When a consumer wants to research before purchasing, their first stop is most likely search engines.
Their search might include their specific pain points, a range of available product options, or familiar brands.
If you’ve been focusing on your organic SEO, you may not have made it to the top of SERPs yet, which could mean missed opportunities for new leads and sales in the meantime.
That’s where an SEM strategy comes in.
With a small investment, SEM can pull your brand straight to the top of SERPs.
SEM requires a well-constructed strategy, planning, and ongoing tracking and optimization like any other digital marketing tactic.
Read our definitive guide to build and make the most of your SEM strategy.
1. What is SEM?
4.3. Set Your SEM Budget
4.9. Measure Results
What is SEM?
You’ve seen those text ads at the top of the results page on your last Google search.
Those ads are there because of a carefully planned SEM strategy.
Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is a paid advertising strategy that places branded content at the top of search engine results pages (SERPs), increasing its brand’s visibility.
SEM involves creating ads within a search engine’s advertising platform, setting a budget, and targeting specific users and keywords.
SEM works on an auction system — brands that place the highest bid on particular keywords and search inquiries will win the top spot of SERPs for those queries and be displayed more frequently.
A well-mapped SEM strategy can maximize your ROI by incorporating other digital advertising tactics, like affinity-targeted display campaigns and search retargeting.
What’s the Difference Between SEM and SEO?
While both SEM and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) are geared toward appealing to search engines, there’s a fundamental difference — SEM is a paid tactic.
In contrast, SEO improves your performance in organic results.
SEM consists of creating paid ads that appear in search results.
The goal is to choose the right keywords and audience to encourage clicks and conversions.
While you need an effective landing page for your ads, the bulk of your SEM strategy exists outside of your website and within search engine platforms.
On the other hand, SEO exists entirely within your website.
This tactic focuses on optimizing your website to perform well organically.
That involves editing your on-page content, publishing new content, and carefully massaging your website to maximize keyword performance.
SEO costs less than SEM — you don’t need a large advertising budget for SEO.
SEO is a long-term strategy that requires ongoing maintenance and can take months to see results, while SEM can quickly get you to the top of SERPs with minimal effort.
You can also choose to run a quick campaign as a “One and Done” tactic with SEM — if you select the right keywords, you can get an influx of qualified leads relatively quickly.
That said, for SEM to be effective, it has to run alongside SEO.
If you spend money to drive users to your website, that site must be user-friendly and offer high-value content that encourages users to browse, engage, and convert — that’s where SEO shines in ways that SEM doesn’t.
The key to both SEM and SEO? A solid list of keywords.
Benefits of SEM Strategy
With a well-built SEM strategy, you’ll see a few key benefits:
- Quick results: paid search campaigns can produce results hours after launching — You’ll likely see a definitive boost in your website traffic within two weeks.
- SEM campaign flexibility: your targeting can be as broad or as narrow as you choose. In addition to specific lists of keywords, you can layer on audience-specific targeting such as demographics, location, and online behaviors.
- Automation: search engine ad platforms are largely automated. Once you create your ads and set your targeting, the algorithms handle the tedious work of ad placement.
- Cost: your SEM campaign budget can be flexible. You can run a campaign for a few weeks or an extended period, and you can spend a few dollars or a large share of your advertising budget.
Steps to Create an SEM Strategy
Understanding SEM is one thing.
Building an effective SEM strategy is another.
If you’re ready to get started, follow these ten steps to develop and launch an effective SEM campaign strategy.
1. Understand Your Product or Service
You know the ins and outs of your product.
To effectively market it, you need to understand the more ephemeral qualities of your brand.
What problems do you solve?
How are you different from your competition?
What’s your unique value proposition?
When building SEM campaigns, it’s essential to hone in on the specific products or services you will advertise.
Even if you only have one product, your copy must spark interest in the call-to-action on your ads.
For lower-cost products, especially B2C goods, a “buy now” call to action may work well.
However, if you have an extensive sales funnel due to your product’s higher price or an exclusive service you offer that requires more build-up time, you might consider a “schedule a free consultation,” “start your free trial,” or “learn more” CTA instead.
2. Choose Your Target Audience
Just as important as understanding your product is knowing who you’re selling to.
You’ve probably done some initial research and have a good understanding of your current customer base — use this as your starting point.
Don’t hesitate to dig deeper than demographics.
Google allows you to target beyond data points like age group, gender, and location to include other aspects such as affinity and behavior.
Knowing more about your audience’s hobbies, interests, and online habits will enhance your targeting to sniper-like precision. It was estimated that 39% of purchases were influenced by a relevant search. And the better you know your audience, the closer you will get to ranking for searches relevant to your business goals.
3. Set Your SEM Budget
Budget is one of the most significant variables in any SEM campaign.
Because keyword search ads run on an auction system, the highest bidder will get the best placement.
If you’re bidding on keywords that aren’t highly competitive, you’ll see great results.
However, if you’re dropping pennies while your competitors are droppings hundreds, you’ll end up losing the bidding war — losing won’t get your ad the placement you need and want.
You can also decide if you want to bid on a cost-per-click or a cost-per-impression basis.
If you’re running an awareness campaign to generate interest, you’ll likely want to prioritize impressions.
If you have a clear and direct CTA, you’ll want to focus your bids on clicks.
When you’re just starting, you’re best bet is running your campaign with a small budget for two to four weeks to track how you’re performing and where you can improve.
Once you have initial results, you can tweak the ad creative and adjust your budget accordingly.
4. Conduct Thorough Keyword Research
To make the most of your SEM campaign, make sure you’re bidding on the correct list of keywords.
When you set up your campaign, you’ll be able to upload as many keywords as you want and define how precisely searchers should match those words and phrases.
The broader you set your keyword matches, the more users you’ll be able to capture.
Rather than matching the word or phrase exactly, your ad will be seen by users searching terms that the search algorithms determine to be similar.
Be careful — if you target too many keywords too broadly, you’ll end up paying for clicks and impressions from random people that aren’t likely to convert.
If you track a list of keywords with a tool like ProRankTracker, you can grasp how well you’re ranking organically.
If you’re not quite reaching your organic goals on essential keywords, you can target those words and phrases with an SEM campaign to elevate your brand to the top of SERPs.
5. Study Your Competition
As much as 90.63% of pages get no organic traffic from Google. But others do. And some of your competitors may be getting it right now.
As part of your keyword research, you’ll be able to see who is ranking well on SERPs for your target keywords.
In addition to your brand-relevant keywords, your SEM keyword list should include competitor brand names and products.
You can identify your top search competitors from your keyword tracking efforts in ProRankTracker, then study those competitors and their messaging.
If you’re feeling ambitious, you can even bid on competitor names and products as part of your SEM strategy.
This tactic, known as conquesting, puts your brand at the top of SERPs when users search for your competitors.
While this might seem like playing dirty, conquesting is a commonly accepted SEM strategy.
Searchers expect these ads on SERPs and often use them for comparison shopping.
6. Set Up a Google Ads Account
When you’re ready to set up your SEM campaigns, make sure your account is set up correctly within your chosen search advertising platform.
In most cases, this will be Google Ads.
You’ll want to make sure that your account is active, your billing information correct, and connected to other tools you use.
Google Ads and Analytics link directly to share website traffic data, allowing you to see which users came from ads and which came to your site organically.
For Google Analytics to gather data, you must add the appropriate tracking and conversion tags to your website’s code.
You’ll know not only when a user lands on your site from an ad but whether or not they take the actions you want them to take once they’ve arrived.
Finally, make sure appropriate team members have access to review performance and make edits to ad creative, campaign settings, and billing information.
7. Craft Your Ads Carefully
Now that you’ve done the work of determining your SEM campaign’s building blocks, it’s time to develop your ads.
For keyword search campaigns, you have a limited character count.
Google’s text ads, for example, allow you to upload three headlines at 30 characters each and two lines of description text at 90 characters each.
You can gain wiggle room by taking advantage of ad extensions.
These expand your ad by taking information, such as phone numbers and product categories, out of the body of your ad so that you can include more content.
8. Launch Your Campaigns
At this point, you’ve got everything you need to launch your first SEM campaign.
Time to pull the trigger!
To allow the search algorithms time to learn and optimize your campaign, you should run it for a minimum of two weeks.
Because SEM campaigns are automated, there’s nothing more for you to do but let your ads run for the campaign’s duration before you measure results.
Ideally, your first campaign should run between 14 and 30 days before measuring results and making adjustments.
9. Measure Results
This is a critical step in your SEM strategy.
Once your initial campaign ends, you can do some reporting to determine how your web traffic and lead pool have grown with your SEM strategy’s implementation.
If you didn’t have a massive spike in new traffic after your initial foray into SEM, there’s nothing to be concerned about.
Your first SEM campaign is a learning opportunity.
From these results, you can identify areas for improvement and optimize your campaigns accordingly.
This is the time to adjust your budget and expand your most successful campaigns.
Build a Foundation for Strategic SEM Success
As we discussed above, SEM and SEO go hand-in-hand.
You’re more likely to find success in your SEM campaign if you’ve done on-page SEO work and published valuable content that keeps users on your site once they’ve landed there from your ads.
Of course, SEO and SEM rely heavily on robust and up-to-date keyword tracking to make the most of your investment.
With ProRankTracker, you can track a wide range of keywords and measure how they perform.
If you’re ready to take your SEM strategy to the next level with the most accurate keyword tracking algorithm available, start with a free trial of ProRankTracker.