you have to have an all-encompassing strategy. Some brands rely only on SEO, then have their organic results pushed down the page in favor of things like rich snippets. Some focus only on PPC then experience a leaky lead pipeline when their stellar ads direct to sub-par websites. 

Audits serve as a time when you zoom out and take a good, hard look at your strategy as a whole. Whereas PPC audits and SEO audits look at those individual programs, an SEM audit offers a holistic view of how you’re showing up on search engine results (so not in places like display ads or on YouTube).

Of course, you want your ads to make sense, be consistent, and stand out from competitors. You also want to make sure things like your branding and local SEO are aligned as well.

Let’s walk through the steps it takes to conduct a proper SEM audit — and learn why it could be the key to your campaign’s success.

two people prepping for an sem audit

You may think you know who your competitors are, but your in-person competitors may be different from online rivals. (Image via Unsplash)

Why conduct an SEM audit?

Your online presence and visibility on the search engine results page (SERP) is a customer’s potential first impression. It’s good to know what you look like to others online. Not only that, but customer preferences can change almost as often as algorithms do. What keywords worked for you in the past may not work as well now, either from competition or your audience’s changing needs.

It’s important to understand things like the related search types that Google is putting you under for paid search and SEO. After all, you could be showing up for unrelated searches because of content on your site or keywords you’re unintentionally ranking for.

An SEM audit can reveal which keywords are performing well and not-so well. Digging into your performance will help you determine how efficient your budget is and where you might be able to improve in terms of cutting costs, increasing leads, and more.

This audit can also tell you a lot about your competition. You may think you know who your competitors are, but your in-person competitors may be different from online rivals.

How to conduct an SEM audit

Now that we’ve covered all the reasons why SEM audits are a good idea, here are the steps to conduct the actual audit.

1. Search for your brand online

To start your audit process, searching for your brand via search engines like Google and Bing is a good first step. Does your Google My Business page show up, for instance? Is it thorough, accurate and legitimate looking?

2. Check out the other SERP features 

From there, you can check out other SERP features like rich data snippets, the “people also ask” section, and which reviews pop up, if any. Basically, you want to see what searchers see when they look for your company online.

3. Search for relevant keywords 

After you’ve done that, it’s wise to search for the keywords that are relevant to your business. Enter some search terms you think your business would or should show up for. (Not sure where to begin? Use a tool like SEMrush or Google Keyword Planner to get some ideas.)

4. Optimize your paid search ads

On the backend, you also want to make sure certain terms are negated. For example, a lot of accounts’ brand campaigns will show up in the results for searches like “[company name],” plus the words “login” or “portal.” This means current customers are searching for your brand and then clicking your ads, which you want to avoid.

5. Create a checklist for future SEM audits

It may help to come up with an audit checklist. This can help you recreate the audit process down the line and make sure your audit is thorough. This checklist can include things like:

  • Current campaign settings
  • High-performing keywords
  • The names of your top competitors (so you can compare performance)
  • Your PPC and SEO goals
  • Which reports to leverage (such as the Search Terms report in Google Analytics)
  • Data around device placements
two professional women discussing sem audits

Conducting an SEM audit is a great way to take a step back and look at how your digital marketing program is tracking. (Image via Unsplash)

Pro tip: Make sure your branded searches are protected as best as possible. Whether you’re showing at the top of the page organically or paying for branded ads, if someone Googles you, make sure you have your best “foot” forward.

What to do after your SEM audit is complete

So, you’ve done the legwork of auditing your SEM — now what? Once you’ve gathered the data, it’s time to take action.

It’s wise to start with the quick fixes, if there are any. These could be things like metatags that need editing, page titles that are misspelled, or a Google My Business page that needs to be optimized. Basically, think about what Google wants and what you look like to others. From there, make sure you’re doing what you can to show up for the right terms.

If you need to share your findings with a client or other team members, distill everything down into key takeaways. That way, you can create action items that are supported by the data. Should campaign names be changed to be more consistent? Should content be updated or rerouted? Are there keywords you could be trying harder to rank for? 

Your audit findings can serve as proof points behind campaign changes. This is particularly helpful if you need approval or buy-in from higher ups in your organization.

Pro tip: We suggest conducting a full-scale audit every six months to 12 months, depending on your bandwidth. Outside of audits, try to look at search terms, ad copy, and A/B test results on a monthly basis. Google is regularly changing its algorithm, so Google your top keywords to stay up to speed with your competitors and see which strategies are most successful.

The takeaway

Conducting SEM audits is a great way to take a step back and look at how your digital marketing program is tracking. You may be surprised to find which keywords are bringing in the most leads or discover a new opportunity to take advantage of via your SEO tactics.

No matter what you end up finding, taking the time to examine your strategies will help you better optimize your tactics, manage your budget, and feel confident that you’re headed in the right direction.

Caroline Cox

Caroline Cox

Caroline is HawkSEM's content marketing manager. She uses her more than 10 years of professional writing and editing experience to create SEO-friendly articles, educational thought leadership pieces, and savvy social media content to help market leaders create successful digital marketing strategies. She's a fan of seltzer water, print magazines, and huskies.

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