Neil Patel

I hope you enjoy reading this blog post. If you want my team to just do your marketing for you, click here.

What Is Search Engine Marketing (SEM)?

A graphic that says: What Is Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

What if I told you there’s a simple way to get noticed online that anyone can use?

Well, there is, and it’s search engine marketing (SEM).

While organic strategies are essential for long-term traffic generation, sometimes you must invest in paid advertising to get noticed online. Why? Because competition for visibility in the search engine result pages (SERPs) is fierce.

This is where SEM comes in. It’s a powerful way to drive traffic, growth, and conversions quickly.

Often confused with Search Engine Optimization (SEO), SEM is a separate marketing channel companies use to target audiences on platforms like Google and Bing via paid ad campaigns. In today’s competitive marketplace, you need to use a mix of SEM and SEO to thrive online.

If you’re ready to learn how SEM can transform your online visibility and reach, you’ve come to the right place. Today, I’m sharing tips and strategies to help you get the best from your SEM efforts.

Key Points:

  • Search engine marketing (SEM) is a paid advertising method to improve a website or product’s visibility in the search engine results pages (SERPs) and help establish brand recognition.
  • SEM differs from SEO, an organic (free) way of getting visitors to your content.
  • SEM requires a targeted strategy, competitor analysis, careful selection of keywords and phrases, and an effective ad campaign.
  • Search engine marketing works best when you get the fundamentals right, including keyword research, budget considerations, and consistency in using relevant keywords.
  • There are many different components of a successful search engine marketing strategy, including identifying your target audience, creating a budget, using keyword research, crafting your adverts, and tracking your SEM marketing efforts.
  • Best practices for SEM include aligning it with your business goals, narrowing down your audience, and considering keyword intent.
  • Common SEM marketing mistakes include not targeting the right keywords, focusing on short-term results, creating poor quality content, writing conflicting or confusing content, and failing to A/B test.
  • Popular search engine marketing tools include Ubersuggest, SpyFu, Semrush, and AdEspresso.

What Is SEM?

SEM marketing relates to your paid advertising efforts like Google Ads to improve a website or product’s visibility in the search engine results pages (SERPs) and helps establish brand recognition. 

Search engine marketing takes the form of responsive, Google shopping, and service ads. You also see them as text ads, like this one:

Google search results for the keyword "leonardo london city hotel" search engine marketing

However, it’s not quite as simple as paying for an ad and hoping for the best. As an advertiser, you need to have:

  • A targeted strategy behind your paid advertising campaigns
  • An understanding of your competitors
  • A method for carefully selecting your keywords and phrases that appear in the ads
  • An effective ad campaign


As I said, these two strategies are often confused. SEO is the process of optimizing a website for search engines. This includes improving the website’s content, structure, and on-page elements like titles, metatags, and anchor text. Obviously, keywords and competitor research are a huge part of your digital marketing campaigns, too.

SEO helps businesses attract organic traffic from search engines, but it’s a long game. Often, SEO takes time, so you can’t expect to get results overnight. However, if you’re patient and using an effective strategy, you should start to see an increase in traffic.

In a nutshell, SEO is:

  • Free: If you focus on optimizing your content with niche-specific keywords, you’ll attract organic or free visitors in time.
  • Content-driven: You need to keep writing high-quality, relevant content for users.
  • Based on user experience: This involves enhancing website usability and performance by improving technical SEO, like website structure and page loading times, for a better user experience.
  • Has no direct costs per click: There is no payment for clicks, but it requires continuous effort for optimization.

In contrast, SEM gets you much quicker results by paying for ads and running them on sites like Google, Facebook, or Instagram, as you’ll gain visibility fast. With this said, what are the hallmarks of a successful SEM strategy? Let’s look at designer accessory maker Matt & Nat. Their SEM strategy is yielding strong results, as you can see they rank first in paid ads and organically for the search term “vegan handbag,” shown below:

Matt and Nat Vegan handbag SERP result image what is search engine marketing

The other benefits of SEM include the ability to target specific keywords and phrases you aren’t targeting through organic SEO. You can also remarket/or retarget previous website visitors, increasing the chances of them returning to your site and converting.

You can get a better idea of how SEO vs SEM compares in terms of conversions, customer acquisition costs, time frames, etc., from this image from

A chart explaining the difference in conversion rate between SEO and SEM. search engine marketing

Whether you’re using SEO or SEM, ensure you get the basics right first to set you on the right path.

Why Is Search Engine Marketing Important?

If you’ve got SEO, why spend money on SEM?

There are many reasons why SEM marketing is so important for promoting your products and services. Its key advantages include:

  • It’s a great way to target potential customers already interested in your offer. You can specify the keywords you want your ads to target so you only pay for clicks from people actively searching for what you’re selling.
  • SEM allows you to track your results closely. By using targeted keywords and analyzing the data collected by sites like Google Analytics, you can see which ads work best and adjust your budget accordingly.
  • SEM marketing can help improve your website’s visibility and ranking on search engines quickly. This means more people see your website when they search for relevant terms.

Overall, search engine marketing is an effective and affordable way to reach more potential customers and grow your business.

Need another reason to consider using this technique? Okay, so here it is:

Research shows there are at least 9 billion Google searches every day. If you want prospects to find you, search engine marketing gives you a pretty good chance of getting discovered online.

How Search Engine Marketing Works

If you’re ready to explore search engine marketing, you’ll need to become familiar with ad auction networks and keyword selection. Understanding these two things will help you maximize your SEM budget.

How Does an Ad Auction Work?

In its simplest form, an ad auction is a process where advertisers compete against each other to place ads on web pages like Facebook or Google.

The auction system determines how much each advertiser pays for their ad placement or the “ad rank.” Then, the search engine or site displays the highest bidder’s ad.

Basically, an ad auction determines the price you pay for your advert. Let me explain some more.

To participate in an ad auction, create an account with a search engine marketing provider, like Google, Microsoft (Bing), or Facebook.

With your account set up, the next step is to create a campaign and add funds. 

launch an ad campaign image Google Ads what is search engine marketing

Then, you create your ad (writing enticing text that describes your product or service, integrating keywords, and creating graphics).

That’s all you need to do! But there is another piece to the puzzle. Here’s Google’s step-by-step guide explaining how it displays ads:

  • When a person searches, Google’s Ad system identifies ads with keywords matching the search.
  • Google’s system ignores ineligible ads. For example, if an ad targets a different location than your selected one.
  • Next, Google displays ads with a high enough Ad Rank. This depends on ad quality, search context, bid price, budget, keyword competition, and other factors.

Google also states that highly relevant keywords and ads may still secure a higher position even if others have higher bids. 

Additionally, Google explains that each auction may have different results, and your ad position may fluctuate or may not show at all.

Keywords and SEM

Keywords are an integral part of SEM.

For a searcher, they’re the words and phrases typed in when actively searching online for a product, place, or service or to get an answer to a question.

For marketers, they’re the keywords included in their PPC ads as part of their search engine marketing campaign. These ads appear when someone searches under a specific keyword or phrase.

It’s a simple concept: keywords tell search engines what a searcher is looking for, and SEM puts your company in the spotlight at the top of the search engine or other paid advertising platform.

This is why understanding search intent is so important. The more you know search intent, the more relevant you can make your ads by including precise search terms.

Finding the right keywords takes time and effort, but fortunately, there are tools you can use to make this much easier. One of which is my free keyword research tool, Ubersuggest. 

Start by inputting your core topics to generate keyword ideas. Analyze the popularity, search volume, difficulty, and cost per click for your keyword from the keyword overview:

Ubersuggest keyword overview screenshot image what is search engine marketing

From here, you can get inspired and explore keyword ideas generated from your search term.

Ubersuggest keyword ideas screenshot search engine marketing

Use the keyword research functions to refine your results further and prioritize based on relevance and competition.

Ubersuggest Keyword research screenshot search engine marketing

You can download your results and use them as building blocks for your next campaign.

How to Build a Strong Search Engine Marketing Strategy

There are many different components of a successful search engine marketing strategy, but following these key steps gives you a strong foundation you can adapt as you go:

1. First, identify your target audience, demographics, and goals. Who is your ideal customer? What do you want to achieve with your marketing campaign? Knowing this helps you determine which keywords to target and create relevant ads.

2. Next, create a budget and set realistic expectations. Search engine marketing can cost you a lot of money. Make sure you have the resources to support it long-term.

3. Use keyword research to determine relevant keywords for your business. This targets your ads and optimizes your website for search engines. It’s a great idea to analyze your competitors’ keywords and the backlinks they’re creating, too.

4. Now, craft your adverts. Ensure you focus your adverts on your customers, highlight the features and benefits of your product/service, and include your chosen keywords.

5. Think beyond your ads. Your search engine marketing efforts don’t end with adverts. Ensure your ads lead to a high-quality, aesthetically pleasing website consistent with your ads’ tone and appearance.

6. Finally, track your SEM marketing efforts. Check your metrics, analyze the benefits of your search engine marketing efforts (clicks, conversions, visitors, etc.), and make necessary adjustments. Use web analytics tools to track website visitors, clicks, conversions, and other key metrics.

Now, let’s get into some of the finer points.

Best Practices for SEM

What are some best practices for search engine marketing?

Begin by thinking of it as part of your entire marketing or business growth strategy, not as a separate entity. Consider how it fits in with everything else you’re doing and how SEM fits in overall. Then:

  • Align your SEM with your business goals: For example, do you want to increase click-throughs? Enhance conversions? Secure long-term customers? Once you know that, you can create your strategy around it.
  • Set a budget: It’s easy to burn through your PPC budget if you’re not careful. However, you can keep your costs down by focusing on your Quality Score and keyword relevance.
  • Narrow down your audience: For instance, geo-targeting is the way to go if you want customers in a certain location. By narrowing your ads’ targeting to a particular area, you can ensure you hit your desired demographic with your marketing efforts. This can be especially useful for small businesses focusing on a region or city.
  • Do your research: Your ads are only as effective as your keyword research. Without this, you can’t target your ideal customers and have little chance of converting click-throughs into customers. 
  • Consider keyword intent: Why is someone typing a particular keyword into a search engine?

Let me elaborate on this for a moment:

When it comes to SEM marketing, understanding keyword intent is core to your results. Without it, you have less chance of succeeding because you don’t know what your customer wants. 

I know what you’re thinking, “How can I determine keyword intent?”

It’s OK. You don’t need to become a mind reader! Just do the following:

  • Look at the search results. What type of content is ranking for your chosen keyword? Is it a blog post, a product page, or something else entirely?
  • Analyze which keywords people use to discover your website. Any good analytics program should tell you this. What words are they typing into Google? What do these searches tell you? Are they looking for information, or are they ready to buy? Understanding that intent enables you to choose the right keywords to target and create content that meets the needs of your audience.
  • Finally, I can’t say this enough: track your search engine marketing results. Use analytics to determine which ads and keywords are most effective and make changes to ensure that you’re reaching your target audience.

Common SEM Marketing Mistakes

Unfortunately, many businesses make common mistakes that can hurt their campaign results. 

I’ll start with some of the most frequent search engine marketing errors. Here goes:

1. Not targeting the right keywords. Businesses may choose keywords that are too competitive or don’t accurately reflect their business. Another common error is failing to consider keyword intent or the funnel stage of the customer.

2. Focusing on short-term results. Concentrating on short-term results instead of long-term goals is a huge mistake. Search engine marketing should be part of your overall marketing strategy, not a standalone tactic.

3. Creating poor quality, dull content. Poorly written adverts that don’t engage potential customers damage your brand and may affect your ad rank.

4. Writing conflicting or confusing content. Perhaps the ad content may conflict with the website or landing page content. For instance, there may be contrasting tones or styles between the two. Keep to one style, tone, and language to create cohesiveness and enhance your branding.

5. Failing to A/B test. Could a change in one element boost your click-throughs or conversions? You don’t know unless you test.

Finally, don’t overlook your quality score. I’ve already mentioned it briefly, but it’s worth repeating. Ignore this, and it doesn’t matter how good your product/service is.

Quality score is important for two reasons: it helps you save money on advertising costs and enables you to get better ad placement. If you want to improve your Google Ads campaigns, focus on improving your quality score by using relevant keywords, writing interesting and engaging ads, and targeting the right audience.

Key SEM Tools

You don’t have to guess to get SEM right! There are a ton of tools that can help you target your ads more effectively.

For instance, the Google Ads Editor is an important tool for search engine marketing. The editor helps manage ads, keywords, and campaigns. It’s easy to use and makes managing ads a breeze. The editor also makes it easy to make changes and track results.

Alternatively, you can use Google Trends to find out what’s hot.

Google trends tools.

Here’s a list of some other popular search engine marketing tools that marketers often use to optimize and manage their search engine advertising campaigns:


Ubersuggest homepage image search engine marketing

Ubersuggest is my SEO tool offering a range of features to assist you with your search engine marketing. It has keyword research, competitive analysis, and site audit functions, and it helps with content ideas.

It also provides backlink data, which is crucial for building your site’s reputation online and improving your rankings.

My tool offers free limited features, or you can sign up for a seven-day free trial. Paid packages start at $29 or save money with the lifetime deal.


SpyFu homepage image search engine marketing

This comprehensive search engine marketing tool offers valuable insights and competitive intelligence to digital marketing experts.

You can use SpyFu for competitor keyword research, keyword, competitor, and PPC analysis, and gathering historical data.

Paid plans begin at $9.00 monthly.


Semrush home page image search engine marketing

Semrush provides a wide range of tools to help digital marketers with SEM. It includes keyword research, competitive analysis, and site audits.

You can also use Semrush to uncover trending topics for your content marketing strategy and to find content gaps.

If you’re looking to optimize your PPC ads, Semrush can help there, too.

Paid plans begin at $129.95 monthly.


AdExpresso home page image search engine marketing

AdEspresso is a tool by Hootsuite for managing and optimizing Facebook and Instagram ad campaigns.

You can use it for campaign creation and management, gaining audience insights, and ad optimization.

It also has a comprehensive range of reporting and analytics tools for tracking and automating Facebook ad campaigns.

Depending on your needs, pricing plans range from $49 monthly to $259.


What is SEM?

Search engine marketing refers to using pay-per-click advertising or other types of paid advertising, like display ads, to increase online visibility.

What Are the Benefits of Search Engine Marketing?

The most obvious benefit is increased visibility, equaling more leads, conversions, and customers.

Paid search engine marketing is a great way to reach new customers and attract them to your business. Using SEM techniques, you quickly target potential customers who are already interested in what you offer. This approach works much faster than organic SEO campaigns, but the two methods complement each other as an overall strategy. 

How does Search Engine Marketing work?

SEM works by researching and finding high-demand keywords and creating targeted paid-per-click (PPC) ads around them. These ads appear on search engines or on platforms like Facebook when a searcher enters a matching term. Advertisers then pay for each click that their ad receives. 


Search engine marketing (SEM) and search engine optimization (SEO) are two different things, but they both work to improve your site’s visibility on search engines.

SEM covers paid search advertising, such as Google Ads, while SEO is optimizing your website content and structure so that your site appears higher in search engine results pages (SERPs).

SEM marketing is a great way to improve your website’s visibility and increase traffic. It can help you reach your target audience more effectively and boost your online presence. By using SEM, you can grow your business and generate more leads.

It works well alongside other proven techniques, like SEO. However, it delivers some benefits that a search engine optimization campaign can’t, such as quicker visibility.

Whether you go with search engine marketing or SEO, you must have a strong strategy, avoid common mistakes, and track your results.

Which SEM techniques do you use?

Consulting with Neil Patel

See How My Agency Can Drive More Traffic to Your Website

  • SEO - unlock more SEO traffic. See real results.
  • Content Marketing - our team creates epic content that will get shared, get links, and attract traffic.
  • Paid Media - effective paid strategies with clear ROI.

Book a Call


Unlock Thousands of Keywords with Ubersuggest

Ready to Outrank Your Competitors?

  • Find long-tail keywords with High ROI
  • Find 1000s of keywords instantly
  • Turn searches into visits and conversions

Free keyword research tool


Neil Patel