Search engine marketing (SEM) is a digital marketing strategy used to increase a website’s visibility on search engine results pages (SERPs).

While the industry term once referred to organic search activities such as search engine optimization (SEO) and paid, it now refers almost exclusively to paid search advertising. Search engine marketing is also alternately known as paid search or pay-per-click (PPC).


Why is SEM important?

With the increasing number of customers researching and shopping for products online, search engine marketing has become a vital online marketing strategy to increase a company’s reach. Most new visitors to a website find it by making a query in a search engine.

In search engine marketing, advertisers only pay for impressions that lead to visitors, making it an efficient way for a company to spend its marketing dollars. As a bonus, each visitor will gradually improve the website’s ranking in organic search results.

Because consumers enter search terms to find business information, they are in a great position to make a purchase compared to other sites like social media where users aren’t explicitly searching for anything.

Search marketing reaches consumers at exactly the right time: when they are open to new information. Unlike most digital advertising, PPC advertising is non-intrusive and does not interrupt their tasks. Results with SEM are immediate. Arguably, this is the fastest way to drive traffic to a website, and SEO is no different.

How SEM works

Search engines use complex algorithms to ensure that the most relevant results are returned for each search, including location and other available information.

In paid search advertising, sponsored ads appear at the top of the search engine results page and next to it so that they are more visible and prominent than organic results. Suppose you are a customer looking for a product or service online. You go to a search engine and type in your search terms (also known as keywords).

On your search results page, you will come across ads from various companies whose keywords match your search keywords. These ads will be displayed in prominent places on the page – along with other search listings that match your keywords. Paid listings are highly relevant to your specific search, making it more likely that you will click on them.

Now let’s take a look at how SEM campaigns work from a marketer’s perspective. SEM networks are self-service operations. Once a marketer chooses a network, they can launch a campaign in no time. When launching a campaign on an SEM network, the marketer is asked to:

  • Do keyword research and choose a set of keywords that are relevant to your website or product
  • Select a geographic location to display the ad
  • Create a text ad to display in search results
  • Offer the price they are willing to pay for each click on your ad

Generating text-only ads is easy. Marketers enter a headline, text for the ad text, a call to action, and a URL for the link. Many marketers consider search engine marketing to be the most efficient way to spend their marketing dollars.

Examples of search advertising networks

The two main search networks that SEM professionals target are Google Ads (formerly Google Adwords) and Bing Ads.

Google Adwords has two networks: Google Search Network and Google Display Network. The first network consists exclusively of search-related websites owned by Google, while the second network includes properties such as YouTube, Blogger, and Gmail. Bing Ads allows customers to buy ads on both the Yahoo! Network and the Bing Network. While Google Ads is a much larger network (about 2x the size), it often costs less than Bing Ads. Marketers may be able to rank better for a competitive keyword for less than they would on Google. And some report higher click-through rates as well.

How A/B Testing Can Complement SEM

Since you’re investing in search engine marketing to bring traffic to your website, it’s a worthwhile effort to optimize that traffic for conversion and increase your cost-effectiveness. A/B testing your landing pages is an easy way to maximize your spending, whether by optimizing average order value or revenue per page. Optimizing your landing page can increase your Quality Score with Search Engine Marketing Networks, thereby lowering your average CPC.

Optimizely – and other platforms like it – can help you easily structure and implement your A/B tests, providing real-time results to give you confidence in your business decisions. Optimizely is integrated with popular ad networks like Google Adwords and Facebook, making it quick and easy to set up ad-related experiments.

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