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What is SEM? - Guide to Search Engine Marketing (Updated)

In the world of paid marketing, you might have observed that there are a lot of acronyms—SEO, SEM, CRO, PPC, and even SMO. Let’s be honest here; it gets a little confusing to keep a track of all these terms, right? But a Digital Marketing Certification will make things simpler and easy to remember.

Search engine marketing (SEM) is an efficient way to reach out to new customers, which eventually helps drive revenue. It is proven to be one of the most effective ways to grow and scale a business online.

In this blog on “What is SEM?”, you will get to know everything about SEM. This blog will cover the following aspects of SEM:

Check out our SEM video tutorial on YouTube designed especially for beginners:

Let’s begin this blog with an introduction to SEM

What is SEM? The Ultimate Guide to search engine marketing

As previously mentioned, SEM stands for search engine marketing which is a part of Digital Marketing skills. Even though the term feels like it has a broad meaning, it actually has a very specific use; it has to do with search engines and paid search techniques to be precise. Out of the many paid search engine marketing tools, the most common is Google Ads; other sites, such as Yahoo or Bing, can also be used if needed.

SEM makes full use of the power of a search engine, such as Google, to ensure that the marketing content reaches customers at the right time of requirement to help convert a prospect into a sale.

If you are wondering what is PPC, then here is something interesting for you.

Search Engine Marketing goes by many names, and here are some of the most commonly used ones:

  • SEM (of course!)
  • Pay-per-click (PPC Marketing)
  • Paid search advertisements

These terms can be used interchangeably.

When discussing “What is SEM?”, there are many other terms that you need to understand as well. The following are the important ones:


The number of times your advertisement is visible on a search engine. This does not include if people saw it or interacted with it.

Cost Per Click (CPC)

It indicates the amount paid when a person clicks on your advertisement, which was posted online.

Click-through Rate (CTR)

It is the number of times customers have landed on your website after seeing your advertisement. Note that there is no compulsion that the customer should have clicked on the advertisement to get onto your website; just seeing the advertisement and landing on your page by other means also adds up to CTR.

Cost Per Million (CPR)

It is a way to pay for the search engine advertisement that has been put up for you. Amid a lot of factors, such as budget, reachability, and goal, CPM is used to calculate the amount that you have to pay to have a million impressions on the advertisement.

Next in this blog is the comparison between search engine marketing (SEM) and social media paid search advertising.

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Search Engine Marketing vs Search Engine Optimization: SEM vs SEO

Search Engine Optimization, or SEO as it is commonly called, is another set of methodologies that are used to drive traffic to your website by helping it rank higher on the search engines. SEM (search engine marketing) and SEO are different from each other, but you must know that they can also work together to achieve a common goal.

Let us consider the situation where a person searches, “how to learn Python”. If you search on Google, it uses an algorithm that finds out the best websites to display for this keyphrase and ranks them from best to better to good.

SEO is all about putting your website at the top of the search results to make Google determine that your page is the best to answer the question that has been searched.

If you have a web page that has content developed around a keyphrase and if it ranks among the first few items on the first page in a search, it means that you have a good Content Marketing strategy and that the audience likes the work, among many other things. The following are the other factors that play a role in SEO:

  • The time it takes to load the website completely
  • The analysis is based on the users clicking on the website
  • The interaction of customers with the website
  • How long do people stay on the website?
  • Are you completely catering to the search?
  • Analyzing if the website is trustable?

The concept of backlinks is used to determine if Google can trust your website or not. Here is a simple explanation of backlinks. Website X has an external link to Website Y. This means that Website Y has a backlink from Website X. This link can be in the form of an image or anchor text link or something else. This is organic, which means that you are not paying anything for it.

Now, the situation with Search Engine Marketing is a little different. You can bid for the “how to learn Python” keyphrase, and if you win the bid, your web page will show up on the first page of Google almost instantaneously.

SEO helps to make your website fast, while SEM is used to make it rank. If your website is not fast or user-friendly, then using SEM will be a waste of money. It is as simple as that! SEO, along with Google Quality Score, plays a key role in the price that users will be paying per click. If people who visit your website leave with a bad experience, then Google will charge you higher prices per click.

SEO is a long-term gain that will bring about organic search clicks, while Search Engine Marketing is paid that brings quick clicks and helps you expand your click-based impressions rapidly.

Let’s take a look at some of the key differences between SEM and SEO:

Search ResultsIncludes “Ad” and uses ad extensionsShown as organic search result; features snippets
CostYou have to pay every time a user clicksYou don’t have to pay anything
VisibilityIs visible to only the target audienceIs visible to everyone
ResultsResults are quickResults can take time
Click-through Rate (CTR)LowHigh

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) Strategies vs Social Media Advertising

Social media advertising and SEM are two different concepts. In social media advertising, ads are customized and shown to every customer separately. It helps in adding a lot of value to the brand by:

  • Being an easy way to target potential customers based on their needs
  • Catering to the customers’ interests
  • Provisioning products to the customers’ location
  • Analyzing and understanding customer buying behavior

On the other hand, SEM mainly works on the concept of key phrases. These phrases are used to cater to a specific set of customers whenever they make a search on any of the search engines out there.

It is important to know that SEM and social media advertising are not the same. However, they can go hand in hand and help drive more revenue as well as boost brand awareness. Once your brand is established, it should come as no surprise that people will see your social media advertisements and click on them because, now, they are aware of your brand’s presence.

The other way might work too—customers see your ads on social media marketing platforms and end up on your page by means of targeted keywords. This is an advantage of working with Search Engine Marketing; it makes it easier to incorporate other methodologies as well to effectively help drive the digital marketing campaign forward.

The next important comparison will give you some clarity with regard to the confusion that occurs when one talks about SEM and SEO.

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What is the Cost of SEM?

In this blog on What is SEM? We are pretty sure that many readers here are curious about the pricing when it comes to SEM. Well, it is more complex than it seems.

If your SEM campaign is effective and if customers are liking your product, brand, content, etc., Google will drop the prices and help you achieve higher visibility at a lower cost.

However, instead of this dynamic pricing, you can also opt for a set-and-forget pricing structure. Here, Google will issue small increments in the price, and this goes hand in hand with what the other companies are doing as well. At the end of it, either way, SEM is a highly effective way to drive amazing value via good return on investment (ROI).

Read our salary study on PPC Analyst in our statistical blog on PPC Analyst Salary.

So, how does one keep the costs low?

The problem is, that many small-scale marketers feel that they are paying a lot of money and getting a lot less in return. This could be because of the fact that they do not really understand how they can set a maximum budget for AdWords. The following are some of the important points that you must consider when working on keeping the costs low:

  • Avoid overbidding
  • Focus on the right keywords
  • Work on increasing Google Quality Score
  • Plan and research the customer base extensively
  • Get a good campaign management
  • Work on optimizing the user experience

Also Read: Best SEO Tools to Improve Organic Rankings

Next in this blog, let’s take a look at the major benefits of using SEM.

Major Benefits of Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

There are numerous benefits of SEM to build an effective marketing portfolio. Here are some of the ways how SEM can benefit your brand:

Immediate Brand Awareness

As mentioned above, SEO and organic social media traffic take some time to show results. With Google, it can take about a year to scale up in quality and rankings.

Using SEM here will give you a guaranteed spot on the first page. Going from less or no visibility to being on the first page of search results, can attract a lot of attention quickly.

Instant Revenue Generation

With the correct campaign planning, along with the right advertisement copy, sales can come in on the same day! This can be quick and easy with a service such as Google Ads.

However, one thing to note is that it takes some effort to get the right ROI when it comes to SEM.

Business Growth

SEM is highly scalable, and it is easy for even small-scale marketers to get started; although, it is vital to see what works and what doesn’t before investing money into SEM.

Gradually, as the revenue goes up, the number of ads can be increased, and this drives the business to success. Furthermore, ads that are not working well can be removed and adjusted for efficiency. A daily budget of as low as US$8 can do wonders to a brand’s establishment.

Good Reachability

Think about it, over 3.5 billion people are online, and 92 percent of these online appearances start with a search engine. Search engines are the biggest source driving traffic to websites.

Without any regard for what the product is or what your brand is, the journey starts online. Making the right use of this will ensure that you can drive more revenue. The demand here is that people come to search engines because they need something. Being there to deliver it and being trustworthy will take you a long way in your goal of brand building and business growth.

Preparing for a Digital Marketing Interview! Check out our Digital Marketing Interview Questions.

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) Terminologies and Platforms

There are certain Search Engine marketing terminologies that you need to learn before you can start with SEM. Let’s start by talking about SEM platforms.

Platforms for SEM

SEM platforms are search engines where brands can place search ads, which are displayed when a user performs a search. The most common SEM platforms are:

  • Google Ads: Google Ads is the most popular SEM platform. Over a billion Google searches are performed on a daily basis. This could help you get exposure to a large audience.
  • Bing Ads: Bing Ads has made a claim that it can reach about three million more users than Google. This claim is based on Bing serving ads on its partner sites such as Yahoo and MSN. Bing Ads can help you connect to users who don’t use Google for internet searches.

Are you looking to create a Digital Marketing Funnel, check out our blog!

SEM Keyword Types

SEM keywords are words or phrases that you would target in your SEM campaigns. Whenever a user searches for that particular keyword, they will see your ad. There are four types of SEM keywords:

Type of SEM KeywordDescriptionExample
Broad MatchIt targets the variations of a term; singular or plural forms, similar phrases, misspellings, synonyms, etc.For the target keyword digital marketing, it would also target online marketing, digital marketer, etc.
Phrase MatchIt targets an exact phrase; any other phrase that adds words before or after the target keyword is also includedFor the target keyword DevOps Developer, it would also target who is a DevOps Developer, hire a DevOps Developer, etc.
Exact MatchIt targets very closely related words to the target term; misspellings, abbreviations, reordered words, singular or plural forms, etc.For the target keyword personal assistant, it would also target personal assistants, personal assistance, etc.
NegativeIt excludes the terms you don’t want to target; variations of the other types of keywords that you don’t want to includeFor the target keyword digital marketer, it may include digital marketer salary, digital marketer training, etc.

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SEM Targeting Types

Targeting keywords help tell a search platform when your ads should be shown. With SEM targeting, you can add more parameters to when your ad would show and who it would show to. There are four SEM targeting types:

SEM Targeting TypesDescription
Location TargetingThis makes sure that your ad is only shown to people from a certain geographical area
Ad Schedule TargetingThis makes sure your ads are only shown during certain times of the day or on particular days of the week
Demographic TargetingThis makes sure your ad is shown to people belonging to a certain demographic based on gender and age
Device TargetingThis makes sure that your ad is only shown to people on specific devices

Structure of SEM Account

The structure of your SEM account indicates how your SEM campaign has been organized and set up. It helps group all the relevant themes and keywords together so that you can create a campaign within your account. The following chart from Google shows the hierarchy of the Account Structure and how it works:

Let’s take a look at the different components of an SEM Account Structure:

CampaignsCampaigns have their own unique goals, bid strategy, targeting settings, and budget. Campaigns are used to structure accounts into bigger themesFor example, a platform that matches digital marketers with clients might have two campaigns; one would target the clients and the other would target the digital marketers
Ad GroupsAd groups within a campaign help break that campaign into more themes. You shouldn’t exceed 7 to 10 ad groups in a campaignFor example, the campaign targeting digital marketers would have two ad groups. One would target full-time digital marketers and the other would target part-time digital marketers
Keywords and AdsEvery ad group contains its own set of keywords and ads. These help target the specific theme of the ad group. There should be no more than 20 keywords and 2-3 ads in an ad group.For example, the ad group that is targeting full time digital marketers will contain ads and keywords that speak to full time digital marketers, while the ad group that targets part-time digital marketers would use ads and keywords that would speak to part-time digital marketer

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SEM Ad Copy

An SEM ad copy looks like organic search results. It has options to show more information. A standard ad format contains two headlines, a description, and a URL. Here’s a list of things that you can add to it:

  • Sitelink extensions
  • Call extensions
  • Callout extensions
  • Location extensions
  • Message extensions
  • Price extensions
  • Advertiser ratings
  • Structured snippet extensions

SEM Ad Auction

Just setting up an SEM campaign doesn’t ensure that your ad will be shown every time someone searches for your keyword. All SEM platforms work on a system that decides when and if your ad will appear, and how it competes with other brands targeting the same keywords. This is called SEM ad auction. It is based on three factors:

Max CPC BidThis is the maximum money you can pay when someone clicks on your ad
Quality ScoreThis is the rating given to your ad by the SEM platform. It is based on factors such as CTR, relevance of keywords, relevance of landing page, and previous ad performance
Ad RankThis is the rating given to your ad by the SEM platform. It determines where your ad will show on the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs).

These factors are crucial to deciding which ad will win the SEM ad auction.

Ad Rank

The above formula shows that ads that have a better Quality Score can perform better than brands that bid more money, i.e., Max CPC Bid.

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How to Improve SEM Results: Keys to Creating Powerful Campaigns

You need to conduct a lot of research before you can even start working on your campaign strategy. You’ll have to continue with the research even when your campaign is running. The following are some things that can help you maximize your budget, optimize your campaigns, and get maximum conversions:

Keyword Research and Analysis for your SEM Campaign

You have to make sure that you choose the best keywords for your campaigns. For this, you need to conduct keyword research to:

  • Identify terms that are used by your target audience. You can use a tool to help identify the most popular phrases used by your target audience for search purposes.
  • Find terms that can work at the end of your sales funnel. You need to identify buying keywords with the highest conversion rate that can target customers at the bottom of the purchase funnel. You can use a tool to identify the keywords that drive the most purchases to your competitors.
  • Gather terms that can fit your budget. You need to find keywords that would contribute to a good ROI with their cost-per-click.

Create Compelling Ads

Unless your ads can compel users to click on them, your campaign remains ineffective. There are certain things you can do while creating ads in order to make them compelling:

  • You need to use the keyword in the ad copy.
  • The solution or benefit, which you’re offering, has to be clearly communicated to the user.
  • You need to include all prices and promotions whenever they are relevant.
  • You must also include a good call to action.
  • You are advised to use ad extensions.

Improve Accuracy by Optimizing SEM Campaign

You need to keep optimizing your SEM campaign strategies to improve accuracy. Here are some things that you can do for the same:

  • Add More Relevant Keywords: You need to keep reviewing the campaigns and keep adding any new suggested keywords.
  • Set Negative Keywords: You need to review your campaign and remove any keywords that are driving the traffic you need. You can add these keywords and any irrelevant terms to the negative keywords list.
  • Use A/B Testing: SEM offers you faster feedback on the job you’ve done. You can use that to create A/B testing for your strategies. You can alter your campaigns to use the best combination of keywords, ads, targeting, landing pages, etc.
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According to what has been discussed in this “What is SEM?” blog, be it SEO, SEM, or any other fancy three-letter acronym, each of these has a very important role in helping your brand and product(s).

Making use of SEM will effectively give you a head start in launching your platform and getting ahead of the competition. It has been a foundational entity in the popularity of many of the famous products and brands that exist today.

We believe it is high time that people saw the high ROI possible with SEM and adapted it to make the best of the establishment and thrive in this world of competition.

On the same note, it is vital that you understand and establish a plan to use SEM wisely. If done wrong, you might face a situation of more spending and obtaining fewer results. A thorough understanding of SEM is always advantageous as discussed. With this blog, we hope we were able to completely answer the questions—what is search engine marketing, and what is SEM in digital marketing?

What do you think about SEM? Let us know in the comments below!

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