Gregory Mount
Gregory Mount
What Is SEM and How to Do It Right
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How to make your website rank at the very top of the search engine results page? Today, when 93% of all online experiences start with a search engine, the problem of online visibility has never been more relevant. The competition keeps growing, and the Internet is becoming an ever more crowded place as businesses of all scales struggle for the public’s attention by creating websites and flooding them with content.

In such conditions, standing apart from the crowd isn’t easy, even if you have a perfectly optimized website full of valuable content. This is where SEM steps in. If you have at least a minimum marketing budget, you should consider investing some of it into SEM to promote your website on search engines.

What is SEM, and how does it work? Read further in this comprehensive guide!

What is SEM?

SEM, which stands for “search engine marketing” and is often referred to as “paid search” or “PPC marketing,” is a strategy of using paid ads to ensure that your website shows up at the very top of SERPs.

The example above illustrates SEM in action. You enter a query in Google Search and get a list of results. At the very top are often found promoted results that are marked with an “Ad” tag. This means that the website has paid to show up above the rest.

The importance of appearing on the very first results page can hardly be overestimated as most users never get to the second page at all. Most of us prefer to choose from the top results because, first and foremost, it saves time. Secondly, these results look more credible and authoritative in our eyes. After all, Google itself picks them!

In other words, SEM is an excellent way to bring your website to the top of SERPs without spending much time on developing content and optimizing your website. At the same time, search engine marketing is helpful if you have a well-optimized site but also a lot of powerful competitors. But from a long-term perspective, SEM is most effective when combined with SEO (search engine optimization).

SEM terminology

When talking about SEM, it is important to understand the terminology related to it. Here’s a brief overview of the essentials you need to know before we proceed:

  • Pay-per-click (PPC): A payment model by which most search engine marketing services work, obliging you to pay a fixed fee for every click that your online advertisement receives.
  • Cost-per-click (CPC): The amount paid for a single click in PPC advertising.
  • Impression: A single time an advertisement is shown. An impression is not to be confused with a view. Your ad can show up in the search results, but the user may not see it or skip it intentionally.
  • Cost-per-thousand-impressions (CPM): Another popular payment model in SEM, which implies that you pay a fixed fee for every 1000 times your ad is shown to users.
  • Click-through rate (CTR): The ratio of users who actually clicked on your online ad (and landed on your website) to the overall number of people who saw it.



The terms “SEM” and “SEO” are sometimes used interchangeably. Some view SEO as a part of SEM, which totally makes sense. But most often we talk about SEM and SEO as two separate activities aimed at a single goal: to make a website visible on the web.

The core difference between the two is that SEO employs practices that influence the organic standings of a website (that is, how easily users can find it by entering specific keywords in the search bar), while SEM uses PPC ads to boost the website visibility without influencing its organic rankings. You can read more about the differences between SEO and SEM in this post.

However, the bottom line is this: SEO and SEM are very closely related and should work in tow. Engaging with SEO, you are basically enhancing the overall quality of your website and its content, which slowly but steadily improves your organic rankings. In doing SEM, you pay for placing your site in front of a broader audience, which is great for your brand awareness and website traffic. But the effect of SEM lasts only as long as you are willing to pay.

What is SEM without SEO? It is a tactic that can hardly bring any tangible results. It is one thing to bring visitors to your site, but it is another thing to retain and eventually convert them. If your website is poorly optimized (has questionable/irrelevant content, confusing navigation, broken backlinks, etc.), visitors will immediately leave, increasing your bounce rate. This is a very negative signal for Google. That is why, for maximum exposure, it makes perfect sense to invest in both SEO and SEM marketing simultaneously.

How does SEM work?

The essential advantage of SEM is that it makes online advertising more effective thanks to the targeting capabilities of search engines. Thus, advertisements are not shown randomly. Instead, they appear in front of a specific audience using specific keywords to search for content and products. That allows businesses to reach their potential customers easier and more cost-effectively.

SEM platforms

The most widely used SEM service is Google AdWords. However, if you want to buy ad space on other search engines, you may consider employing Bing Ads and Yahoo Search Ads as well.

AdWords allows you to set up a PPC campaign based on specific keywords and audience characteristics. To be able to compete for specific keywords, you need to learn how to use the bidding system introduced by AdWords.

AdWords bidding system

The logic behind the AdWords bidding system is simple: the more you bid, the higher you rank by a given keyword. As long as your bid is the highest, your result will be #1 in the SERP.

The bidding amount depends on the frequency of queries (search volume) and competition for specific keywords. Ideally, you should target the keywords with a high search volume and low competition rate. You can easily check out the most relevant keywords as well as their minimum and maximum bids by using Google Keyword Planner, which is a tool integrated with AdWords.

How much do you bid on AdWords? It depends on your budget and goals. The good news is that no matter how much you bid for a keyword, you will only have to pay enough to outbid the next highest bid. For example, if you bid $20 when the highest bid of your competitors is $14.32, you will pay only $14.33 to show up in the first position of the search results page. However, it is important to keep an eye on your competitors. If the bids suddenly rise, you will find yourself paying up your full bid (which is $20) since your ad may still show up but in the 2nd or 3rd position.

At the same time, it is vital to balance your bids with the amount you can afford to spend on ads. As a rule, the more exposure your ad gets, the more people will likely click on it. And, thus, you will have to pay more on a pay-per-click basis.

AdWords Quality Score

Your ad position and overall visibility are determined not only by your bid but also by your Quality Score, which depends on multiple factors, including:

  • Click-through rate: Google prioritizes ads that people click on. If they don’t click on them, Google takes it as a sign of poor ad quality.
  • Landing page quality: It’s not enough for your ad to get clicks. Unless visitors stay on your landing page long enough or click your CTA button, Google will think that the quality of your page is low or that the ad is misleading.
  • Keyword relevance: If the keywords included in your ad do not generate clicks, you’re probably using the wrong keywords.
  • Ad text relevance: Google checks whether your ad text is relevant in the context of the search.
  • Ad performance in retrospective: Google looks at your performance record throughout the entire history of using AdWords.

Your Quality Score is multiplied by your max bid. This is how AdWords calculates your Ad Rank. If your Ad Rank is higher than that of your competitors, your advertisement will take the 1st position in SERPs. But if your rank is low, Google will prioritize competitors with the higher score, even if your bid is higher than theirs.

What is more, your Quality Score influences the amount you will pay for your PPC ads. Advertisers with higher scores pay less, while a low score can result in increased costs (up to 400%!).

So how do you do SEM right?

Search engine marketing may seem quite confusing at first sight. And indeed, an in-depth understanding of SEM services like Google AdWords takes lots of practice and comes through trial and error. But the effect SEM may have on your online visibility makes it well worth your time and effort. Meanwhile, considering everything mentioned above, make sure to follow the tips below to ensure the effectiveness of your PPC campaigns:

  • Study your audience to know exactly who might search for you, and where, when, and how they might search. This will allow you to set the right targeting parameters in AdWords (e.g., demographics, interests, hobbies, etc.) and save costs on your PPC ads. Analyze your current customers, use Google Analytics to identify the type of audience that visits your website, and launch surveys to define your customer persona.
  • Outline your goals clearly (e.g., selling a product, raising your brand awareness, etc.) to be able to use the right keywords and to know how to measure your progress.
  • Allocate a budget so you can control your expenditures more accurately. Consider carefully how much you are ready to spend on keyword biddings, how much exposure you could handle (at a given stage), and how many clicks per day you could afford.
  • Make use of Ad Groups to try various strategies and see how different kinds of ads work for different audiences. The feature allows you to organize your experimental activities and not to lose track of what works and what doesn’t.
  • Use the right keywords for your AdWords campaigns. Make sure they match your content and correspond to the queries your audience uses to search for information, products, or services. Pay attention to both keyword search volume and competition. Don’t chase after the keyword only because of its popularity.
  • Put a lot of thought into your landing page. Remember that your goal is not just to bring more visitors to your site, but to retain them and convert into customers. Interesting content, vivid images, and videos can help you increase visitor engagement. And above all, make sure that your ad text matches the page content.

Now that you have the knowledge needed to launch your first PPC campaign, it’s all up to you!

Gregory Mount

Gregory Mount is SMM specialist at Ning.