What Is SEM? Definition, Advantages, Disadvantages, and Key Concepts

April 2021

What is SEM? SEM stands for search engine marketing.


Depending on who you ask, search engine marketing can mean a few different things. Normally SEM is used to refer to paid search ad campaigns, like Google Ads. But, some may use it to refer to all marketing actions that take place within a search engine, whether or not they are paid. 


In this article, we'll explain what SEM is,  what its advantages are, and the basic concepts to help you get started in the world of search engine marketing.


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What Is SEM




SEM: What Is Search Engine Marketing? 

Defining exactly what SEM or search engine marketing consists of can be tricky since there are different definitions depending on who you ask.


SEM is defined by the set of tools, techniques and strategies that help optimize the visibility of websites and web pages through search engines. In short, the goal of SEM is to gain better search engine positioning on Google and other similar sites. 


Generally, Google search pages and other sites show two types of results:

  • Organic results: To know which results to show, the search engine uses an algorithm that tells you which websites best to respond to a specific query. Google's algorithm is based on relevance (web content) and authority (links from other pages). The set of techniques and tools used to position organic listings is known as SEO (Search Engine Optimization).
  • Paid results: Unlike organic listings, here the advertiser must pay  for each click. To get traffic by buying ads in search engines, you will have to resort to search engine advertising solutions, such as Google Ads. This system is also called PPC (pay per click) or CPC (cost per click).

Search Engine Marketing encompasses both SEO techniques and search engine advertising. However, most marketers use SEM to refer exclusively to search engine advertising, or paid results. To avoid confusion, in this article we will use SEM to refer to search engine advertising and paid advertising. 


Basic SEM Concepts

SEM is a very broad topic that has many different avenues to explore. Below, we've linked to some articles to more specific topics within the SEM methodology. 

  • SEO and SEM: SEO and SEM are essentials in online marketing strategies, but they are also two abbreviations that lead to a lot of confusion. Which is better for your brand and how can you leverage both to boost traffic and increase conversions? 
  • SEM Positioning: SEM positioning is the paid method that's used to quickly gain search engine positioning.
  • SEM Campaign: A SEM campaign represents the entire advertising strategy that generates ads in search engines like Google. A campaign can encompass many different ad groups and keywords in order to increase positioning. 
  • SEM on Google: The most popular form of SEM is on Google Ads. To create a SEM campaign on Google, go from the most general to the most concrete. There are many different ways to advertise on Google Ads, with a variety of ad options and structures. 


Why Use SEM?

There are many reasons to incorporate SEM in your digital marketing strategy. These are just some of the benefits of using Search Engine Marketing for your brand.

  • Bring highly qualified traffic to your page. One of the bases of any digital marketing strategy is to attract the right users to your landing pages. Search engine marketing is very effective in attracting users' attention and generating clicks by allowing users to filter based on the words they seek. This ensures that your traffic is made up of people who are potentially interested in your brand
  • Make your brand or company known throughout the world. Placing yourself at the top of Google is a great way to get visibility for your brand. To see your page in the first place will allow the user to associate it with the need that they’re looking to solve even if they don't click on the page.
  • Generate conversions. Google Ads offers many ways to measure conversions and thus ensure that your ads are really effective.
  • Get results with a tight budget. Search engine advertising solutions can be adjusted to your budgetary needs at any time. You do not need a large initial investment, so these are suitable for small and medium businesses. If your brand is growing, the sky is the limit!
  • Finally, with Search Engine Marketing Google Ads solutions, you can not only place advertisements in the search engine, but also take advantage of the data and parameters available to place contextual advertising on other websites. The possibilities of personalization are very high. For example, you can target users who have already visited your website, are interested in X type of products, are from a specific city, etc. Combined with your search engine advertising campaigns, these can be powerful tools to grow your brand.

Advantages and Disadvantages of SEM

Undoubtedly, search engine marketing is a powerful tool for almost all types of brands. To evaluate when and how to use it, let's look at some of the advantages and disadvantages.



  • Highly measurable. Tools like Google Ads give you highly detailed reports of the evolution of your campaign, so you can always know what is happening with your ads. In addition, you can take advantage of the integration with Analytics to have everything controlled to perfection.
  • Real time monitoring. The analytics interface allows you to see what is happening at each moment and corrects the course to the moment if you do not get the results you are looking for.
  • Pay per click. With this, you will only pay if you get results. You can control the maximum daily budget that you are willing to invest as well as the maximum cost per click you can pay. This way, you make sure that the campaign is profitable.
  • Speed. Regarding other techniques such as SEO or content marketing, search engine advertising allows you to achieve relatively fast, large-scale results.
  • Within everyone's reach. Since budgetary investment is scalable, this solution works for both large companies and SMEs. They all compete in equal conditions to reach the first positions for keywords.
  • Segmentation. Finally, another positive of this tool is its great segmentation possibilities. By focusing on keywords, you will reach the public that is actively interested in you. You can also filter it by other factors such as location, language or behavior.



  • Higher long-term cost. To be clear, SEM only works while you pay. Although over time you can optimize your campaigns and reduce costs per click, you will have to continue paying for each of the visits you get.
  • High level of competition. Search Engine Marketing has become popular and there are many companies that compete to position themselves for the same keywords. This competition causes costs to rise and sometimes it can be difficult to get a good ROI.
  • It's interruptive. As opposed to other solutions like native advertising, SEM involves "invading" the user's space with content that they didn't seek out. In fact, if the user you are targeting has an ad blocker, they may not see your ads.


SEM Dictionary: Top Terms to Know

To finish, let's review the basic concepts you need to move through the world of search engine advertising. Since we use Google for the vast majority of searches, we are going to base ourselves on the terms that are used in Google Ads.

  • Keywords: keywords are the basis of all search engine marketing. Keywords are the words, groups of words, or phrases that will make your ad appear to users.
  • Text ad: the standard ad type that is shown in search engines. They usually have a title, two lines of text, and a customizable link.
  • Ad group: Ad groups are ad sets and keywords. These are grouped into campaigns, in which you can define the daily budget and the countries or territories where the ads will appear.
  • Search network: the part of the search engine where your ads can appear. The simplest thing is to work with text ads on the top and right of the results page but you can also show ads on other sites such as Google Shopping or Google Maps.
  • Impressions: the number of times an ad is shown
  • Clicks: the number of times an ad has been clicked on
  • CTR: the percentage of impressions that generate a click.
  • CPC: the average cost per click. You can define a maximum CPC to guarantee that you do not go over budget.
  • Quality level: Score (determined by Google) of a keyword and an ad to determine your CPC. In theory, the higher the quality of an ad, the less you pay for each click.

Today SEM is a necessity. However, it is much more powerful if used in combination with other tools such as SEO. The study of keywords is the fundamental pillar in our search engine strategy. The study of Buyer Personas is also crucial to understand our audience when looking for certain keywords because it allows us a more accurate segmentation.


The Complete Guide to SEM and Google Ads