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What is Search Engine Marketing?

Angie Tran

Content Marketing Manager @ AdRoll

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You’ve probably heard the terms “search engine optimization” and “SEO” thrown around a million times, but what about search engine marketing (SEM)? Let’s go over the difference between the two, whether your business needs to use both, and the advantages of search engine marketing. 

What’s Search Engine Marketing?

SEM marketing is the practice of gaining traffic and visibility from search engine results pages (or SERPs) using both paid and unpaid efforts. It’s when advertisers bid on keywords that users might search for on sites such as Google and Bing. You could bid on keywords related to your business’s services or products so that your ads would pop up for those search queries. These ads are called pay-per-click (PPC) ads and come in many forms. 

SEM marketing is extremely powerful and unique from other marketing methods because it enables you to put your ads out in front of already-interested customers who are actively looking to purchase. 


SEO and SEM are often confused with one another. The way to distinguish the two is to look at SEO as “earned” traffic and SEM as “bought” traffic. When businesses optimize for SEO, they’re not paying Google for traffic or clicks; they earn the top ranking in search results by having the most relevant content for a keyword search. With SEM, businesses bid on keywords and pay Google to display their ads when people search for those keywords. 

In other words, SEO is a cost-effective way to focus on top of the funnel (TOFU) leads, while SEM zones in on bottom of the funnel (BOFU) consumers. This is why it’s beneficial to have both in your marketing strategy. 

How SEM Works

Imagine it like an auction — except instead of rare antiques and paintings, you’re bidding on keywords and how much you’ll pay for clicks. You can shop around search engine marketplaces such as Google or Bing. Your search ad is triggered by the words or combination of keywords someone types into the search box.

Note that the highest bidder isn’t always the winner. Instead, search engines determine which ads to show based on how relevant your ads, keywords, and website are to users. 

Selecting the Right Keywords

Keywords are the determining factor of your PPC campaigns because they decide who sees your ad and who doesn’t. It doesn’t matter how great your paid ads are — if you’re not showing them to the right people, they won’t perform. This is why refining your keyword management strategy is a must, so you don’t have to do the old bid n’ pray and waste valuable dollars in the process. 

Here’s a brief guide on how to choose the right keywords to bid on:

Start by brainstorming. Create a long list of keywords that are most relevant to what consumers are looking for. And we’re not talking just individual keywords, either —  you have to think about how people would phrase their search queries. Include both long-tail keywords (search terms with three or more words) and short-tail keywords (search terms with one or two words). 

There are pros and cons to both: While long-tail keywords have a lower search volume, the search intent is a lot more explicit. Short-tail keywords have a higher search volume, but less clear intent. This is why it’s good to have a mix of short-tail and long-tail keywords on your list. 

Don’t forget to do research on other types of keywords, such as related terms, generic terms, brand terms, and competitor terms. An additional tip is to add the location of your business, such as the city, to your keyword phrases. 

Ask yourself whether your keywords are relevant: To narrow down the list of your keywords, think about searchers’ intent. Are they looking to buy? Are they just researching? You can make a guess where people are in their buyer’s journey by separating vague terms (ex. Men’s jackets) from more specific ones (ex. Men’s jackets from Banana Republic). Make sure you that when you’re selecting keywords, to match them with particular times in the buyer’s journey. Then, tailor the type of content your ads link to accordingly — for example, a blog post that broadly examines the most trendy jackets of the season would be for TOFU users. 

Also, look into the search volume of the keywords. If the search volume is too low, your content may not be displayed to many people. If it’s too high, this might mean that you’re fighting off a lot of competition. Look for words that meet the happy medium. 

Look for the right tools. While sites like Google can give you search volume data, if you want a more accurate read on search volumes, use keyword research tools such as SEMRush or Ubersuggest to get started. 

For a more comprehensive look into SEO and SEM, read more here (there’s also a complimentary template that you can use!)

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