What Is SEM (Search Engine Marketing)? (Hint: It’s Not SEO)

What Is SEM (Search Engine Marketing)? (Hint: It’s Not SEO)

Let’s clarify something and get our acronyms spelled out at the same time: search engine marketing (SEM) is not the same thing as search engine optimization (SEO).

But please! Don’t feel bad if you’ve been using the two interchangeably. In fact, SEM used to be an umbrella term for these core digital marketing strategies.

Over the past several years, though, SEM has become synonymous with paid search advertising, while SEO refers to organic (read: technically free) efforts to improve search rankings.

The two strategies share a lot of DNA: both help your site gain more prominent placement on search engine results pages (SERPs), both can increase online visibility, and both are dependent on keyword research and knowing your audience.

But they differ in the way they’re executed. And they offer distinct advantages.

B2B marketers can benefit from understanding the nuances of both and how they can work together to drive traffic – and results.

SEO takes it slow

what is sem? organic seo memeOrganic SEO gets this hippie-ish rep because its tactics naturally increase web visibility and position on SERPs as opposed to paying for top placement.

In theory, if you provide all the good stuff – useful and trustworthy info, consistently updated content on a technically well-optimized site – Google’s search algorithms should rank your site higher and higher on search engine results pages (SERPs) for the keyword queries you’re targeting.

(I say “in theory” because there’s a whole art and science behind getting SEO right – check out our post on building an SEO content strategy.)

SEO isn’t going to dazzle you with immediate results. But over time, the more traffic you gain…well, the more traffic you gain, because search algorithms recognize and prioritize sites that are relevant to users.

In the meantime, spinning up a paid SEM campaign can give you the quick visibility you need to top the SERPs before you start ranking organically.

SEM is fast (and comes with a price)

Marketers can purchase pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns through SEM platforms, the most common being Google Ads and Microsoft’s Bing Ads. We’re going to focus on Google Ads in this post because it’s the most widely used SEM platform.

A cool thing about paid search ad campaigns is the instant gratification factor: very soon after the campaign launches, you’ll start seeing clicks.

sem (search engine marketing) is fast meme

Google Ads offers several types of ad campaigns: search, display, shopping, video, app, smart, local and discovery. They’re all worth getting to know, but we’ll focus on search ads and also touch on display ads in this article.

So how do search ads work, anyway?

Anyone who uses the Internet with any regularity (um, everyone?) has seen Google search ads. They appear above organic results on a SERP (or at the bottom of the page), bear an “Ad” designation, and include a headline, URL, descriptive text and often ad extensions.

Google Ads is a pay-per-click (PPC) advertising platform. Advertisers submit a maximum bid for actions taken on their ad: CPC (cost per click) and cost per mille (CPM – that’s every thousand impressions, or times your ad is shown).

CPC averages around $2, but this varies wildly – keyword terms in super-competitive markets can cost as much as $50 per click.

Now, you might wonder: there are only a few prime slots at the top of the SERPs. So how does Google figure out which ones get top placement?

Enter the ad auction

Every time a user launches a search using your ad’s target keywords, Google performs a milliseconds-long ad auction to select among all the ads bid for those target keywords.

Google ranks ads based on several factors. Two of the most important are:

  • Max cost-per-click (CPC) bid, which is how much you’re willing to pay for each click. Straightforward enough.
  • Ad quality. Decidedly less straightforward. According to Google, ad quality includes expected CTR (click-through rate), ad relevance, and landing page experience.

From proper keyword research to creating a compelling search ad, there are a lot of ways to optimize search ad campaigns to ensure you’re getting your money’s worth out of your PPC spend. Seems pretty important, right? Stay tuned for a forthcoming post all about optimizing SEM campaigns.

Now, about those display ads: not just cheap eye candy

Display ads are image-based ads (think banner ads) that appear across the web and on social media sites too, not just SERPs. They’re served up through the Google Display Network (GDN) according to audience segments that you select to target.

Because they include visual components as opposed to text-only search ads, display ads give you a chance to really showcase your brand.

Display ads cost less per click, although they typically have much lower CTRs and conversion than search ads. Makes sense, right? Search ads attract users with higher intent, because they’re actively searching for your product or service, while display ads are pushed out to people while they’re browsing online for any number of reasons.

Despite this, the reach alone (GDN reaches 90% of all web users) makes display ads a brand awareness-generating tactic worth considering.

And they’re central to both site retargeting and search retargeting campaigns.

Site retargeting: remind prospects you’re still around

Retargeting – also called remarketing in Google Ads – gets your brand back in front of users who have visited your site but leave before completing the desired action.

By embedding a small snippet of code, the site visitor is added to a remarketing list. That means your branded display ad will “follow” users, appearing on other sites they visit within the Google Display Network. This has definitely happened to you.

Search retargeting: attract new prospects searching for products or services like yours

Search retargeting is often touted as a “best of both” of search and display advertising. It enables advertisers to serve display ads to audiences based on their keyword search behavior.

A major benefit is that you’re reaching in-market prospects with branded display ads without paying for expensive clicks in a premium keyword search market.

The biggest difference between search retargeting and site retargeting? Search retargeting attracts new traffic, while site retargeting re-engages previous site visitors.

Combine SEO + SEM to get higher and higher

In some cases, it makes sense to focus on one strategy over the other. When you want to reach a new audience segment fast, test an offer, or jumpstart sales, SEM is it. Other times, the cost just isn’t justified, and relying on SEO makes more sense.

But put SEO and SEM together and you can achieve a symbiotic relationship that really takes your traffic and conversion to new heights.

Strong SEO drives better SEM results

Ensuring your website is fully juiced with original, well-optimized, regularly updated content is critical to your ads earning top placement on the SERPs. Giving users valuable content and a high-quality experience is an important factor in PPC ad ranking.

Double your appearance on the SERPs to establish authority

Let’s say you’ve built up high SEO rankings on a few key search terms. By running a SEM campaign on those same terms, your site can appear in the paid results and the organic search results. This not only increases brand awareness, it signals to searchers that your brand is credible, building trust and affinity.

Use SEM to fill traffic gaps

Once you’re familiar with setting up and optimizing PPC campaigns, it’s a great card to keep in your back pocket. Pull it out when you need to – when traffic’s lagging, when your organic rankings are falling short in competitive keyword markets, or when you just need some short-term results. (But always make sure you’ve got the content to back up those paid search ads!)

Use SEM metrics to guide SEO strategy

SEM ads are easy to track and measure. Go ahead and use that data to tweak your SEO strategies on selecting focus keywords, landing page content, CTAs, and more.

What about Semrush and other search marketing software?

Google Ads is powerful. It can also be a little overwhelming, especially in the beginning. Investing in PPC management software to get the most out of your Google Ads account might make sense.

Semrush is one of the most-used search marketing solutions out there. Semrush includes tools to boost both paid search and SEO strategies: keyword research, keyword rank tracking, competitive research, backlink analysis, SEO site audits, content research, traffic analytics, listing management and social media management.

Moz, SpyFu, Alexa and Serpstat are other top-rated SEM software vendors.

This article on Semrush and its top competitors by analyst group SoftwarePundit gives a great compare-and-contrast overview on features and considerations for investing in paid search software.

Final note: stay on top of Google pivots

Google is known for changing its playbook from time to time, impacting both SEO and SEM activities. For example, Google recently jigged up the way it treats title tags and announced it’s changing some paid ad formats.

MTS has your back – check out this post for further details.

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