What Is Search Engine Marketing (SEM)? A Complete Introductory Guide

The ubiquity of search engines makes them the prime spot for advertisers and digital marketers to grab our increasingly divided attention. The key to achieving this is a variety of digital marketing strategies, including what’s known as SEM, or search engine marketing. SEM is so fundamental to modern digital marketing techniques that it’s one of the first skills any novice marketer will learn.

But what exactly is search engine marketing, and what does it involve? Do you really need it? And, if so, how might you go about applying it? In this guide, we offer comprehensive answers to these questions and more. We’ll cover:

  1. What is search engine marketing (SEM)?
  2. How does SEM work?
  3. Why is SEM important?
  4. What are the best SEM tools?
  5. How to build an effective SEM strategy
  6. Key takeaways

Ready to perfect your SEM strategy? Let’s dive in.

1. What is search engine marketing (SEM)?

Search engine marketing (SEM) is the practice of using paid advertising to ensure your company’s website appears at the top of a search engine results page (SERP) if a user searches for a specific keyword or keywords. 

According to a recent study by Sistrix, the average clickthrough rate for the first position on Google is 28.5%. This rapidly diminishes as you move down the listings. One of search engine marketing’s primary goals, then, is to rank top of the search listings. By doing this, SEM aims to increase a website’s visibility, improve brand awareness, heighten the chances that a user will click on their website, get ahead of competitors—or a combination of the three.

By and large, when we hear the term search engine marketing it refers to paid strategies for boosting a website’s rankings. This usually refers to pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. More broadly, the term can also incorporate non-paid techniques. This includes optimizing a website’s content to organically boost its ranking for particular keywords, also known as search engine optimization (SEO). For the sake of this post, we’ll focus on paid techniques. But we’ll briefly cover SEO first, so you know what to look for.

What’s the difference between SEM and SEO?

While search engine marketing can describe any technique that raises a website’s rankings (including paid and organic search) it increasingly refers to paid growth strategies alone. SEO, meanwhile, refers to non-paid (or organic) traffic growth.

Often, marketers consider SEO a digital marketing strategy in its own right because it is very labor-intensive. SEO includes continuously optimizing or updating a website’s readable content (such as written copy and image tags) as well as a web page’s hidden elements (like metatags, HTML, and CSS). It can often include encouraging other well-ranked pages to link back to your site, helping further boost its ranking, which is known as link building. All these activities organically generate website traffic. However, they are also very time-consuming and take a long settling-in period to produce results. Brands often outsource SEO to dedicated companies.

We won’t go into further detail here, but you can learn more about the difference between SEM and SEO in this post.

2. How does search engine marketing (SEM) work?

SEM focuses on using paid advertising to secure a link to a brand’s website at the top of a search engine results page (SERP). For the layperson, this refers to the clickable links that appear above organic search results, the ones designated as ‘ads’.

But how does paid search engine marketing work? Before we get into the details of the paid search process, SEM requires some foundational groundwork. This includes:

Keyword research

Keywords are essential for SEO, because search engines use them to crawl and index your web page. They’re also critical for paid search and SEM because marketers pay search engines a small amount every time a user clicks on an ad that appears in response to a certain keyword query. 

SEM requires researching the keywords a target audience uses to find your products and services. You should note the popular ones to help determine how much you are willing to bid for each keyword. Confused? We’ll cover more on this later.


The next step is creating alluring ad copy that catches the eye of potential customers searching using your chosen keywords. This is challenging, though—not only are you limited by character counts and other rules, you also need to ensure you’re presenting a clear, concise message and call to action that will attract the appropriate visitors to click on your website.

Landing pages

Finally, you’ll need landing pages that provide users with the information they’re expecting when they click on your ad. While this crosses over with an organic SEO growth strategy, it’s also vital that your paid ads lead customers to the information they’re expecting. If not, you’ll experience a higher bounce rate, wasting your paid search budget.

Once you’ve got your keywords, draft ad copy, and landing pages prepared, you’re ready to start your paid search campaign. 

The most common form of paid search engine marketing is what’s known as PPC, or pay-per-click advertising. The PPC model does exactly what it says on the tin: rather than paying for the ad space itself, advertisers only pay when a customer clicks on their ad. PPC is very popular because it’s relatively cost-effective and allows for highly-targeted search engine marketing.

But how does it work? Google is the most popular search engine and has its own PPC tool, Google Ads. And most search engines/PPC platforms use a similar approach to this.

The paid search process, step-by-step

1. Set your location

The first step in any PPC campaign is to adjust your location settings. You can choose whether your ads are visible locally, globally, or in a preferred city or zip code. For instance, if you’re publicizing your cheese business, you might want to promote it to searchers in the local region or a location nearby where you know that blue cheese is popular.

2. Select keywords

Paid search campaigns involve trading off between keywords that people are searching for with ones that aren’t so popular that you’re inundated with irrelevant traffic. Therefore, you need to balance popularity with search volume and the estimated cost of each term per click. 

For instance, the keyword ‘cheese’ might have a high search volume and a low bid cost. However, it’s not very specific, meaning you’ll likely get a lot of irrelevant traffic. Meanwhile, ‘award winning blue cheese’ may cost more per click and have a lower search volume. But by being more specific—when accompanied with the right ad—it has the potential to drive higher, more targeted traffic to your website.

3. Select match type

In paid search, ‘match types’ describe how closely a searcher’s query needs to match your chosen keywords for your ad to appear. There are three main match types to choose between:

  • Exact match: Your ad only appears when users search for your chosen term, e.g. ‘award winning blue cheese’. This is highly targeted, but results in lower traffic.
  • Phrase match: Your ad appears when users include your chosen keywords in a longer phrase, e.g. ‘Where can I find award winning blue cheese in New York?’
  • Broad match Your ad appears when users search for your chosen keywords in any order or use synonyms, e.g. ‘cheese, blue, prize winning’.

Figuring out which match type to use is a bit of an art form. You’ll likely need to use a bit of trial and error to get it right. Targeting a wide audience with broad matching, for example, may produce higher clickthrough rates, but fewer sales. Meanwhile, exact matching targets a narrower audience, but could result in higher click-throughs from more relevant customers.

4. Creating your ads

Different search engines’ paid ads vary in their regulations and character counts. They also offer different numbers of headings and descriptions and regularly tweak these. You’ll need to check your tool of choice close to the launch of your campaign.

As a rule of thumb, though, you can usually have a heading of about 30 characters and a description of 80-90 characters. Google currently has an option for three headlines and two descriptions.


There are also stringent rules about what you can or can’t include in your ad copy. For instance, you can’t use all caps, exclamation marks, or non-alphabetical characters to make particular phrases stand out. 

Within these stringent rules, though, you’re free to write whatever copy you desire!

5. Set your bids

Once you have written your ad copy and uploaded it, it’s time to choose how much you’re willing to pay per click for your selected keyword/s. Most tools suggest recommended bids to help you. These aren’t mandatory, though. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide your budget and how much you’re willing to pay per click. 

Bid higher and you’ll get more impressions and click-throughs, but burn through your budget quicker. Bid lower and your budget will last longer, but your competitors might be there to sweep up the customers who haven’t seen your ad first. 

While this makes it sound like those with high budgets will always win, that’s not the case. Even those with smaller budgets can beat big players if they’re clever with their keyword targeting. Google also ranks ads by quality (as well as bid amount) which gives smaller players a fighting chance.

6. Launch and track your campaign

After completing all these steps, you’re ready to launch your campaign. 

On your SEM account, you can track your assigned budget, click-through rates, and other meaningful metrics.

Over time, it’s up to you to decide which ads are performing best. You might want to create new ads, or tweak landing page copy to improve engagement. As a rule, you can pause your campaigns at any time—reassuring for beginner search engine marketers who need to hit the stop button if something goes disastrously awry (but don’t worry, it’s not that scary, really!)

3. Why is SEM important?

Having explored SEM in some detail, you’d be justified in thinking that it sounds like a fairly time-consuming task. Is it worth pursuing? While this depends on your budget and broader digital marketing strategy, here are some reasons why SEM is important:

  • It keeps you ahead of your competitors: Some companies use paid search engine marketing to rank higher than their competitors. For instance, if your competition uses ‘award winning blue cheese’ in their paid search, they can beat you to the top of the SERPS, even if you rank highly for these terms in organic search (SEO). Paid SEM can help you fend off these advances.
  • You can test and track your results: Unlike traditional advertising, paid search marketing lets you test alternative approaches (such as using different match types or ad copy) before measuring the results in granular detail. This includes a precise return on investment. While this can be time-consuming, it’s very powerful if you learn to harness it well.
  • It helps boost brand awareness while building your organic strategy: While boosting your search rankings with organic search and SEO is ideal, even with a great content strategy in place, this can take months or years to show results. Meanwhile, SEM helps your company appear at the top of the SERPs every time (for the correct bid and keyword, of course). Even if customers don’t click your ads, seeing your name is an effective touchpoint for brand awareness.
  • It’s accessible to all kinds of businesses: Paid search is not just for big players—it’s available to those with smaller budgets, too. Choosing exactly how much you bid means you can get involved whether your budget is thousands of dollars per month, or just a few hundred.
  • It provides insight into your competitor’s campaigns: Not only can you track your clicks, conversions, and budget, but get savvy enough and you can start figuring out which search terms your competitors are ranking for, and then outbid them. There are plenty of tools available to assist with this. We’ll cover some of these next.

4. What are the best SEM tools?

SEM is the oldest digital marketing approach there is. Google AdWords launched in 2000, and PPC arrived two years later, making SEM the Methuselah of digital marketing techniques! 

As you’d expect with so much time to mature, there are many great tools out there to help with keyword research and ad writing. Here are five of the most popular ones:


The go-to platform for all things digital marketing, SEMrush isn’t aimed only at paid search but runs the gamut from SEM to SEO and content strategy. In terms of PPC, it has an excellent keyword analytics tool including metrics such as keyword volume, estimated cost-per-click, and more. It also has a great competitive analysis tool for finding out where your rivals are concentrating their marketing efforts. The pro account is around $120 per month.

Google Ads Editor

Google Ads Editor is a free application for your desktop that helps manage Google Ads campaigns (there are, of course, other search engines, but we may as well accept Google’s monopoly on this one). The good thing about this tool is that you can manage everything offline (including multiple campaigns and bulk changes) and upload it when you’re ready to go. For good measure, we’d also recommend Google Keyword Planner, which does what you’d expect it to do judging by the name—and it’s also free!


One that’s affordable for small teams or business owners, SpyFu is a powerful research tool for analyzing competitor keywords. Download your competition’s Google ads and organic search results, and you can figure out their strategy before one-upping them on the paid search! Sounds almost too good to be true, right? Subscriptions start at $33 per month, so it’s not free, but it is on the more affordable end of the scale.


An all-around ad management tool, Wordstream is designed to support the whole paid ad process, from keyword research to ad implementation and performance measurement. A great tool if you’re short on time, it has workflows to help manage your ad campaigns in just 20 minutes a week—obviously you can choose to spend more time than this, but it’s good to have options. The full solution is quite pricey, but it offers some free tools that are well worth checking out.


For those with a bit more to spend, OptyMyzr is an advanced SEM and PPC management tool with all the bells and whistles you could hope for. This includes advanced keyword research and full ad management. It also lets you customize scripts and reports, with regular product training sessions available to help upskill your team. Monthly subscriptions start at $208 a month, so it’s not great for small businesses, but if you’ve got the cash to spare then it could be worth the extra spend.

These are just a few popular SEM tools currently on the market. You’ll no doubt come across more, though. Which are most suitable for your needs?

5. How to build an effective SEM strategy

Okay, so we’ve covered SEM in a lot of detail already, including the PPC process. But what key things are worth considering when building a campaign? The following tactics will help you build and execute an effective SEM strategy:

Define your goals

As with any marketing campaign, the first thing is to set goals and select key performance indicators for measuring success. Once your campaign is up and running, check in regularly to ensure that your approach is still feeding into your strategy. You can then amend your approach as necessary.

Choose keywords that are as specific as possible

One pitfall many marketers make with their first foray into SEM is to confuse all traffic for good traffic. It’s common to use generic keywords with broad matching to get as much site traffic as possible, but this is the perfect recipe for burning through your budget with little to show for it. Instead, use more specific, targeted keywords. You’ll receive less traffic—but you’ll also spend less. Plus, the traffic you do get will be higher quality, leading to more conversions.

Utilize negative keywords

On top of the different keyword matching available in most PPC tools, they also allow you to highlight negative keywords. Negative keywords allow you to exclude certain terms that people use in conjunction with your chosen keywords. This helps save wasted spend on useless clicks, while also improving ad targeting.

Don’t rush your ad copywriting

While keywords are important and there are many tools to manage the technical aspects of search engine marketing, don’t forget that your copy needs careful crafting. Randomly bunging any old keywords into an ad at the expense of human readability won’t go down well with readers, nor with search engines. Take time to create clear, eye-catching messaging that stays on target and you’ll see much better conversion rates.

Apply A/B testing to your copy

Even with well-written ad copy, you can’t always guarantee it will hit the right tone at the right time. A/B testing lets you run two variants of an ad to see which performs better. Many PPC tools let you do this for free. It’s an invaluable way of targeting and retargeting your ads until they hit the mark.

Ensure you have suitable landing page copy

PPC advertising can be pretty addictive and it’s easy to get caught up in creating the perfect ad. But don’t forget your landing pages! If your landing page copy doesn’t match the keywords in your ad, your users won’t hang around and you’ll see poor results. In turn, this can impact your ad quality rating on Google which, in certain situations, can reduce your chances of winning a bid.

Measure results

Measure your results, both during the campaign and after it has concluded. Although PPC can feel very immediate, the long-term effects aren’t always visible right away. It’s necessary to track how your SEM campaigns fit into the wider sales funnel and broader strategy, e.g. content marketing, social media, and SEO. Even if your campaign appears seamless, that’s more reason to keep checking in and asking questions: What works? What doesn’t? Setting up a campaign and leaving it running until you’re out of budget means you’ll have missed an opportunity to measure results and improve your strategy.

6. Key takeaways

As we’ve seen, search engine marketing is the backbone of digital campaigns. Although not every marketer uses it, it was one of the first digital marketing techniques to emerge back in the early noughties, and it’s still the first line of defense for many businesses and brands. 

In this post, we’ve learned that:

  • Search engine marketing (SEM) is the practice of using paid advertising to ensure a company’s website appears at the top of a search engine results page (SERP).
  • While SEM focuses primarily on improving SERPs rankings through paid advertising, SEO achieves the same goal using unpaid (organic) optimization of a website’s content.
  • The SEM process involves automatic bidding for a chosen keyword or keywords, where buyers typically pay for an ad once a user clicks on it.
  • SEM is essential for staying ahead of competitors, both by directly competing with them, and for gaining insights into their own keyword campaigns.
  • Some popular SEM tools for research and ad management include SEMrush, Google Ads Editor, SpyFu, Wordstream, and Optymyzr.

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