What is the SEM? Definition, advantages, disadvantages and key concepts

Updated October 2020


What is the 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, its advantages, and basic concepts to help you get started in the world of search engine marketing.


SEM: What is Search Engine Marketing?

SEM: What is Search Engine Marketing? 

Defining exactly what SEM or search engine marketing consists of generates problems. Since there are different definitions depending on who you ask.


SEM refers to 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 appear better positioned among Google's search results and other similar sites. 


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

  • Organic results: To know which ones to show, the search engine uses an algorithm that tells you which websites are the best to respond to a specific query. For example, 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 an amount for each click he gets. 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 considerations and 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 positioning method that's used to reach the first results positions faster.
  • 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 found on Google Ads. To create a SEM campaign on Google, we will go from the most general to the most concrete. There are many different different elements of advertising 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 the traffic will be 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 all kinds of facilities to measure conversions and thus ensure that your ads are really effective.
  • Get away with a tight budget. Search engine advertising solutions have the ability to adjust the budget to your needs at any time. You do not need a large initial investment, so it is suitable for small and medium businesses. And if your brand is growing, the sky is the limit!
  • Finally, with the 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. Users who have already visited your website, interested in X type of products, of a specific city, etc. Combined with your search engine advertising campaigns, they can be a very powerful tool to grow your brand.

Advantages (and disadvantages) of the SEM

Undoubtedly, search engine marketing is a powerful and appropriate tool for almost all types of brands. To evaluate when and how to include it, I will comment on its main 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 happens 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. In this way, you will only pay if you get results. You can control at all times the maximum daily budget that you are willing to invest as well as the maximum cost per click you can pay. In this way, you make sure that the campaign is profitable in all cases.
  • Speed. Regarding other techniques such as SEO or content marketing, search engine advertising allows you to achieve relatively fast and 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 in the "struggle" to reach the first positions for the keywords.
  • Segmentation. Finally, another strong point of this tool are its great segmentation possibilities. By focusing on keywords, we will reach the public that is actively interested in us. We can filter it by other factors such as location, language or behavior.


  • Higher long-term cost. Speaking clearly: the 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. The Search Engine Marketing has become popular and there are many companies that compete to position themselves in the same keywords. This competition causes costs to rise and sometimes it can be difficult to get a good ROI.
  • It's interruptive. Unlike other solutions such as native advertising, the SEM means "invading" the user's space with content that it hasn’t previously required. In fact, if the user you are targeting uses 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 our country uses Google for the vast majority of searches, we are going to base ourselves on the terms that are used in Google Ads.

  • Keyword: the keywords are "the crux of the matter", the basis of all search engine marketing. Keywords are the words, groups of words, or phrases that will make your ad show 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: number of times an ad was shown
  • Clicks: number of times an ad has been clicked
  • CTR: percentage of impressions that generate a click.
  • CPC: average cost per click. We can define a maximum CPC to guarantee that we 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 the SEM is necessary for companies. However, it is much more powerful if used in combination with other tools such as SEO. The study of keywords will be the fundamental pillar for our actions in the search engines to be successful. The study of our Buyer Persona will also be crucial to understand the intentionality of our audience when looking for certain keywords. It will allow us a more accurate segmentation.