What is SEM?

Why should you read this guide?

Learn what search engine marketing (SEM) is, why it’s important, and how it has changed over time.

Discover how Google Ads works and how to set up and manage campaigns within the platform.

Find out the five most common mistakes search engine marketers make so you can maximize your campaign ROI.

Explore what the future of SEM may look like as the advertising industry continues to evolve.

What is Search Engine Marketing (SEM)?

Search engine marketing, or SEM, is a digital marketing strategy used to increase the visibility of a website in search engine results pages (SERPs). It can include search engine optimization (SEO), paid advertising, link building, and more. In general, it usually refers to paid search advertising.

Search engine marketing is one of the most effective ways to promote your products and grow your business. By presenting someone with an ad that’s directly related to what they’re searching for at the moment of intent, you’re reaching a highly receptive audience. Plus, if done right, it can be very cost-effective.

The quantifiable data SEM provides on ad performance is another reason why it’s a necessity for digital marketers. This info allows advertisers to better understand their return on ad spend (ROAS) and make more informed decisions.
Now that you get the picture of the benefits SEM can bring to your business, let’s quickly dive into the differences between SEM and SEO.


SEM refers to paid search marketing, while Search engine optimization (SEO) refers to organic search traffic. With SEO, businesses earn search rankings by having the most relevant content for a given keyword.

Although SEO is a powerful way to drive top-of-funnel, the rules and algorithms constantly shift and there are no set guidelines for marketers to follow. It takes a lot of time and effort to earn page-one ranking for the terms you’re focusing on. The process includes content creation, backlink generation, technical optimization, and more. Though it takes hard work, it pays off in the long run to have a solid SEO strategy.

Search engine marketing, on the other hand, deals with paid placements. It’s a straightforward and cost-effective way to get in front of potential customers. If you bid on the right keywords, have an enticing ad, a good Quality Score, and a personalized landing page, you can generate business almost immediately.

While there are many types of paid search ads, this guide will focus on Google Ads.

How to Use Google Ads for Your SEM Campaigns

Advertisers find Google Ads useful because they can create and run audience-targeted ads.

To create a paid ad on Google Ads, you first need to create a Google Ads account and set up a campaign. Once the campaign is set up, you can create ad groups and write ad copy. The ad copy should be relevant and compelling to the target audience and include a clear call to action (CTA). You can add images, videos, and other media to ads to make them more engaging.

With Google Ads, you can target audiences by location, demographics, interests, and behaviors. Keywords and other targeting options help you reach people most likely to have interest in your products or services.

For example, this is what a typical search ad looks like:

Along with audience targeting, Google Ads tracks performance like impressions and clicks. Savvy marketers use this data to optimize campaigns and improve performance over time.

Other ways to optimize your Google ads for SEM campaigns include:

  • Using negative keywords: Exclude certain words or phrases to ensure ads are only shown to relevant audiences.
  • Implementing ad extensions: Add extra information to ads, such as location, phone number, or site links. Ad extensions can make ads more informative and increase the click-through rate (CTR). For example, call extensions feature your contact number with the ad, so visitors can call if they have questions. Adding a phone number with your ad increases visitors’ trust in your service.

  • A/B testing: Try out ad variations and see which ones perform best to help optimize ads for better results.
  • Remarketing: Target people who have previously visited your website or interacted with your brand. This is an effective way to bring back potential customers who are more likely to convert.
  • Smart Bidding: Optimize bids in real time by allowing Google Ads to automate the bid management process. This can help to boost the performance of campaigns and achieve better results at a lower cost.
  • Utilizing Google Analytics and Google Ads Integration: Gain insights into the performance of your website and campaigns to make optimizations based on data.

  • Utilizing Google Ads API: Automate, programmatically manage, and optimize campaigns.
  • Utilizing Google Ads Editor: Create, edit, and manage campaigns offline with this free tool. Great for efficiently working on large campaigns.

Connect all ads to relevant landing pages

A landing page is a standalone page created to fulfill a single purpose. Landing pages are where campaigns get conversions like sales, signups, downloads, or registrations.

When your ad connects to a relevant landing page, you’re ensuring the visitor gets the answer to their search from a distraction-free page. While your homepage serves multiple objectives, a landing page focuses on one goal. This makes it easier for visitors to convert for the given offer.

By connecting your ad to a dedicated landing page, you ensure the visitor only sees the offer you talked about in your ad. Thus, establishing relevance and improving your chances of conversions.
Let’s look at this example of ad-to-page relevance from Jira. The ad mentions project management, agile functionality, and a free trial:

This is the landing page users are brought to after clicking the ad:

The landing page also showcases the free trial, project management capabilities, and agile planning features. These echoes from the ad reassure visitors they are in the right place.

When you connect ads with relevant landing pages, you get an above-average status in the landing page experience category. This helps you get higher quality scores and increase your ad rank.

Search Engine Marketing Mistakes to Avoid

While SEM should be an integral part of any business’ marketing and advertising strategy, you have to do it right to get the results you want.

Let’s take a look at five of the most common SEM mistakes marketers make so you know what to avoid.

1. Not researching your target market

If you don’t understand your target market and what they care about, you won’t be able to craft ads that resonate with them. Remember, the point of a landing page is to target a specific audience with a powerful message.

What does this mean for you? Understand the language your audience uses and write copy that speaks directly to them. Set up interviews with current customers and prospects. Find out what they value about your product or service, what their pain points are, and how your product addresses them.

Look at who your competition is targeting and the language they’re using. Think about how you can position your product to stand out from the competition. Do you have features your competitors don’t? Superior customer support? Identify what makes you different and what resonates with your target audience. This will increase your CTR and ultimately boost sales.

2. Not considering user intent

User intent refers to what the visitor was planning to do when they began a search or clicked a link. Considering user intent can help you determine the thought patterns behind certain keyword phrases.

User intent is typically divided into three categories:

  • 1. Navigational: The user is trying to access a specific website
  • 2. Informational: The user is looking to collect information about a specific subject
  • 3. Transactional: The user is ready to buy

To demonstrate user intent and how you should plan your SEM campaigns around it, let’s take the fictional example of a company called “Pretty Pages.” Pretty Pages is a tool that helps designers collaborate on projects.

When a potential customer of Pretty Pages searches for the phrase “what’s the best way to collaborate on design projects,” the user intent is at the informational stage. They are probably still searching for the best solution and aren’t ready to buy yet. Landing pages connected with this keyword should lead the user to a page that is educational.

Now, if the potential customer does a search for the query “is Pretty Pages the best tool for design collaboration,” you know that the customer is inclined to buy soon and has transactional user intent. Your landing page at this stage should get to the point and tell them why you are the best in the business, and then direct towards your personalized CTA.

Once you know which keywords describe which type of intent, you can target that intent in your campaigns and landing pages.

3. Setting and forgetting it

To maximize the ROI from your SEM campaigns, you need to check on them at least once a week. Just because you can automate the process, doesn’t mean you should. Otherwise, you might end up spending a ton of money on advertising without any results to show for it.

When you first set up a campaign, the keywords you choose are a guess. Even with keyword research, you have no way of knowing which terms will actually generate traffic and make a profit. You’ll need to track your results to confirm you’re using the right keywords and make changes accordingly. You should also add negative keywords and experiment with match types.

Check your bids regularly. Increase bids for strong performers to ensure you rank on the first page of results, while lowering bids for poor performers.

Finally, test your messaging and copy in your ads. Do you get better results from having a witty, clever slogan, or a direct benefit statement? Test your CTA. You’ll only be able to improve your ads performance by monitoring your results and making changes when necessary.

4. Incomplete tracking

Make sure you set up conversion tracking in Google Ads or whatever platform you’re using. If you aren’t tracking and monitoring results, you’ll have no idea which ads are working and which are a waste of money. And you won’t be able to optimize your ads to increase conversions.

5. Not creating relevant landing pages

Creating a successful SEM campaign doesn’t stop at optimizing your ad and keywords. After all, the landing page is where conversions happen.

Every ad should have a corresponding landing page. This standalone page with a single purpose removes any obstacles to conversion.

Your ad should direct to a single offer. You want to ensure that the landing page matches that offer and has a clear CTA.

After you’re spending your time, money, and energy creating an ad with a high CTR, don’t waste that effort by sending traffic to a generic landing page or website.

Think about if you were looking for a holiday sweater and were directed to the homepage of a clothing website instead of the product page with the sweater from the ad you clicked on. You would probably leave instead of searching through the site to find the sweater. Meaning that the advertiser just paid money for a bounce.

Creating a landing page for every promotion may sound daunting, but it’s easy if you have a landing page platform to streamline the process of creating mobile-responsive, conversion-optimized landing pages at scale.

Set Yourself up for SEM Campaign Success

It can be unrealistic and resource-intensive to create a landing page for every ad if you have to rely on developers to do it for you. With a landing page platform like Instapage, you can quickly build and optimize landing pages at scale.

With high-quality landing pages, you’ll see higher click-through rates, conversion rates, and quality scores, while lowering cost-per-click (CPC) and customer acquisition costs (CAC).

Sign up for a 14-day trial and start increasing your conversion rates today.

Turn More Ad Clicks into Conversions

Try the world's first Post-Click Automation™ solution today. Start a trial or schedule a demo to learn more about the Enterprise plan.