A Guide to Search Engine Marketing: What is SEM?

When you’ve got a question, where do you turn? Search engines, right? Or more likely than not, Google! We rely on search engines to find us products, answer questions, give us recipe ideas, and much more.

Search engine marketing, or SEM, is one of the most successful ways to target customers. The objective is to get as close to the top of the search engine results page (SERP) as possible. The higher you appear in pages, the more clicks you receive. (After all, when was the last time you scrolled to page 2 or 3 of Google?)

But what is SEM? Unlike conventional SEO strategies, SEM takes a more comprehensive approach, covering both organic search and sponsored results. 

What is SEM?

Search engine marketing, or SEM, is a digital marketing strategy that aims to reach the top of the search engine results page (SERP) either through paid ads or organic unpaid results. As a general rule, the higher you are to the top, the more visibility (or impressions) your website will receive and as a consequence, the more clicks (traffic) you’ll receive.

Technically, SEM is an umbrella term for all search engine-related marketing. However, SEM pros often use it to refer to paid search marketing. If we’re speaking about organic marketing, we’re talking about search engine optimisation (SEO). (Just bear in mind that I’m using SEM as an umbrella term to mean all marketing in search engines.

Confused by all the jargon? You’re not alone! It can be difficult to know your paid ads from your PPC. Here are some definitions for the components of SEM:

  • Search Engine Optimisation (SEO): The practice of optimising a website to improve its organic or unpaid search engine rankings. SEO involves on-page and off-page techniques, such as keyword research, content creation, link building, and technical optimisations, to increase the visibility of a website in search engine results pages (SERPs).
  • Paid Search Ads: These are advertisements that appear on search engine results pages when users search for specific keywords. Advertisers pay to have their ads displayed prominently.
  • Pay-Per-Click (PPC): A model of internet marketing in which advertisers pay a fee each time one of their ads is clicked. It’s a way of buying visits to your site rather than attempting to earn those visits organically.
  • Cost-Per-Click (CPC): This is the actual price paid by an advertiser for each click in a PPC campaign. CPC is a key metric in measuring the performance and cost-efficiency of a PPC campaign.
  • Ad Auctions: The process by which search engines decide which ads to display and in what order. Advertisers bid on keywords, and the auction determines which ads appear based on factors like bid amount, ad quality, and relevance.

Search Engine Results Page

These components of SEM were gradually introduced as search engines changed. You’ll have noticed that the SERP doesn’t look like it used to. That’s because Google added new sections with profound implications for search engine marketing.

Let’s take a closer look at the SERP:

Initially, Google had one section on the SERP: organic results. This refers to unpaid results that are ranked based on their relevance to the search query alongside hundreds of other ranking factors. Businesses use search engine optimisation (SEO) to boost their web page’s ranking. SEO is a part of SEM but is not the whole story.

Over time, the SERP has evolved. Google introduced additional sections, including paid or sponsored results, video sections, the ‘People also ask’ section, and more. The sponsored results are the other component of SEM.

Always located above the organic results, they’re labelled as “sponsored.” Some sponsored results appear differently. For example, paid results for product searches showcase the product in a grid section that includes details such as the price, customer review, product picture, and more.

Combining organic results and sponsored results helps you:

  • Enhance your website’s visibility
  • Attract a higher volume of traffic
  • Generate more qualified leads
  • Boost revenue
  • Expand your business

SEO and PPC: The Different Types of SEM

Search engine marketing is among the most diverse and comprehensive forms of digital marketing. It covers everything businesses can do to generate more clicks and visitors from search engines.

Generally, it’s split into two sections: search engine optimisation and pay-per-click marketing (or paid search marketing). Despite both appearing on the SERP, the techniques and tactics used to get the best results differ significantly.


Search engine optimisation, or SEO, is the art of optimising your content to appear higher in the organic search results. Because these results are organic, SEO is completely free. However, it can be quite time-consuming which is where cost comes into it. Lots of people assume SEO to be free but actually this isn’t the case. All marketing through Google Search is paid for, be it in time through SEO or through ad spend through Paid Search.

SEO involves creating content – be it blog articles, how-to guides, product descriptions, web content, and more – that relates to a specific keyword(s). Keywords are a proxy for the actual search terms users input into Google and we can get indications of how many people are searching for these terms.

Once upon a time, just stuffing your content with keywords was enough to get you ranked. However, after realising this resulted in low-effort content, Google introduced hundreds of ranking factors to determine how content should be ranked. The exact formula is unknown.

The ranking factors include:

  • Quality of Content
  • Keywords
  • Backlinks
  • Mobile Friendliness
  • Technical SEO (including site architecture, URL structure, etc.)
  • User Experience (UX)
  • On-Page SEO (including title tags, meta descriptions, etc.)

Optimising these factors should result in your content appearing higher up the SERP. Unfortunately, some search terms are just too competitive to rank for – especially when dominated by authoritative sites. It’s not that it can’t be done, but sometimes the cost far outweighs the benefit. That’s where paid search marketing comes in.

Pay Per Click Marketing

Pay-per-click (PPC) marketing, or paid search marketing, involves boosting a webpage to the top of the search results through paid advertisements. As the name suggests, you pay every time someone clicks on your ad.

Because you catapult to the most prominent SERP position, PPC marketing usually delivers faster results than SEO – which can take months to see results. However, on a cost basis, it’s much more expensive. (See what I mean about the time vs. cost element?)

Each PPC ad includes some relevant copy, eye-catching images (for some ads), specific keywords, and other factors. Like SEO, you compete against other results to rank. Google determines which results should appear based on an auction, giving the spot to the highest bidders. But other factors like keyword relevance, quality score, ad extensions, landing page experience, and more also influence the bid’s success.

Here are some of the different types of Google ads for SEM:

Search Ads

Text-based ads appear at the top or bottom of search engine results pages (SERPs) when users search for specific keywords.

Shopping Ads

Product-based ads appear on search engine results pages, often with an image, price, and brief product description. These ads are particularly useful for e-commerce businesses.

Local Ads

Ads that target users based on their geographic location. These are especially beneficial for businesses with physical locations, helping to drive local traffic and increase in-store visits.

Having worked with the team on a UK website build, maintenance and reporting, as well as regular mangement of Google Adwords, and an international SEO project for a global website, I couldn’t recommend enough. I’d recommend over many of the larger agencies I’ve used over the years.

Gerry Johnstone, Service Express

Benefits of Paid SEM for Businesses

Spending thousands on PPC ads might seem like a daunting task. After all, what if you don’t see any results? However, it’s one of the most successful ways to skyrocket your site to the top of the search results and can boost brand awareness and sales.

Other benefits of paid search marketing include:

  1. Immediate Visibility. There’s no lag time between posting the ads and seeing results. As soon as your ad is viewed, you’ll get clicks. Compared to SEO, it’s night and day. You might have to pay, but you also don’t have to wait several months to yield results.
  2. Targeted Reach. You won’t just appear for anybody. Target keywords your buyers search for and use Google’s comprehensive advertising system to optimise for specific demographics. You can even add negative keywords to prevent wasted ad spending on search terms that don’t result in clicks.
  3. Measurable Results. After you’ve launched your ad campaign, monitoring its progress is critical. Google provides numerous metrics to help you evaluate your ad’s performance. These include click-through rates (CTR), cost-per-click (CPC), conversion rate, return on ad spend (ROAS), bounce rate, and much more. So, you can dissect these metrics to discover what you need to change.

Remember, paid search results produce instant results. But, if you want to maximise your ROI, continually refine your strategy.

Benefits of Organic SEM for Businesses

Organic SEM costs pennies compared to PPC, but it does take time. You’ve got to write the content, optimise it, and publish it on your site. Writing good quality content can take hours (even days). Still, for a fraction of the cost, you can see impressive results, positioning your brand as an industry authority but you have to take the long-term view of it.

Other benefits of organic SEM include:

1. Long-Term Results. Once you rank in Google, you can expect to stay there for longer. You won’t have to pay for every click, making it more sustainable and cost-effective over the long term.

2. Best UX. Because user experience is part of the SEO ranking factors, customers usually prefer organic search results over paid results. You can also target long-tail keywords to hone in on a specific demographic, providing highly relevant content.

3. Competitive Advantage. SEO is all about the quality of the content. The better your content, the greater your competitive advantage. In fact, customers often promote exceptional content themselves, becoming your unofficial word-of-mouth brand ambassadors. 

SEO requires patience. You’ve got to keep publishing high-quality content month after month, sure in the knowledge that you’ll see results after several months.

The Secret Advantage of SEO Content

A huge part of SEO is great content. If you produce great content, you can start to rank in Google. However, great content has a secret advantage – brand building. Here’s what I mean by that…. 

In Marketing content is king. Great brands are powered by great content. So, when you focus on creating great content (even from an SEO perspective) what it can do, is help you build your brand. 

This article is an example of that – this article is focused on the search term “what is SEM”. Now, if you Google it, on the first page you’ll find some of the biggest brands and businesses in the SEO space. They’ve been around for decades, they’ve been publishing content on the subject for years, and they have backlinks from huge publications. So it begs the question, why have we produced this content? Well, here are two crucial reasons, we’ve produced it anyway:

  • To build trust with users – it’s unlikely that this article will drive organic traffic. However, we do have other content that does. When these people are on our site, it’s content like this that helps to build trust. Ultimately, it shows that we know what we’re talking about.
  • To fuel other channels – this article, will be sent out across our social media channels, it’ll be sent to our growing email database and it’ll be turned into a video. Why? See point number 1.

It also helps us to start building a moat around our business – to coin a phrase from James Sinclair. What we mean by that is this. Anyone could throw together a website that looks like ours, it isn’t difficult. But, as time goes by, the content we produce across the channels we publish them on, will build our brand, that brand won’t be able to be replicated easily, and it’s for that reason that we do it. Combine it with our results (that also can’t be replicated) and we become more difficult to compete with. 

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Budgeting for SEM

Determining an SEM budget starts with clear business goals and understanding your target audience. What do you want to achieve? Common objectives include:

  • Boost website traffic
  • Generate leads
  • Increase sales
  • Build brand awareness

To manage costs while maximising results, focus on optimising campaigns. Use precise targeting to reach relevant audiences and continuously refine your keyword strategy.

Monitor your Quality Score to ensure ad efficiency and effectiveness – higher quality scores lower PPC costs. Implement A/B testing for ad copies and landing pages to improve performance and reduce wasted spend. Utilise negative keywords to avoid irrelevant clicks and adjust bids based on performance factors like time, location, and device.

Though often seen as free, SEO incurs costs similar to PPC. Effective SEO demands investment in quality content creation, technical optimisation, and link-building strategies. If you’re struggling for time, you might consider hiring a copywriter to create blog articles and product descriptions or opt for a professional SEO agency. While this increases your SEM budget, the results speak for themselves.

Comparing SEM with Other Digital Marketing Strategies

Search engine marketing covers both SEO and PPC. But just because they’re under the same umbrella doesn’t mean they require the same strategies. Let’s compare these strategies:

Other Digital Marketing Strategies

The best results usually come from integrating SEM with other digital marketing strategies. The most obvious way to combine SEM with other marketing strategies is via content marketing. Creating high-quality blog posts, guides, eBooks, and even videos can skyrocket your site to the top of the search results. Even PPC ads benefit from compelling content – be it a landing page or product description.

But that’s not the only option. For example, you can use PPC ads to retarget users who have previously engaged with your social media posts or visited your social profiles. Because these users are already interested in your brand, the ROI from such campaigns tends to be much higher.

Another potential combo strategy is using paid SEM to understand real-time search volumes and then using this data to build an SEO strategy. Paid SEM helps identify keywords that convert, then through content we start ranking that for those terms. Genius, right?

Speak with our team by booking a free consultation.

FAQs about SEM

Which is Harder, SEO or PPC?

Both SEO and PPC can be quite challenging – especially for people with no past experience of digital marketing. PPC does yield more immediate results; however, businesses can find themselves haemorrhaging money. On the other hand, SEO generally produces a better ROI with minimal expertise.

How Do I Get Started with Search Engine Marketing?

If you’re new to SEM, we advise talking to a professional. The best strategy changes from brand to brand. Some brands will benefit from a paid search strategy, while others should focus their efforts on producing SEO blog posts.

As a rule, start by optimising your existing site. Add a steady stream of blog posts to get the SEO ball rolling. You can then launch a small PPC campaign to get to grips with the auctioning system. Just keep your budget low so you don’t invertedly spend thousands.

What is Search Marketing?

Search marketing is another term for search engine marketing. It involves targeting the organic and paid results through PPC ads and SEO web content.

How Do Search Engines Work?

Search engines use bots called “crawlers” to scour the internet for new web pages. These are then indexed and catalogued based on the content topic, keywords, and other factors.

When a user enters a search query, Google’s algorithm rapidly compares the query to its catalogue of web pages, determining which content is most relevant. The content is ranked according to hundreds of ranking factors.

Why is SEM Important?

Search engines are where your customers go for answers. Every stage of the buyer’s journey involves search engines – whether it’s learning about an industry, comparing solutions, or looking for a particular product. If you’re not ranking in search engines, you’re missing out on a huge chunk of the market.

What is the Difference Between SEM, SEO and PPC?

SEO and PPC are just two parts of SEM. SEO focuses on improving your ranking in the organic search results, while PPC is focused on the paid results. Together, these two aspects encompass the full range of search engine results.

Final Thoughts

So, what is SEM? It’s a one-stop strategy for driving traffic from search engines to your website. From building brand awareness to generating leads, search engine marketing is the go-to way to succeed online.

There are two parts to SEM: search engine optimisation and pay-per-click marketing. Most brands engage in a little bit of both. As a general rule, SEO should form the bedrock of your SEM strategy over the long term. It’s simply more cost-efficient. However, you can kickstart your campaign with some PPC ads. (PPC ads are also advisable if your SEO keywords are too competitive.)

Feeling overwhelmed? We understand. Few business owners have the time or experience to get the full benefits from search engine marketing. That’s where we come in.

Book your free consultation to explore how we can help your brand. CRDone has helped tons of companies skyrocket their search engine traffic for both organic and paid results. Are you our next success story?

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Contact the author
Carl Darnell
Founder and Director

My passion lies in helping growing businesses achieve their goals by leveraging the power of digital channels. I strive to bring a fresh perspective and innovative strategies to the table to help brands reach new heights.

Carl Darnell
Founder and Director

My passion lies in helping growing businesses achieve their goals by leveraging the power of digital channels. I strive to bring a fresh perspective and innovative strategies to the table to help brands reach new heights.

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