The Ultimate Guide to SEM (Search Engine Marketing)

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is one of the most effective ways to grow your business and reach new customers.

While it is important that you use organic strategies to attract traffic over the long term, sometimes you cannot compete properly on the SERPs without investing money – and this is where SEM comes in.

For example, consider what happens when I type “summer shoes” into Google:

Zappos clearly has an effective SEO strategy as the “summer shoes” page organically comes first. However, the “Summer Shoes” paid ad circled above is the first overall search result.

Since 35% of product searches start on Google and the average Google search takes only a minute, it is important that your company’s product or service appears on top of a SERP when a user searches for it. This isn’t always possible organically, especially when other companies are paying to have their products displayed above yours. In this case, it is important that you invest in an SEM strategy.

Use this important guide to create a Google Ads campaign that will make money for your business.

What is search engine marketing (SEM)?

SEM, or search engine marketing, uses paid advertising to ensure that your company’s products or services are visible on search engine results pages (SERPs). When a user enters a specific keyword, SEM enables your company to appear as a result for that search query.

To ensure that you can use SEM to properly promote your products or services on the SERPs, we have compiled a list of the best SEM tools, as well as the components of a SEM ad auction.

How an ad auction works

Once you’re ready to invest in SEM, you need to take part in an ad auction. For our purposes, we’ll focus on the ad auction in Google Ads.

In simple terms, every Google ad you see goes through an ad auction before appearing in the SERPs. To participate in an ad auction, the first thing you need to do is identify the keywords you want to bid on and how much you want to spend per click on each of those keywords.

As soon as Google determines that the keywords you are bidding on are in a user’s search query, they will be included in the ad auction.

Not every ad is shown every time you search for that keyword. Some keywords do not have enough commercial intent to warrant inclusion of ads on the page. For example, if I say “What is marketing?” Enter. No ads are shown on Google.

Even if your keyword is a good match for an ad, it doesn’t mean you will “win” the bid. The ad auction takes two main factors into account in determining which ads to place on the SERP – your maximum bid and the Quality Score of your ads.

A Quality Score is an estimate of the quality of your ads, keywords, and landing pages. You can find your Quality Score, on a scale from 1 to 10, in the “Status” column of your keywords in your Google Ads account. The more relevant your ad is to a user and the more likely it is that a user will click through and have a pleasant landing page experience, the more important your overall Quality Score is.

SEM strategy

The SEM strategy is all about optimizing paid search ads with a specific goal in mind. To create a good strategy, you need to understand how paid ad platforms work and effectively manage variables that affect performance like keywords, budget, and copy.

With that in mind, here are some of the factors that should be included in your strategy if you want to get paid ads success:

Keyword intent

The pay-per-click or PPC strategy starts with choosing the right keywords to bid on. This means that you need to research which keywords to bid on, or in other words which queries to display your ad for. Start by brainstorming brand terms, terms that describe your product, and even terms that describe your competition.

If you are on a budget, you may only want to bid on buying intent keywords. However, if you’re on a larger budget, you may have room to bid on keywords that target earlier stages in the buyer’s journey, or even terms that are closely related to your products.

Keyword Volume and Competition

If nobody searches for your target keywords, you will not get any results from your ads. At the same time, extremely high volume keywords will attract more competition (and in some cases lose relevance). In keyword research, relevant high volume, low competition keywords are a sweet spot, but they may not be easy to find. It then becomes a balancing act between demand (volume) and budget (competition).

Keyword Cost

Ad placement is determined by the bid you set for the keyword and the Quality Score that Google gave your ad. Higher bids and higher quality ads will win the best placement. With this in mind, keywords with high competition are more expensive. If you bid too low, your ad will not show. So, you should make sure that you are competitive based on how strong the competition is for the keyword.

Account and campaign structure

In theory, you could put all of your keywords in a single bucket and display an ad for the entire lot. But a handful of high volume keywords would drain your budget and your Quality Score would go down. This is why it is so important to properly structure your Google Ads account.

Account Structure for Google Ads

There are several levels to organizing Google Ads campaigns:

  • display – The copy that appears for the keywords you selected.
  • keywords – The requests on which you are bidding.
  • Ad group – Sets of similar keywords, grouped by topic.
  • campaign – Top level for managing ad groups.

At each level, you can see what works and what doesn’t. This will help you be better informed about how your money is performing and how it is being used.


At the end of the day, with your keywords selected and your account structured, you still need to write good ads and “earn” the click.

A display consists of several components:

  • title
  • Show url
  • description

Anatomy of a Google ad

Understand exactly what searchers are looking for with their inquiries and see if you are writing a great ad that makes your offer attractive.

Also, remember that SEM is not a set-it-and-forget-it activity. On-going PPC management allows you to avoid wasting your budget, experiment with ads, and tweak keywords you bid for to ensure you get the most ROI from your efforts.

Best SEM tools

  1. HubSpot’s ad tracking software
  2. SEMrush
  3. Google Trends
  4. Keywordtool.Io
  5. Google Ads Keyword Planner
  6. SpyFu
  7. WordStream

1. HubSpots ad tracking software

You’re not paying for ads for fun. You pay for ads because you want to generate leads and increase sales for your business. The HubSpot Ads tool lets you go beyond traffic and click metrics to analyze exactly how ads affect contacts where they are on the buyer’s journey. That way, you can better understand which ads actually work, justify SEM as a channel, and integrate your advertising with the rest of your marketing efforts.

HubSpot SEM Tool

2. SEMrush

With SEMRush, you can do extensive keyword research, keyword rank tracking, site audits, traffic analysis and more. SEMRush is a fantastic tool for finding ways to organically rank on long-tail keywords. In addition, you can use the tool for various SEM endeavors. For example, with SEMRush you can find out where your competitors are focusing their marketing efforts and analyze their regional presence to find out how much money you want to put into certain keywords.

Additionally, SEMRush lets you identify your top paid search competitors, find out what keywords they are bidding on, and examine the makeup of their ads. This is important information if you are developing your own paid strategy and you are unsure how to outperform other companies on the SERPs.

Semrush Sem Tool

3. Google Trends

With Google Trends, you can track search volume for a specific keyword in a specific region, language, or time period. That way, you can see which search terms are trending and which are not. Since you don’t want to put money into a keyword that is declining in popularity, this is an incredibly useful tool for your SEM endeavors.

Especially if you work for an e-commerce company, being able to measure interest in your product or service in a given geographic area is undoubtedly of great importance to ensure that you are tailoring your paid efforts to specific locations as well save money in the long term.

Google Trends Sem Tool


One of the most helpful features of Keywordtool.Io is the ability to access Google, Bing, YouTube, Amazon, Instagram, Twitter, and the App Store so that you can segment your keyword research across different channels and better target your efforts. Additionally, the tool will take your base keyword and give you variations of words and phrases to help you build a bigger list of possible keywords that you might want to include in a paid ad.

With Google Autocomplete, the free version of Keywordtool.Io can generate up to 750 long-tail keywords and keyword suggestions for each search term. Additionally, you can use the tool to analyze search trends on Google to ensure that your desired keywords are growing in popularity and continue to serve you well in the long run. sem tool

5. Google Ads Keyword Planner

Since Google is likely where you want your ads to appear, it makes sense to use the Google Ads Keyword Planner to research relevant keywords for your business and keep track of how searches for specific keywords change over time. The Keyword Planner can help you narrow down a list of possible keywords to make sure you choose the most effective ones for your business.

The Keyword Planner will also provide you with suggestions for bid estimates for each keyword so you can determine which keywords will work with your advertising budget. Best of all, when you’ve found your ideal keywords and are ready to start an advertising campaign, all of the tool can be taken care of.

Google Keyword Planner Sem Tool

6. SpyFu

Ever wish you could see what keywords your competitors were buying on Google or find out what ad tests they ran? With SpyFu, you can do just that – just search for a domain and you’ll see every keyword companies bought on AdWords, every organic keyword they ranked, and every ad variant they’ve had over the past 12 years . You can also monitor your own paid and SEO rankings on Google, Bing, and Yahoo.

spyfu sem tool

7. WordStream

WordStream is an advertising management solution that allows you to examine, measure, and optimize your ads for performance. You get access to advanced reporting capabilities for data analysis and tools to create great ads. In addition, WordStream has alerts and workflow tools that you can use to make decisions about your campaigns.

Wordstream Sem Tool

With the above tools and a killer strategy, SEM can be a great lead generation strategy. There is no reason why you shouldn’t start your PPC campaign today.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in April 2019 and has been updated for completeness.

Kit for using Google Ads

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