Search Engine Marketing Starter Guide: Learn the Basics

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Visibility on Google is of the utmost importance. The goal is to target potential customers at the right time, i.e., when they’re actively searching for a product or service they need.

The problem is that many early-stage companies and those in highly competitive industries find it difficult to rank on search engines with SEO alone.

As such, search engine marketing or SEM is needed to capture the attention of searchers by placing key pages and offers at the top of Google. This increases visibility, potential traffic to your website, and conversions.

In this post, you’ll learn the basics of SEM and how to implement an effective SEM strategy.

The 6 Best SEO Services for Search Engine Marketing

We looked at the results, expertise, customer experience, and resources of the best SEO agencies in the industry. Here are our top picks:

How Does Search Engine Marketing (SEM) Work?

To do search engine marketing well, you must set a specific goal and create paid ads aimed at meeting that goal. 

For instance, you might start with a landing page that contains an alluring offer like this one from LinkedIn Learning:

Screenshot of a LinkedIn Learning landing page.Your Google ad links to a landing page that encourages users to take action, helping you meet your goals.

The goal here is to get as many people as possible to enter the sales funnel by offering them a free demo.

Then, you’ll perform keyword research to understand what search terms audiences use to find such offers. Here, the search queries might be “online business course,” “team training course,” “employee training,” and so on.

Then, you’ll use an ad platform such as Google Ads to create and run advertisements that appear at the top of the search engine for these terms:

Screenshot of Google search results with a LinkedIn Learning ad link at the top of the search results.When searchers enter relevant keywords, your ad appears.

That is the short version of what SEM entails. 

To create an SEM strategy, you must understand how to perform in-depth keyword research, how ad auctions work, and how to optimize ads to get the best results, all of which we’ll cover in detail.

SEM vs. SEO: What’s the Difference?

Fundamentally, SEM is a broad term that covers both organic and paid approaches to ranking at the top of the search engine results pages (SERPs). However, when marketing pros talk about SEM, they’re referring to the paid approach.

This means pay-per-click advertising (PPC), when companies must pay a fee to Google whenever somebody clicks on an ad. PPC ads appear at the top of the SERPs above organic results.

Screenshot of Google search results with a green box highlighting the paid ad links at the top of the search results.Multiple PPC ads may be triggered and displayed above organic search results.

SEO and SEM strategies intersect. For instance, SEO keyword research and optimization support SEM. You’ll find the optimal search terms to feature in your paid ads and optimize the pages they link to using SEO research and best practices.

However, most consider SEO a long-term strategy in that it takes several months and ongoing work to see the fruits of your labor, while SEM places your page at the top of the SERPs immediately. Most often, a successful search strategy combines both SEO and SEM to maximize visibility.

How to Set Up Google Ads 

Here’s a quick rundown of how to set up Google Ads:

  • Create a search campaign and set a goal – The choices are sales, leads, or website traffic
  • Set up targeting – Select the locations in which your ads will appear. You can also add audiences determined by their demographics
  • Set up a bidding goal – e.g., conversions, clicks, and conversion value
  • Create ad groups – these are sets of related keywords
  • Create search ads – the ads that will appear for each ad group
  • Set your daily budget – the maximum amount you want to spend on ads per day
How Google Ads Auction Works

Once you set up Google Ads, your ads will automatically enter auctions. Whether your ads win an auction, i.e., whether they show up for a particular search query, depends on multiple factors. 

According to Google, these are:

  • Bid – the budget you set
  • Quality Score – how relevant and useful the page that you link to is
  • Impact – how useful ad assets are. These comprise additional information, such as related links, pricing information, contact information
  • Ad Rank – the quality of the ad itself
  • Context – how relevant your ad is based on signals from the user, e.g., their location, time of day, device

Bear these factors in mind when you set up ads. The biggest takeaway here is to ensure the quality and relevance of your ads and landing pages when matched to a set of keywords. 

How to Structure Your Google Ads Account

Rather than bidding on keywords at random, you must create a logical structure for your Google Ads account. This will maximize results for your budget and make sure you don’t waste money.

The ideal structure looks something like this:

Screenshot from SEMrush showing an infographic of Google Ads account structure.Adwords works best when you have a clear and logical structure, separating ad groups by product, for example.

So, you’ll divide campaigns up into multiple ad groups for which there are different sets of keywords. There are several ways to divide ad groups and the way you decide to do it depends on your goals. 

For instance, you could use different ad groups for different products or offers. Or go a bit deeper and create separate ad groups for varying levels of search intent, e.g., those in the research stage versus those ready to buy.

It’s best to keep the number of ad groups to a minimum (no more than ten), as well as the number of keywords (no more than 20). This keeps your campaigns streamlined and directed toward specific goals.

How to Perform Keyword Research for PPC Campaigns

It’s important you find the right kinds of keywords for a number of reasons. For example, your ad won’t be triggered if you select a keyword with a low search volume. 

Similarly, Google only serves ads with commercial intent, i.e., those that’ll get clicks and make them money. Commercial intent represents the search terms people use when they want to buy something or are researching with the aim of buying something, e.g., “cheap sneakers.”

Now you know what to avoid, here’s what you need to do to find the right keywords for your campaigns:

  • Set a goal based on the action you want users to take
  • Use an SEO tool or Google Keyword Planner to find keyword ideas
  • Balance search volume with cost-per-click according to your budget
  • Group keywords into clusters of related terms

You may also want to carry out other forms of research to ensure you pick the best keywords. For example, research the language your audience uses to discover what they’ll actually type into the search bar. Find this information on social media, forums, and review sites.

From this example, you might decide to use “fix my broken pipe” as a keyword:

Screenshot of a Yelp review and a green line under the words, fixing my broken pipe.Review sites are useful for finding the exact language your audience uses.

Another idea is to plug your competitors into Keyword Planner or your research tool to see what kind of keywords they use to sell their products or services, like so:

Screenshot of Google Keyword Planner search results.Use Google Keyword Planner to research competitor keywords and generate ideas.

To find keywords appropriate for SEM, you’d then need to extract the ones that have commercial intent. In the above example, these would be “keyword ranking tool” and “keyword ranking checking tool.” The others are more informational and would, therefore, not trigger ads.

SEM Best Practices & Strategies

Here are some rules of thumb that’ll help your paid advertising campaigns perform better:

1. Write Enticing Ad Copy

When writing each ad, keep the ad group in mind. Each ad group represents a different product, offer, or audience segment. Thus, you must make sure you specifically target the searchers in question with an ad that’ll appeal to them. 

This ad, for example, speaks directly to the search term “value my home”:

Screenshot of a Google ad copy for the search term "value my home"Ad copy should be enticing for the target audience in question as in this example.

It addresses the exact question that the searcher wants to be answered, i.e., what their house is worth. Thus, it’s highly enticing to the searcher. Similarly, you should lure in users with a specific solution to their question or pain point.

Like this ad, you should also include an intriguing call to action (CTA). In the example, it’s “Get an instant offer now.” Your CTA may include phrases such as “Get a quote,” “Book now,” or “Buy today.” The idea is to get the user to act quickly by creating a sense of urgency.

2. Make Your Landing Page Relevant

As mentioned above, Google considers how well-matched a landing page is to an ad. At the end of the day, the search engine wants to provide the best results to the searcher and make sure they have a good user experience. 

If the message of the landing page doesn’t match that of the ad, the user will simply bounce. This proves to Google that the page doesn’t provide what the searcher was looking for and therefore doesn’t make for a good user experience. This also means that you don’t convert the user, thus diminishing your return on ad spend (ROAS).

One way to ensure consistency is to use the same phrasing in your ad and on the landing page. Here’s an example from QuickBooks:

Screenshot of a Google Ads copy for the search term "accounting software"The language used in the ad copy should be a good match to the landing page it links to.

The landing page uses the exact same CTA, “Get 50% off for four months”. Plus, it mentions the same key benefit the software provides – that it saves you eight hours a month:

Screenshot of a landing page with offer and CTA.This landing page mimics the ad copy and uses exact-match phrases.

The user that clicks finds exactly what they expect on this page.

3. Find the Right Keyword Balance

The ideal keywords would have high commercial intent, high search volume, and a low cost-per-click. But that isn’t realistic. The truth is the higher the search volume, the more competitive a keyword is, and therefore, the more expensive it is to run ads for that keyword.

Depending on your budget, you should use a mix of competitive keywords and long-tail keywords – those with a lower search volume. As long as they’re a good match for your audience, you’ll still get clicks, even if the search volume is low.

It’s also worth remembering that a combination of bid and quality results in your ad winning in the Google Ads auction. This means you can’t lowball your bids. Make a competitive bid given the average cost per click for a keyword, which you can find using Google Keyword Planner or your chosen SEO tool. 

Final Thoughts About Search Engine Marketing

When you combine SEO with SEM, you gain maximum visibility in the SERPs. Paid ads are necessary to attract users who are ready to buy or are in the process of researching products or services. 

To win a Google Ad auction, you must ensure both your ads and landing pages are high quality. What’s more, they must correlate well with one another.

To garner clicks, you need to conduct solid keyword research. The keywords you select must represent your business goals and have commercial intent. The best ways to find keyword ideas are by using the right keyword research tools, understanding your audience, and analyzing competitors.

Finally, if you want your PPC ads to do well, you have to follow SEM best practices. This includes aspects such as ensuring ad copy is enticing for specific audience segments and that you have a good balance of competitive and non-competitive keywords.

* This article was originally published here