SEM 101: How It’s Different Than SEO
For digital marketing professionals, organic search drives the most valuable traffic to a business’ website. Search engine optimization (SEO) is the practice of optimizing the pages on your website so that they rank high in search engine results pages (SERPs) and drive traffic to your site.
Organic search is valuable for digital marketing because:
It’s more cost-effective. The traffic you earn from SEO effectively costs your business nothing, other than the time it took to make the web pages visible to search engines.
Organic traffic from SEO also tends to be of higher quality. Searchers start with a clear intention when they type in a keyword or keyword phrase. And if your result matches their intention, they’re more likely to see what they want and click on the result to visit your web page.
Organic search traffic generated through SEO is also sustainable. Once a page ranks high on SERPs, you should be able to maintain that ranking over time.
Organic search results also lend your business higher credibility, since online searchers trust those results more than paid/PPC results.
With all that said, it’s not always possible to have key web pages rank on the first page on SERPs—especially for non-branded keywords.
(Reminder: Branded keywords contain the name of your business or a product you sell. For example, “Nike” or “Air Jordans” are branded keywords. Non-branded keywords relate to your products or services but don’t include your company’s name. For example, “basketball shoes” is a non-branded keyword phrase.)
Search Engine Marketing (SEM)
If there are gaps in your SEO strategy, a good complement is search engine marketing (SEM). SEM is a type of paid advertising that is often used synonymously with pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. For the sake of this article, we’re going to use the term SEM to include paid search traffic, primarily from Google Ads, the most popular PPC advertising system available today.
SEM is a form of digital marketing in which advertisers pay a fee each time one of their ads (usually in Google) is clicked on a SERP. This is like buying visits to your site, rather than attempting to “earn” those visits organically via SEO.
How does Google determine which ads will show up when someone starts a search via an ad auction? The two primary factors that influence the Google Ads auction are:
1. How much you bid
2. Quality score, determined by the quality and relevancy of your ads and the landing pages to which your ads lead.
The higher your bid and the better your quality score, the higher your ad appears in the paid results.
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How To Set Up Google Ads
How should a digital marketing professional integrate SEM into their marketing strategy?
Step 1: Identify which keywords are most important to your business. Ideally, your branded keywords already rank high in SERPs. If that’s the case, focus on your non-branded keywords and make a list. (You can use Google Search Console or tools like SEMRush to get an idea of where you rank for which keywords. You can also measure the typical monthly volume for each keyword phrase; typically, those with higher volume are more valuable, but will also cost more money).
Step 2: Group keywords into related buckets. For example, you could have a bucket of branded keywords, tied to your company’s name and its branded products (like “Samsung” and “Galaxy”). You should also have buckets of non-branded keywords you want to rank for (like “smartphone” and “best smartphone”). These buckets can become different ad groups within Google Ads.
Step 3: Set up a landing page(s). While it’s tempting to direct ads to existing pages on your website, conversion rates will usually be higher specifically designed landing pages— preferably a different landing page for each ad group.
Step 4: Create a campaign. A campaign is the broad outline of the suite of Google Ads that you will run. To set up Google Ads that appear above organic search results, select “search campaign.”
Step 5: Set up Ad Groups. Using the keywords buckets, set up different Ad Groups within your campaign. One Ad Group could focus on branded keywords; another could include a set of related non-branded keywords. Your Ad Groups should be grouped so that you can target relevant keywords that send traffic to targeted landing pages.
Step 6: Target keywords in each Ad Group. To do this, add the relevant keywords to each ad group. These are the terms that will trigger Google to show your ads to the searchers who use those terms. You can set these ads as broad match, phrase match, or an exact match. Broad match will show ads to searchers who use terms broadly related to your keywords, while the exact match will only show ads that exactly match the words entered into Google. Different campaigns, terms, and products will benefit from different types of matching.
For example, broad matching for the keywords “low-carb diet plan” would lead the Google algorithm to show ads for people who searched using terms broadly related to those keywords, such as “low-carb diets” or “carb-free foods.”
For phrase matching, the algorithm will show ads to people who search for keywords that include the meanings of the initial keywords. For example, “lawn mowing service” ads would also be shown for searches for “hire company to mow the lawn” or “lawn mowing service near me.”
Exact matches are more precise, showing results for searches that almost exactly match the core phrase. For example, if the exact match keywords are “shoes for men,” Google would return ads for “shoes men” or “men shoe,” but not for “shoes for boys” or “mens tennis shoes.”
Entering negative keywords will ensure your ads are not shown to searchers looking for similar but unrelated terms. Like other keywords, these can be designated as broad, phrases or exact matches. For example, if you are advertising wine glasses on Google Ads, you would probably want to add “reading” as a negative keyword, so your ad doesn’t show up for people looking online for reading glasses.
Step 7: Write the ads. The ads you compose, which can include headlines, descriptions, and extensions, should closely match the keywords in the Ad Group. So, an ad group built around keywords such as “luxury homes for sale” or “high end houses for sale” should include similar terms in the ads themselves. These keywords should also echo the language used on the landing pages so that the content on all three (keyword, ad, and landing page) aligns.
Google allows advertisers to draft multiple versions of ad copy, including as many as 15 headlines and four descriptions for each ad. The Google Ad algorithm will then mix and match different headlines and descriptions to find the best combinations. While it can seem like a lot of work to draft 15 different headlines, they will provide Google with more options to find the best-performing ad copy.
Step 8: Launch the campaigns. Once you’ve set up the ads and the landing pages, you’re ready to launch your campaigns. Deciding how much to budget for the ads can be tricky to do before the ads are set because the CTR and conversion rates are unknown. But the Google Keyword Planner is an excellent way to estimate budgets.
You can also establish target audiences within Google Ads. Among the most common ways to use this feature is by geography. Google Ads allows advertisers to only show their ads to users in specific geographic areas (states, cities, etc.).
Step 9: Monitor your results and adjust. Almost immediately, Google Ads will offer a set of recommendations to improve your PPC campaign. Not all of these recommendations will make sense. For example, Google may recommend adding a specific keyword phrase that it thinks will expand the reach of your ads, but you know would not match your business. But reviewing the recommendations regularly will offer you ways to improve and enhance your existing campaigns, even ad copy.
In addition to evaluating the performance of the ads themselves, be sure to also review the results from your landing pages. Most importantly measure how many leads you are getting from your PPC marketing campaign and determine how much those leads are worth. Ideally, the value of the leads will far exceed the cost of your ads.
In other words, be sure you are calculating ROI for your ad campaign. If your costs exceed your revenue, you will likely need to adjust your online marketing efforts. That could mean reducing your budget, improving the ads themselves, adjusting the keywords, or making the landing page simpler and easier to submit a form from.
SEO vs SEM Summary
As noted earlier, the best website traffic tends to come from organic search results (SEO). But some keywords are simply too difficult to rank organically on SERPs. That’s where search engine marketing (SEM) in the form of Google Ads comes into play. By carefully planning a digital marketing strategy that includes both SEO and SEM, you can increase your online visibility and drive more converting customers to your website. These dual approaches are not competitors but rather complements of each other.