What is SEM?

Chapter 1

What is SEM?

What exactly is search engine marketing (SEM)?

The answer has evolved over time, and can therefore be a bit murky. SEM used to encompass both paid search and search engine optimization (SEO). But the definition now predominantly refers to just paid search.

Some would argue, however, that SEM encompasses anything that improves a website’s visibility on search engines, which would include SEO, link building, and more. Publications like Search Engine Land refer to the combination of paid search and SEO as just Search Marketing nowadays. Confusing, we know.

For this guide’s purpose, we’ll stick to the most popular current definition that SEM is the process of gaining website traffic by purchasing ads on search engines.

Why SEM Is Important

With 48% of digital ad spend going to paid search ads, accounting for roughly $35 billion in 2016, it’s something your business needs to do to stay competitive.

Why has search engine marketing grown exponentially over the past decade?

Because SEM is one of the most effective ways to promote your products and grow your business. By presenting someone 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.

SEM is also an important part of building brand awareness. By putting your brand at the top of a search page (whether it’s on Google, Bing, or Yahoo) for specific keywords and search queries, people will begin to think of your brand when they think of the keywords that they’ve searched.

Another reason SEM has become a necessity for digital advertisers, is it gives you quantifiable data on how your ads are performing so that you understand your return on investment (ROI) and can make better informed decisions about your ad spend.

Now that you get the picture of what benefits SEM can bring your business, let’s quickly denote the difference between SEM and SEO.


SEM refers to paid search marketing, while SEO is unpaid traffic (businesses earn their ranking in search results based on having the most relevant content for a given keyword).

While SEO is a powerful way to drive top-of-funnel traffic, the rules and algorithms are constantly shifting and there are no set guidelines for marketers to follow. SEO takes a lot of time and effort to earn a ranking on page one of the search term you’re working towards. It takes creating a large volume of relevant content frequently, generating backlinks to those pages, and more. Though it takes hard work, it pays off in the long run to have a solid SEO and SEM strategy.

SEM, on the other hand is paid placements. It’s a straightforward way to get in front of potential customers in a cost-effective way. If you bid on the right keywords, have an enticing ad, and a personalized post-click landing page that corresponds to your ad, you’ll be able to generate business almost immediately. That’s not to say, it’s easy. You need to know the ins and outs of the advertising platform you’re using and have patience. It takes time to optimize your ads and post-click landing pages and start seeing the kind of results that impact your business’ bottom line.

To see how SEO and SEM differ, here’s an example.

As you can see, the ads are labeled and appear on top, while the organic search results appear below. Chances are, if you were searching for winter travel adventures, you’d probably click on the ads with companies offering that service to see what they’re offering. And if the company met your needs, you’d purchase their product or service.

What does SEM include?

SEM covers all paid search advertising, which includes:

  • Retargeting
  • Geotargeting
  • Mobile search advertising
  • Enhanced campaigns
  • AdWords
  • Bing Ads
  • Product Listing Ads (PLAs) for ecommerce/ Google Shopping
  • Youtube (Video search ads)
  • Amazon Ads

Search engine marketing is paid advertising within the sponsored listings of a search engine by paying per click (PPC). PPC means that the advertiser only pays when a user clicks on the ad, unlike cost per impression (CPM) where advertisers pay per 1,000 impressions.

While there are many types of paid search ads, let’s take a look at how one of the most popular forms of SEM works: Google Ads.

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