Search engines are a part of daily life. Set up your search engine marketing correctly, and it can also be a part of your daily business growth.

Search engine marketing, or SEM, is one of the most effective ways to grow your business and reach new customers.

While you must employ organic strategies to attract traffic over the long term, sometimes you can’t properly compete on the search engine ranking pages without putting money behind it — and that’s where SEM comes into play.

For instance, consider what happens when I type “hiking boots” into Google:

REI clearly has an effective SEO strategy, as its “hiking boots” page ranks first organically. However, paid advertising appears at the top and dominates search results.

With 49% of surveyed shoppers saying that they use Google to find new products, your business’s products or services must appear at the top of a SERP when a user searches.

This isn’t always possible organically, particularly when other businesses pay to ensure their products appear above yours. When this is the case, you must invest in a SEM strategy.

What is Search Engine Marketing (SEM)?

How an Ad Auction Works

SEM Strategy

Best SEM Tools

Free Guide, Template & Planner: How to Use Google Ads for Business

What is Search Engine Marketing (SEM)?

Search engine marketing is the process of using paid advertising to ensure that your business’s products or services are visible on search engine results pages (SERPs).

When a user types in a certain keyword, SEM enables your business to appear as a top result for that search query.

SEM is technically an umbrella term encompassing all search engine marketing, but it’s generally used to discuss paid search marketing. When speaking specifically about organic marketing, we’re talking about SEO.

As a content marketer, I’ve seen brands mistakenly turn to ads to solve their problems.

Short-sighted brands sometimes skip the step of developing and testing their offers and think that they can run enough ads to make up for the lack of development.

This is a costly and ineffective way to approach lead generation.

Ads are like fuel on a fire. Without any kindling (great offers), your fire is entirely dependent on you adding more and more gasoline to stay alive. Instead, why not add fuel and more logs to the fire?

You do so by developing a search engine marketing strategy that spans organic and paid advertising.

Take a free Google Ads course in HubSpot Academy.

SEO and SEM Compared

SEO and SEM are strategies that help your content appear in search results, but they have different functions.

SEO, or search engine optimization, allows your content to appear in organic search results. These listings show up on result pages based on Google’s analysis of their content and how it relates to search queries.

Most search engine results pages are organic search results:

While SEO is free because you don’t need to pay to have your content included, quality SEO can be time-consuming. It’s a long-term investment in getting traffic to your website, and it isn’t a perfect solution for all marketing goals.

Some search queries will be too competitive for your website to rank in search engine queries. This is where search engine marketing helps fill gaps.

Using paid advertising, you can appear at the top of search results when the organic search results are too competitive for you.

While marketers can (and do!) discuss SEM vs SEO at length, they should work together to execute your digital marketing strategy.

SEM Statistics

What do the numbers say about search engine marketing? Here are some compelling statistics:

  • 70+ percent of shoppers buy online using their phones. (SEMrush)
  • More Google searches happen on mobile than on desktop. (Smart Insights)
  • Approximately 40 percent of ad spending in the US comes from search advertisements. (Statista)
  • When comparing the top organic result on Google with the top sponsored result, the organic SERP gets 19x more clicks. (First Page Sage)

To ensure you can use SEM to advertise your products or services on the SERPs properly, we’ve cultivated a list of the best SEM tools and the components of an SEM Ad Auction.

How an Ad Auction Works

Once you’re ready to invest in SEM, you must enter into an ad auction. There are many different search engines, but we’ll focus on the ad auction in Google Ads (formerly called Google Adwords) for our purposes.

Simply put, every Google ad you see goes through an ad auction before appearing in the SERPs.

To enter into an ad auction, you’ll first need to identify keywords you want to bid on and clarify how much you’re willing to spend per click on each.

Once Google determines the keywords you bid on are contained within a user’s search query, you’re entered into the ad auction.

Not every ad will appear on every search related to that keyword. Some keywords don’t have enough commercial intent to justify incorporating ads into the page.

For instance, when I type “What is Marketing?” into Google, I don’t see any ads appear.

Additionally, even if your keyword is a good fit for an ad, it doesn’t mean you’ll “win” the bidding. The ad auction considers two main factors when determining which ads to place on the SERP: your maximum bid, and your ads’ Quality Score.

Quality Score

Your Quality Score impacts where your ad appears in search results, which is called your Ad Rank. This score estimates the quality of your ads, keywords, and landing pages.

You can find your Quality Score, reported on a 1-10 scale, in your keywords’ “Status” column in your Google Ads account.

The more relevant your ad is to a user, as well as how likely a user is to click through and have an enjoyable landing page experience, all factor into your overall Quality Score.

Having a high Quality Score should be a top priority of your strategy.

If you don’t prioritize it sooner, you’ll deal with it later. Here’s one founder’s experience with improving their ad Quality Score:

“In the early days of SEM for Zeralabs, our campaigns had a mediocre Quality Score,” shared Sophia Tang, founder of Zeralabs.

Sophia says, “By optimizing our ad copy and landing pages to be more relevant to our targeted keywords, we saw a clear improvement in ad placements and reduced our average cost-per-click, even without focusing on stats.”

SEM Strategy

SEM strategy involves optimizing paid search ads with a specific goal in mind.

To create a good strategy, you must understand how paid ad platforms work and effectively manage variables that affect performance, such as keywords, budget, and copy.

With this in mind, here are some factors that should go into your strategy if you want to earn paid ads success.

Exercise: Choose a keyword that you’re considering running ads for. Find the ads ranking and study them as you read through the recommended strategy below.

Try to understand other marketers’ decisions when implementing their search engine marketing.

Keyword Intent

Pay-per-click, or PPC, strategy starts with choosing the right keywords to bid on. That means researching to determine what keywords to bid on or, in other words, what queries you want your ad to show up for.

Start by brainstorming brand terms, terms that describe your product, and even terms that describe your competition.

“Understanding the user’s intent behind a keyword is crucial. Are they looking to buy, or are they just gathering information? This will guide your bidding strategy,” shared Dominik Mąka, head of SEO at LVBET.

Dominik has managed $10 million in ads and has many insights on SEM for beginners.

“For instance, keywords with high buying intent usually have a higher cost-per-click but can offer a better ROI,” Mąka says.

If you have a small budget, you may only want to bid on keywords with buying intent.

However, if you have a larger budget, you may have room to bid on keywords targeting earlier stages of the buyer’s journey or even terms loosely related to your products.

Target Audience

When viewers click on your paid ad, they should feel that the content instantly resonates. You achieve this by designing ads that match the needs of your target audience.

Remember that ads should be highly relevant to precisely what users are looking for when they enter their search query.

Align your ads with the interests and desires of your ideal viewer, and then meet them where they’re at in the buyer’s journey (also called the customer journey).

Keyword Volume and Competition

If no one’s searching for your target keywords, you won’t get any results from your ads. At the same time, keywords with extremely high volume attract more competition (and sometimes lose relevancy).

When doing keyword research, relevant high-volume and low-competition keywords are a sweet spot, but they may be challenging to come by. It becomes a balancing act between demand (volume) and budget (competition).

Where to start?

“If you’re new to SEM, start with a modest budget and focus on long-tail keywords that are less competitive but still relevant to your business,” Dominik Mąka said. “As you gain more experience and data, you can increase your budget and target more competitive keywords.”

Keyword Cost

Ad placement is determined by the bid you specify for the keyword and the quality score Google has given your ad. Higher offers and higher-quality ads win the best placement.

With this in mind, high-competition keywords end up being more expensive.

However, bidding too low means your ad will not be shown, so you’ll want to ensure that you can be competitive based on how much competition is for the keyword.

“When starting with SEM, it’s incredibly important to ensure you’re only targeting keywords that are important to your business, and if your budget is small, that you only focus on transaction keyword types,” shared Justin Silverman, founder, and CEO of Merchynt.

“Focusing on broad keywords and ones that people search when just looking for information is going to drain your budget quickly and result in very few leads,” Silverman says.

Account and Campaign Structure

Theoretically, you could lump all of your keywords together in a single bucket and display one ad for the aggregate lot. But your budget would be eaten up by a handful of high-volume keywords, and your quality score would decrease.

That’s why structuring your Google Ads account properly is so important.

“Your account structure matters,” shared Dominik Mąka. “This not only makes your account easier to manage but also allows for more targeted ad copy and landing pages, which can improve your Quality Score and lower your cost-per-click.”

There are several levels for Google Ads campaign organization:

  • Ad — the copy that’s displayed for the keywords you’ve chosen.
  • Keywords — the queries you’re bidding on.
  • Ad group — sets of like keywords grouped by theme.
  • Campaign — the highest level for managing ad groups.

At each level, you can determine what’s working and not working, making you more informed about performance and how your money is being spent.


At the end of the day, when your keywords are chosen and your account is structured, you still have to write suitable ads and “earn” the click.

An ad is made up of a few components:

  • Title
  • Display URL
  • Description

Understand exactly what the searchers are looking for with their queries and see if you write a great ad that makes your offer attractive.

Keep in mind also that SEM isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it activity.

Ongoing PPC management helps you eliminate budget waste, experiment with ads, and optimize keywords you’re bidding for to ensure you get the most ROI from your efforts.

Landing page conversion

Ads will bring users to your webpage, but if zero percent of the users convert, you won’t move the needle on any of your digital marketing goals.

Qualities like load speeds, user interface, and value proposition impact the conversation rate of your landing page. Test and tweak both the copy AND visuals on your landing page to keep improving your conversion rate.

Meticulous ongoing optimization is critical. Check search terms, ad copy, and landing pages constantly to increase relevancy. Kill waste rapidly and scale what resonates. Leverage platforms’ algorithms with tight, agile management,” shared Jason Smit, CEO of Contentellect.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint; paid search requires long-term commitment and skill development, and a steep learning curve exists. But patient mastery of SEM fundamentals will yield huge returns over time,” Smit says.

Learn more about improving conversion rates with this landing page design tutorial:

Or get inspired with these landing page examples.

Analytics and Reporting

Are viewers being compelled to make a purchase, join your email list, or start a free trial when they visit your ad landing page? If not, it’s time to make changes.

“It’s essential to remember that SEM isn’t static. Trends change, consumer behaviors shift, and algorithms get updated. Consistent tracking and optimization are your keys to adapting successfully to these changes,” shared SEO consultant Milosz Krasinski.

“With a blend of well-defined objectives and a nuanced understanding of ad extensions, you can develop a robust, adaptable SEM campaign that not just meets but exceeds your goals,” Krasinski says.

Search visibility alone won’t make all of your marketing goals complete.

In my experience working with clients who run ads, the ones who excitedly engage with the data are the ones who have the most beneficial expertise and continue to see results long-term.

To make search engine marketing work for you in the long term, you need to constantly evaluate and react accordingly to improve results. The following tools can help.

Best SEM Tools

1. HubSpot’s Ad Tracking Software

The HubSpot Ads tool helps you go beyond traffic and click metrics to analyze precisely how ads are influencing contacts where they are in the buyer’s journey.

This will help you understand which ads work, justify SEM as a channel, and integrate your advertising with the rest of your marketing efforts.

2. SEMrush

SEMRush allows you to conduct extensive keyword research, keyword rank tracking, site audits, traffic analysis, and more.

SEMRush is a fantastic tool for finding opportunities to rank for long-tail keywords organically, but additionally, you can use the tool for various SEM efforts.

For example, you can use SEMRush to determine where your competitors are concentrating their marketing efforts and analyze their regional presence. This will help you determine how much money you want to put behind specific keywords.

Additionally, SEMRush enables you to discover your main paid search competitors, determine which keywords they’re bidding on, and study the composition of their ads.

This is vital information when you’re cultivating your own paid strategy and are trying to figure out how to out-rank other businesses on the SERPs.

3. Google Trends

Google Trends allows you to track the search volume for a particular keyword across a specific region, language, or time frame — which can enable you to identify which search terms are trending and which aren’t.

Since you don’t want to put money behind a decreasing popularity keyword, this is a handy tool for your SEM efforts.

Additionally, mainly if you work for an e-commerce business, gauging interest in your product or service in a certain geographical area is undoubtedly powerful for ensuring you tailor your paid efforts to specific locations, saving you money in the long run.


One of the most helpful features of Keywordtool.Io is its ability to tap into Google, Bing, YouTube, Amazon, Instagram, X, and the App Store so that you can segment your keyword research through various channels and better target your efforts.

Additionally, the tool takes your base keyword. It provides you with variations of words and phrases, which allows you to cultivate a more extensive list of possible keywords you might want to include in a paid ad.

Using Google Autocomplete to provide relevant keywords, the free version of Keywordtool.Io lets you generate up to 750 long-tail keywords and keyword suggestions for every search term.

Plus, you can use the tool to analyze search trends on Google to ensure your desired keywords are increasing in popularity and will continue to serve you well over the long term.

5. Google Ads Keyword Planner

Use Google Ads Keyword Planner to research relevant keywords for your business and keep track of how searches for certain keywords change over time.

The Keyword Planner will help you narrow down a list of possible keywords to ensure you choose the most effective ones for your business.

Additionally, Keyword Planner will give you suggested bid estimates for each keyword to determine which keywords work with your advertising budget.

Best of all, once you’ve found your ideal keywords and are ready to launch an ad campaign, you can do it all from within the tool.

6. SpyFu

Ever wish you could see which keywords your competitors are buying on Google or check out which ad tests they’ve run?

With SpyFu, you can simply search a domain, and you’ll see every keyword that a business has bought on Google Ads, every organic keyword for which they’ve ranked, and every ad variation they’ve had in the last 12 years.

7. WordStream

WordStream is an advertising management solution that can help you research, measure, and optimize your ads for performance. You get access to advanced reporting features for data analysis and tools for creating great ads.

In addition, WordStream has alerts and workflow tools to help you make decisions about your campaigns.


Are you ready to grow your business with SEM? Online marketing is an endless puzzle with countless ways to advance your goals, and paid search results can be a pivotal and powerful puzzle piece when leveraged correctly.

With the above tools and a killer strategy, SEM can be an excellent strategy for lead generation. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t start your PPC campaign today.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in April 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

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