Written by Caroline Cox on Aug 12 , 2022

Search engine marketing (SEM) is all about maximizing your reach and presence in the online spaces where people go to find answers. Here’s how SEM can help your brand shine.

Here, you’ll find:

  • What defines search engine marketing
  • Why SEM is crucial to a digital marketing plan
  • Expert tips for building an SEM strategy
  • Common SEM mistakes to avoid

“Search engines have become one of the most powerful tools on the internet and an essential part of 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, the impact of search engine platforms (such as Google and Bing, though there are others) cannot be ignored.

But since search engine marketing is ever-changing and evolving, it can be heard to know whether the tactics you’re using are truly measuring up. 

Don’t worry: We’ve laid out everything you need to know to build and maintain a successful SEM plan.

What is SEM?

Search engine marketing is all about taking the search algorithm into account when creating things like campaigns, blog posts, and other search engine-related initiatives. 

SEM stands for search engine marketing.

While some marketers use SEM as shorthand for PPC (pay-per-click or paid social), SEO can also fall under this umbrella. 

After all, a search engine’s goal is to serve up the most helpful, accurate, and credible answers to a user’s query, whether through paid or organic results. By understanding what the algorithm deems important, you can cater your ads and content to achieve better visibility.

And it’s not just about Google, though it’s the most popular of the search engines. Other non-Google search engines worth exploring include Bing, DuckDuckGo, and Baidu.

view from the back of a person using google on a laptop

Search engine optimization can help you rise through the organic results ranks and be seen as both a credible solution and an industry thought leader. (Image: Unsplash)

How SEM can help you reach your marketing goals

The main way search engine marketing can help you reach your digital marketing goals is by connecting you with your target audience.

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. Not only that, but not leveraging SEM leaves you open to being lapped by the competition.

Paid search SEM can help you hit the top spots on search engine results page (SERP) so those searching for what you offer can connect with you. 

Meanwhile, SEO tactics are set up to stand the test of time (and resist algorithm shakeups that often happen when updates roll out). Search engine optimization can help you rise through the organic results ranks and be seen as both a credible solution and an industry thought leader.

How to get started with search engine marketing

Overwhelmed about where to begin with your SEM program? It’s probably easier to get started than you think.

First things first, it has to be said that partnering with an SEM agency is one of the best, most cost-effective ways to embark on your SEM journey.

That’s because you’ll be working with experts who know how to allocate budgets wisely, what best practices lead to success, and what your audience responds to best. 

Either way, to get started, it’s a good idea to conduct keyword research. This can help inform both your PPC and SEO efforts, since this is how you’ll discover what terms and phrases your audience uses to find your products or services.

Some helpful keyword research tools include:

  • Semrush
  • Ahrefs
  • Google Keyword Planner
  • Moz
  • AnswerThePublic

Once you have your keywords, you can start creating ads and organic content around these topics.

To start setting up paid search ads on Google, go ahead and set up a Google Ads account if you haven’t already. The platform will then walk you through the steps you need to take to create your first paid search campaign.

Pro tip: If you’ve got existing campaigns or content, you might want to start things off by conducting an SEM audit. This will give you helpful context when it comes to how you’re currently showing up in search results.

man conducting a seminar

The way you measure paid search will be slightly different than how you measure SEO, but they both come together to make up your overall SEM performance. (Image: Rawpixel)

SEM best practices from the experts

Since SEM is one of the most popular digital marketing tactics around, there are many schools of thought when it comes to the best approach.

Luckily, we’ve been in this game a long time. As such, we’ve got years of experience seeing what works and what falls flat on search engines. 

A few SEM best practices we recommend are:

  • Keep an eye on new search engine offerings (such as new ad formats and SERP features)
  • Stay on top of algorithm updates that could affect your performance
  • Explore Google Analytics 4 (slated to replace Universal Analytics in summer 2023)
  • Focus on creating educational content and avoid black-hat SEO tactics (such as keyword stuffing)
  • Make sure your ideal client personal is fully fleshed out so you can target properly
  • Monitor analytics resulgarly so you can invest more in what works
  • Have a consistent voice, tone, and look to your landing pages, ads, and SEO content
  • Focus on the value for the potential customer at each funnel stage
  • Check to make sure your website is speedy, mobile-friendly, and takes Core Web Vitals into consideration

Dealing with SEM competitors

Unless your offering is so unique that no other company can compare (in which case, congrats!), then you likely have competitors vying for your audience.

Competition is often a natural part of growing and running a successful business. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do to keep yours at the top of the game.

Keeping an eye on what the competition is doing can help you understand how others are approaching your audience when it comes to marketing. Conducting a competitor analysis for SEO and PPC can give you a clearer picture of the tactics they’re using.

It’s also worth noting that, yes, competitors can use your brand name in their Google ads, as long as it’s not deceptive and your brand name isn’t trademarked. (The same goes for Bing.)

The latest SEM stats

Let’s look at the facts. These are a few SEM stats and figures:

  • More than half of marketers say keyword rankings and organic traffic are the top ways they measure the success of their SEO strategies. (HubSpot)
  • 46% of companies that had highly successful content marketing increased their paid content promotional budget in 2021. (Semrush)
  • Businesses typically earn $2 for every $1 spent on Google Ads. (Google Economic Impact)
  • 45% of small businesses use PPC advertising. (Small Business Trends)
  • 59% of shoppers surveyed say they use Google to research a purchase they plan to make in-store or online. (Think with Google)
  • Search advertising spending is expected to grow to $132 billion worldwide by the end of 2022. (Statista)
  • Search marketing makes up 42% of digital marketing spending overall. (eMarketer)

How to measure SEM success

The way you measure paid search will be slightly different than how you measure SEO, but they both come together to make up your overall SEM performance.

It helps to create goals that are SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely. This way, you’ll have an easier time gauging whether or not a tactic was successful. 

Common key performance indicators (KPIs) for PPC include:

  • Clickthrough rate
  • Cost per click
  • Cost per conversion
  • Quality Score
  • Conversion rate

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.

person using a tablet

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

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 optimizing 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
  • Focusing more on search engines than people
  • Not leveraging negative keywords
  • Not using lead scoring

How PPC and SEO help each other

It may seem like paid search and SEO efforts work in silos. But, the truth is, they can enhance one another to achieve results greater than the sum of their parts.

You can bring paid search and SEO efforts together by:

  • Testing new keywords
  • Retargeting visitors
  • Cross-analyzing data
  • Using ads to test content marketing material
  • Learning more about your target audience

Want more? Get the latest SEM tips for real estate, healthcare, startups, insurance, banks, higher education, and financial services

The takeaway

We’ve covered a lot here *exhale.* But the bottom line is: Search engine marketing is the heart of a well-rounded digital strategy. 

Search engines are where people go for answers. And with how much we’re living our lives online these days, it can be the make-or-break factor that determines your company’s success.

By leveraging these platforms through the proper strategies, you can better connect with potential customers, grow your reach, educate your audience, and become an industry leader.

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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