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Search Engine Marketing: How it’s Different From SEO

Increasing online visibility is crucial in a competitive marketplace. Luckily, you have many options for getting your business in front of its target audience.

Search engine marketing (SEM) is just one digital marketing strategy you can use to attract customers and increase visitors to your website.

Unfortunately, SEM can be confusing if you don't have a digital marketing background. Not only do you need to know how search engines work, but you'll need to understand the various terms used by search engines, including SERP, search queries, and so forth.

Once you get the hang of it, search engine marketing can be an effective small business marketing strategy to grow your business and help you stand out from the crowd.

What is SEM?

Search engine marketing is one of many digital marketing strategies businesses use to increase online visibility, boost brand awareness, and drive traffic to their websites by helping them show up on search engine results pages (SERPs). Also known as paid search marketing or paid search advertising, SEM marketing allows you to reach customers on your favorite search engines by paying for placements on SERPs. With this type of marketing, marketers only pay for impressions or clicks that result in website visitors.

Unlike other forms of online advertising, search engine advertising allows you to attract customers when they're already looking for products and services like yours on search engines. For example, someone might enter the search query "dog toys" into Google if you sell pet products. If you've bid on that SEO keyword, your ad will show up, allowing you to potentially rank higher in search engines than organic results.

How is SEM different from SEO?

Understanding SEM can be confusing because this term comprised both paid and organic strategies at one point. However, it now refers to paid search marketing in which you spend money for placements on SERPs. With search engine marketing, you pay a search engine platform to show your ads on SERPs. Multiple placements are available, depending on the search engine, and where you show up on the SERP depends on how much you're willing to pay.

Paid search vs. organic search

Graphic: Paid search vs. organic search

The most significant difference between SEM and search engine optimization (SEO) is that SEM is paid and SEO is organic, so you don't pay search engines for organic placements. Both have their pros and cons.

For example, you don't have to wait to get in front of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people with SEM. However, SEO is a long-term strategy that can help you rank organically, boosting the amount of high-quality traffic you drive to your website.

Savvy digital marketers use SEO and SEM as part of their digital marketing strategy because organic traffic is more likely to convert, while paid ads are a great way to get your website in front of your target audience quickly.

How can SEM help your business?

SEM can help businesses of all sizes increase website traffic, improve lead generation, and boost sales. Here are just a few of the benefits of using SEO to grow your audience and business:

Increase brand awareness

SEM allows you to increase your brand awareness online through headlines, descriptions, and snappy copy. Paid search ads contribute to significantly higher brand awareness even if users don't click your ads. The best part is that you can get free brand awareness because you pay whenever someone takes action on your ad, such as clicking the ad to visit your website.

Instant results

Unlike organic SEO, SEM can help you get results quickly. Once your ad is approved and published, search engine users can see and click it.

It doesn't take months for you to rise up the ranks on a SERP. Instead, you can make your ad the first result in a SERP and rank above organic search results to increase clicks to your website, lead generation efforts, and improve sales based on your bid and level of competition.


SEM makes it easy to target your ads to reach the right people at the right time. You can target individuals based on their location, interests, and whether or not they've visited your website before. You can also create advertisements in different languages and specify the country, city, or any place around the world.

Pay per action

You only pay for your digital ads when someone takes action and clicks them. You won't pay to have your ads displayed on SERPs. Unlike traditional advertising, such as magazines and billboards, you pay to have your ads in them, even if you're unsure how many people will actually see them.

With digital ads, you only have to pay when they're effective, ultimately giving you free exposure when ads aren't clicked. This pay-per-click model allows you to control your marketing budget, knowing how much you'll pay for each click.

Better decision making

Many marketers struggle to determine which digital marketing strategies are most effective. With SEM, you can test and measure your ad performance to decide which aspects are effective and give you the most clicks. You can measure everything from impressions and clicks to top-performing keywords to ensure your ad budget is utilized by better decision-making.

Improved lead generation

SEM delivers more qualified leads because the individuals you reach are already actively looking for your products and services. When people search for specific terms, your ad will appear in search results, delivering you leads that are more likely to convert to paying customers.

How does SEM work?

Graphic: Search engine marketing relies on keywords, ad auctions, and ad copy

To understand how SEM works, you should have some understanding of how search engines work. Ultimately, a user enters a search query, and the search engine displays results based on various factors, including what they believe will be most relevant to the user. To implement an SEM campaign, you need to understand 3 things: keywords, ad auction, and ad copy.


Keywords are the foundation of both SEO and SEM. When someone enters search queries into search engines to look for something, the keywords are one of the most important factors for determining what pages are most relevant to their search.

SEM keyword research is similar to SEO keyword research, but rather than using them in web content, you'll use them to form your ads and bid on them in the ad auction (we'll discuss this in more detail later on). The first step is determining which keywords are relevant to your brand and its customers. What keywords would people use to search for your brand or its products and services online?

Search engines offer keyword tools you can use to learn about the potential impressions and costs-per-click of each keyword, allowing you to find related terms. In addition, you can also identify negative keywords that you'd like to exclude from your campaign. For example, if you sell products for dogs, you might want to ban "cat toys" from your campaign since you don't sell them and don't want to pay to appear on those SERPs.

One of the most important considerations when identifying your keywords is searcher intent to ensure your ads can show up to users for relevant search terms. For example, if you operate a cupcake store, you wouldn't want to lead someone searching for cupcake recipes to your website.

You can begin identifying the right keywords for your search engine marketing campaign by brainstorming brand terms or terms you use to describe your products, including product names and categories. During your research, you'll be able to see keyword volume and how competitive specific keywords are. If people aren't searching for your keywords, you won't get traffic from bidding on them. Additionally, keywords with high volume may be more competitive, costing you money if your ads aren't relevant.

Ad auctions

Ad auctions ultimately determine where your ad will place on the SERP. There are several places where your ad can appear, but most companies should aim for the spots at the very top of the SERP, which are just above the organic search results.

Ads go through ad auctions before they're placed in SERPs, and to enter into the auction, you must first identify your keywords and bid on them by telling the search engine how much you're willing to pay for someone to click on them. Many search engines also have automated bidding that'll take care of this process to ensure you get the best bang for your buck. However, you can also review your keywords and bid on them individually.

Then, search engines determine whether your ads are relevant to search queries before displaying them. Unfortunately, your ad will only sometimes appear for your keywords because search engines use your maximum bid and ad quality score to decide whether or not your ad should appear and where.

Your ad quality score is a number given to an ad based on the quality of your ads, including the copy, keywords, and landing pages. Google rates your ads on a scale of 1 to 10, so the more relevant your ad is to a user, the higher your ad will rank on the SERP.

Ad copy

Your ad copy is one of the most important determining factors for deciding whether or not your ad will appear on SERPs when a user enters their search query.

Ultimately, your ad copy will also determine whether or not someone clicks on your ad. Ads with quality copy that establishes user intent will get more clicks than poorly written ad copy that doesn't set clear expectations. Your SEM ad consists of 3 components:

  • Display URL: The display URL is the URL that will appear in SERPs to help users decide whether or not to click your ad. Ultimately, your display ad can be anything you want it to be, but it's best to incorporate your main target keywords to set expectations with users.
  • Title: The title is the first part of the SEM advertisement users see and can significantly impact the number of clicks you get.
  • Description: The description gives you another opportunity to tell users what they'll expect to find on your site and why they should click your ad.

Is SEM the right marketing strategy for you?

While SEM can help your business grow, it's not suitable for all businesses, especially those that don't have the resources to run their ads.

Many small businesses make the mistake of believing that SEM is a set-it-and-forget-it digital marketing strategy. However, if you don't stay on top of your ads, you may be paying for low-quality traffic, ultimately wasting money if you don't get any leads or conversions from your ads.

Here are a few things to consider to decide whether SEM is the right marketing strategy for you:

  • Time: While SEM requires significantly less time than organic strategies to begin working and driving traffic back to your website, you must still dedicate your time to ensure your ads are effective. Low-quality advertisements that aren't properly managed can lead to wasted ad budgets, and you could lose money if you're tracking them.
  • Search volume: SEM relies on search volume. If there aren't a lot of searches for your business or its products and services, you won't get much out of SEM. Of course, you can still invest in SEM since you'll only pay when someone takes action. However, since you'll be using resources like time to confirm your ads are effective, you'll need to ensure that enough people are searching for your keywords for it to be worthwhile.
  • Budget: Any business can invest in SEM and start driving traffic to its website. However, if you're operating in a highly competitive industry, you'll likely have tons of competition also investing in search engine marketing. Competition drives up the cost per click, which can price some small businesses out of the running. Always do your keyword research to determine how much ads will cost you and decide whether it's an effective strategy for your business.

How to do search engine marketing

Graphic: Search engine marketing in 4 steps

Once you've decided to use SEM to grow your business, you should have a process to ensure you can develop your ads and monitor their performance.

Here's how to start search engine marketing for your business:

Do keyword research

Always start with keyword research to find keywords people are searching for that are relevant to your business. Keyword research can also tell you how much you can expect to pay per click, improving your chances of ranking first in ad SERPs. However, regardless of your budget, you should look for keywords that can offer you higher conversion rates and click-through rates (CTRs) to ensure you can use SEM to increase conversions on your site instead of simply driving traffic.

Plan your budget

Once you understand how much certain keywords will cost you if you want to appear above your competition on SERPs, you can start to plan your budget. Luckily, businesses with any budget can use SEM. However, if you have a limited budget, you may have to choose your top keywords carefully to ensure you can rank as high as possible for them and drive high-quality traffic to your website.

Write copy

Ad copy isn't just important for your ad quality score; it can help your target audience decide whether or not to click your ads to be taken to your website. Your ad copy should use the same keywords you bid on and provide potential customers with information about what they can expect when they click your ad. While you don't have a ton of space to write ad copy, you can use the space you're allocated to entice users to click your ad.

Track data

Always track your ads to ensure they're performing well. If your ads are performing poorly, monitoring their performance can alert you to potential problems early on, allowing you to fix them and save your ad budget on keywords that might not be as relevant as you initially thought they were. You can measure everything from impressions to clicks and click-through rates to help you determine the effectiveness of your ads and measure them against each other to find out which copy, offers, and keywords give you the best results.

Build a website that's SEM-friendly

With a great SEM strategy, you need a great website. Your SEM strategy is meant to bring traffic to your website. If your website doesn't convert, it's not because your ads are ineffective. Instead, it might be your website that needs extra support.

If you want to maximize your performance and grow your audience, you must make a website that can sell. Whether you're selling products or services, Mailchimp can help. Mailchimp makes it easy to build a website without any coding skills. Simply use our drag-and-drop templates to build a website that converts.

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