What Is SEM? The Definitive Guide to Search Engine Marketing

Ankit Vora

Apr 25, 202410 min read
Contributor: Shannon Willoby
Search engine marketing


What Is Search Engine Marketing?

Search engine marketing (SEM) is a digital marketing practice aimed at improving a website’s visibility in search engines through paid ads and unpaid results. 

With paid search marketing, your website appears in paid results. These results typically appear as “Sponsored.” 

Like this:

“Sponsored" results on Google serp for "web hosting provider" query

Search engine optimization (SEO)—improvements to your website that improve its visibility—can help you gain unpaid results (also called organic results). 

And these results appear without any label: 

organic results on Google serp for "web hosting provider" query

Using both approaches in search engine marketing can help you:

  • Improve website visibility
  • Attract more traffic 
  • Generate more leads
  • Increase revenue
  • Grow your business

How Does Search Engine Marketing Work?

SEM relies on keywords (phrases users enter into search engines) that can be used to create relevant content and ads designed to attract your target audience. 

Using the right keywords in the right places is a key part of getting your ads and content to appear prominently in search results.

Your odds of success in both realms is greater if you ensure that your ads/content match the keyword’s search intent—the reason why people search that query.

We’ll go over this in more detail later. But for now, know you can easily spot the type of search intent when using the Keyword Magic Tool for keyword research (in the “Intent” column): 

Keyword Magic Tool results for "sneakers" with intent column highlighted

Types of Search Engine Marketing

SEM includes SEO (organic search results) and PPC (paid search results)

Search Engine Optimization 

Search engine optimization is focused on improving your search engine visibility using non-paid tactics like publishing quality content that contains your target keywords. 

But also using other on-page optimizations (e.g., writing enticing meta descriptions), applying technical fixes (e.g., implementing a sound website architecture), and leveraging off-page tactics (e.g., gaining links from other reputable websites).

Organic search marketing takes time to deliver results. But traffic and visibility generated by organic search marketing efforts can last months or even years. 

Plus, refreshing your content to include updated information can increase your chances of maintaining or improving your search engine results page (SERP) rankings.

For example, finance site The Balance published a post on blogging back in 2008 that continues to appear in the top results for “blogging.” Because they keep it updated.

The Balance's blog post appears first in google results for "blogging"

Paid search marketing is focused on improving your search engine visibility through paid advertisements. Which involves writing relevant copy, including compelling images (for some ads), choosing audience targeting, and specifying keywords to trigger the ads. 

Paid ads work on a pay-per-click (PPC) basis. In this business model, the advertiser pays each time someone clicks their ad.

Paid search often delivers faster results than organic search marketing. But the moment you stop your paid ad campaigns, the visibility and traffic they generate ceases.

Here are the different types of Google ads for SEM:

Search Ads

Google search ads appear on SERPs when users search for specific keywords. 

Like this example for the keyword “buy firm mattress online.”

Google search ad appearing for “buy firm mattress online" query

Shopping Ads

Google Shopping Ads appear when someone searches for a specific product. 

They can appear in SERPs, Google’s Shopping tab, Google Images, Maps, etc.

Like this example for “buy waterproof house mat.”

Google shopping ads appearing for “buy waterproof house mat" query

Local Ads

Local ads help you promote your local business on Google SERPs and Maps. 

Like this example for “graphic design agency near me.”

Google local ads appearing for “graphic design agency near me" query

Many marketers include SEO in their SEM strategies. But we focused the tips below on paid search marketing with Google Search ads.

Learn How Google Ads Works

Google Ads uses an auction system to determine which ads to display and in what order. 

According to Google’s explanation of the auction, there are six main factors they consider:

  • Maximum bid: The maximum amount you're willing to pay for an ad click 
  • Ad quality: How relevant and helpful your ad is likely to be for users
  • Impact of ad assets (formerly called extensions) and format: How the additional information you provided in your ad (like phone number, links to specific pages, etc.) and format are expected to affect performance
  • Ad Rank thresholds: A set of values used for determining whether your ads are eligible to be displayed 
  • Ad context: The way factors like the search term used, the user’s location, the time of search, the device used, and more play a role
  • Auction competitiveness: The level of competition impacts who wins and what their final cost per click (CPC) will be

Set Up Your Campaign Structure

A well-structured Google Ads account groups ads together topically to ensure strategic bids. 

Let’s go over the way an account breaks down:

  • Campaign: The highest level of organization within a Google Ads account. Each campaign can comprise multiple ad groups. Campaigns allow you to set an overall budget, choose your audience targeting, and apply settings that affect all ad groups within the campaign.
  • Ad group: Within each campaign, ad groups organize your ads by a common theme. Each ad group contains one or more ads. And a set of keywords.
  • Keyword: Terms you bid on for each ad set
  • Ad: Individual ads’ copy that users will see when your ads are triggered

Here’s a visual to clarify: 

Google Ads account structure, visualizing campaign, ad group, keyword, and ad structure

Choose the Right Keywords

Once you’ve determined your ad groups, you’ll want to target specific keyword groups that resonate with your audience for each. 

And selecting the right ones is all about striking a balance between including as many relevant terms as possible while omitting those that aren’t likely to drive results. Bidding on irrelevant keywords can waste your budget. 

Here’s how to select the right ones:

Target Keywords with Commercial and Transactional Intent

Choose keywords people use when they’re clearly interested in making a purchase. Which you can determine by analyzing keyword intent.

There are four types of intent:

  • Navigational: Keywords people type into search engines when they want to find a specific site or page
  • Informational: Keywords people use to find information
  • Commercial: Keywords people use to research specific products, services, or brands 
  • Transactional: Keywords people use when they want to perform a transaction
subaru website has navigational intent, subaru vs nissan has commercial intent. What's a good car? has informational intent. Buy subaru forester has transactional search intent.

For ads intended to drive sales, focus on commercial and transactional keywords.

Use the Keyword Magic Tool to find these keywords. 

Just enter a broad term related to your product or service. Then, select the “Intent” drop-down, check the boxes next to “Commercial” and “Transactional,” and click “Apply.”

"Intent" filter drop-down menu in Keyword Magic Tool

You’ll now be left with just keywords that have commercial and/or transactional intent to consider.

Now, let’s go over how to evaluate those options.

Review Keyword Volume and Competition

When evaluating terms in the Keyword Magic Tool, take a look at how many average monthly searches they get (volume) as well as how competitive they are.

In the Keyword Magic Tool, select the “Volume” drop-down. And choose a range from the menu. 

"Volume" filter drop-down menu in Keyword Magic Tool

The range will depend on your industry and how popular the product or service is. Because we’re using the highly competitive shoe niche in our example, we’re setting the range from 1,001 to 10,000. 

Next, click the gear icon on the top right side of the table and click the box next to "Competitive Density” to add it to the table. This is a metric that measures competition in Google Ads on a scale of 0 (not competitive) to 1 (highly competitive).

adding competitive density metrics to Keyword Magic Tool table

Review the keyword list and select ones that strike a balance between volume and competition.

Keywords with high search volumes tend to be competitive but can help you gain considerable visibility. Lower-volume search terms are often less competitive but often attract users who are highly motivated to buy.

Then, consider the “CPC” column for each term you’re interested in. 

"CPC (USD)" column highlighted in the Keyword Magic Tool table

This is the average price advertisers pay for a click on their ads targeting that term. Which can inform how much you want to bid to stand a good chance of winning the auction without going too high. 

Repeat this process for all your ad groups. 

Analyze Competitors’ Ads

Reviewing your competitors’ ad copy can give you ideas to use when writing your own ad copy.

Semrush’s Advertising Research tool can help you do this.

Enter a competitor’s domain name, select a country, and click“Search.”

"salomon.com" entered into the Advertising Research tool search bar

Head to the “Ad Copies” section to analyze your competitor’s ads.

Ads copies shown for competitors' ads in Advertising Research tool

If you click on the drop-down icon below each ad copy box, you’ll get a list of keywords the ad is ranking for in paid search:

a list of keywords that trigger the selected ad to show

Use these ads as inspiration for your campaigns. 

Write Compelling Ad Copy

Each paid search ad is made up of four components: 

  • Headline
  • Display URL
  • Description
  • Ad assets (optional)
paid search ad on google, with headline, display url, description, and ad extensions marked

Here are a few best practices for each of these components:

Optimize Your Headline

The headline is likely the first thing your target audience will see. So, it needs to be compelling.

That means you should be clear and specific about your product or service while meeting the 30-character limit (note that you can use up to 15 headlines).

And a good headline should:

  • Include simple, direct language
  • Use keywords naturally
  • Address user intent
  • Appeal to emotion or use humor (if it fits your brand)

Choose a Display URL

Your display URL is the web address that appears on your ad. It gives users an idea of where they’ll land after clicking on the ad.

The base part of the display URL is your website's main address. Like “https://www.yourwebsite.com.” 

But you can make it more specific to your ad to give users an idea of what type of page they’re heading to. Like “https://www.yourwebsite.com/shoes/athletic.” 

Use a display URL that will:

  • Help users anticipate what kind of page they’ll land on
  • Highlight any specific offers to entice users
  • Be short and simple

Write Click-Worthy Descriptions

Writing enticing descriptions can persuade users to click—and you can add up to four descriptions per ad group, each up to 90 characters long.

Here are a few tips for writing click-worthy ad descriptions:

  • Incorporate keywords in a way that feels natural and relevant to users 
  • Keep messaging concise so users don’t lose interest
  • Include a call to action like “shop now,” “place your order,” or “book now”

Include Ad Extensions

Using ad assets to include additional information may convince users to click.

A few examples of ad extensions are: 

  • Call buttons
  • Location information
  • Links to specific parts of your site
  • Additional text
add assets including links to specific parts of the site

But they won’t always show up. Because they’re influenced by a few factors:

  • Ad rank: Assets appear when a minimum ad rank is met
  • Position of your ad: Ads with a higher position take priority for displaying assets
  • The specific assets you’ve used: Assets will only show if they’re predicted to improve your ad’s performance

Read Google’s full list of ad assets to learn more about specific types.

Track and Analyze SEM Metrics

Measure how well your paid ads are performing by evaluating the following metrics:


Impressions tell you how many times your ad was shown to users. Which gives you an idea of your reach and visibility. 

You can see this metric within Google Ads:

Impressions metric within Google Ads


Clicks are the number of times your ad was clicked. Which can help you understand interest.

And you can see them in Google Ads:

Clicks metric within Google Ads

You can also evaluate your click-through rate (CTR)—the percentage of impressions that resulted in clicks. 

This helps you understand how effectively your ad captures your audience’s attention.

Conversion Rate

Conversion rate refers to the percentage of ad clicks that lead to conversions. Which helps you understand how effective your ad and landing page are. 

Once you set up conversion tracking, you can view this metric in Google Ads.

Creating a High-Quality Landing Page Experience

Creating a quality landing page that aligns with your ads can impact whether your ads appear in the first place. And persuade visitors to take action.

So, use consistent messaging and ensure a positive user experience by leveraging intuitive navigation and prioritizing fast page loading speed.

Our Landing Page Builder makes it easy to create user-friendly landing pages without any coding experience. 

Choose from 400+ customizable templates to get started. 

Landing Page Builder templates

Then use the drag-and-drop builder to create professional landing pages that align with your campaign goals. 

Understanding the Geo-Targeting Settings

The default geo-targeting setting in Google Ads is “Presence or interest: People in, regularly in, or who've shown interest in your targeted locations.” 

default geo-targeting setting in Google Ads is “Presence or interest: People in, regularly in, or who've shown interest in your targeted locations"

But this setting isn’t ideal if you’re advertising a local business. 

Updating your geo-targeting settings to “Presence: People in or regularly in your targeted locations” lets you target only those who are physically within or frequently within your specified area.

Improve Your Search Engine Visibility with SEM

SEM enables you to attract more website traffic and generate more revenue. And the right technology can help. 

Semrush offers a wide range of digital marketing tools to support your SEM campaigns. From keyword research to competitor analysis.

Sign up for a free account today.

Author Photo
Ankit is a freelance B2B SaaS writer (WordPress, HubSpot, Buffer, Zapier & more) with over seven years of SEO and content marketing experience. He’s a gamer during the day and a writer at night (because opposite time zones are a thing.)
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