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

July 2023

Search engine marketing, commonly known as SEM, encompasses a variety of strategies and practices that revolve around promoting businesses and driving traffic through search engines.  


In this article, we'll ensure you understand what SEM is and how it works. We will delve into its core principles and explore its advantages and basic concepts. Whether you're new to this or seeking to expand your existing knowledge, this guide will help you learn more about the world of search engine marketing.


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SEM: What Is Search Engine Marketing in Advertising? 

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, we will use SEM to refer to search engine advertising and paid advertising. 


Search engine marketing (SEM) is a digital marketing strategy that helps businesses get their websites seen by more people on search engine results pages (SERPs). 


There are two main ways to do this: 

  • Organic results are when a website appears in the unpaid results at the top of the SERPs. You can improve your website’s ranking in organic search results by optimizing your it’s content, building backlinks, and other SEO (Search Engine Optimization) techniques. 
  • Paid results are the results that appear at the top of the search results pages. You can pay for your website to appear in paid search results by bidding on keywords people are likely to search for. The higher the bid, the higher the website will appear in the search results. This system is called pay-per-click (PPC) or cost-per-click (CPC). 


Basic SEM Concepts

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

  • SEO and SEM are two important components of a successful online marketing strategy. The best approach is to use both SEM and SEO together to achieve maximum results.
  • SEM Positioning refers to the practice of paying search engines to display ads for websites in SERPs. This is typically done by bidding on keywords.  
  • SEM Campaign is a collection of SEM activities that are designed to achieve a specific goal, such as increasing website traffic or generating leads. A campaign includes a set of keywords, ad copy, and targeting settings.
  • SEM on Google. Google Ads is the most popular SEM platform. It allows businesses to create and manage SEM campaigns that target search results on Google itself and other Google properties.


Why Use SEM for Your Business?

There are many reasons to incorporate SEM into 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: SEM allows you to target your ads to specific keywords, so you can be sure that people who see our ads are interested in what you offer. This can help you improve your website’s conversion rate. 
  • Make your brand or company known throughout the world: You can reach a global audience when your ads appear at the top of Google. This is a great way to increase brand awareness and attract new customers.
  • Generate conversions: SEM can help you to generate leads and sales by driving traffic to your website and encouraging people to take action. Google Ads offers a variety of tools that can help you track conversations and measure the success of your campaigns.
  • Get results even on a tight budget: SEM campaigns can be scaled to fit your budget. You only pay when someone clicks on your ad, so you can be sure you’re not wasting money.
  • Personalize your ads: SEM allows you to target your ads to specific audiences with different demographics, interests, and lifestyles. This means you can show your ads to potential customers who are likely to make a purchase.

Overall, SEM is a powerful tool that can help you achieve various marketing goals. If you want to drive traffic to your website, generate leads, or increase sales, Google Ads solutions are a great option. Through these solutions, you can display advertisements on the search engine itself and leverage the available data and parameters to showcase contextual ads on other websites. Combined with SEA campaigns, these tactics can effectively elevate your brand’s preference and reach.

Advantages and Disadvantages of SEM

Undoubtedly, search engine marketing is a powerful tool for almost all types of brands. Let's examine some advantages and disadvantages to evaluate when and how to use SEM.



  • Highly measurable: SEM campaigns are very measurable; with tools like Google Ads, you can track your results and see how your investment is performing. 
  • Real-time monitoring: You can monitor your SEM campaigns in real-time to see how everything is progressing and make changes as needed. 
  • Pay per click: You only pay for the results. You can control the maximum daily budget you are willing to invest and the maximum cost per click and make sure you’re not wasting money.


  • Speed: SEM campaigns can be set up quickly and start delivering results in a matter of days or weeks.
  • Within everyone’s reach: A SEM campaign's budgetary investment is scalable, so it works for large companies and SMEs. They all compete in equal conditions to reach the first positions for keywords.
  • Targeting: You can target your SEM campaigns to specific demographics, interests, and past behavior.


  • Cost: SEM can have a higher long-term cost since it works as long as you pay. Although, over time, you can optimize your campaigns and reduce costs per click. 
  • Competition: There is a lot of competition for SEM keywords, so you may have to pay more to get your ad seen. This competition causes costs to rise, and sometimes it can be difficult to get a good ROI.
  • Ad Blockers: Some people use ad blockers, which can prevent your ads from being seen.
  • Interruptive: Some people find SEM ads to be intrusive. 


SEM Dictionary: Top Terms to Know

Let's review the basic concepts you need to know to move through the world of search engine advertising. Since people use Google for most searches, we have based this on the terms used in Google Ads.

  • Keywords are the basis of all search engine marketing. When you create an SEM campaign, you choose the keywords which your ads will appear for. 
  • Text ad is the most common type of SEM ad. It typically includes a title, two lines of text, and a customizable link to your website.
  • Ad groups are collections of ads and keywords. These are grouped into campaigns based on their relevance to each other.
  • Search network is part of Google’s advertising network, including Google Search and other websites displaying Google Ads, such as Google Shopping or Google Maps.
  • Impressions are a single instance of your ad being shown on a search engine results page. 
  • Click is an instance of someone clicking on your ads.
  • Click-through Rate (CTR) is the percentage of impressions that result in a click.
  • Cost per click (CPC) is the average cost per click each time someone clicks on your ad.  
  • Quality Score measures how relevant your ad is to the keywords you’re targeting and how likely people are to click on it. Your quality score affects your CPC. 

Today, SEM is a necessity. However, it is much more powerful if used in combination with others, such as SEO. The study of keywords is the fundamental pillar of the search engine strategy. The study of buyer personas is also crucial to understanding the audience when looking for certain keywords because it allows for more accurate segmentation.


How to Do Keyword Research in SEM


When planning an SEM campaign, keyword research should always be one of the first steps. Keywords are like the building blocks on which the whole SEM account, ads, and landing pages are structured.

To perform keyword research for SEM campaigns, take note of the following steps.


1. Analyze the Product or Service (or Landing Page)

What are the main keywords people use to search for products or services like yours? 

  • Begin by brainstorming a list of relevant keywords that come to mind based on your product or service. Think about the main features, benefits, and unique selling points. 
  • Research your competitors’ websites and landing pages to identify the targeted keywords that are performing well in your industry. 
  • Engage your target audience through surveys, interviews, or social media interactions to understand the language they use when searching for products or services. 

2. Keyword Research Tools 

Various keyword research tools are available on the market to help you generate keyword ideas and analyze their performance. Some popular tools include SemRush and Google Keyword Planner.


3. Filtering and Selecting Keywords

After generating a list of potential keywords, filtering and selecting the most relevant and effective ones is essential. Discard irrelevant words, group related keywords, and look for keywords with low competition. 

Once you have completed these steps, you will have a definite list of keywords to optimize the SEM campaign. These keywords should be present on your landing pages and ads to get the best results.


How to Develop a SEM Campaign Step-by-Step


Strategy and planning are essential to guarantee the results of your SEM campaign. Let's take a look at what it takes to launch a successful campaign. 

  1. Keyword Research: As mentioned above, keyword research is the foundation of any SEM campaign. Make sure you do your research thoroughly and select the right keywords for your target audience.

  2. Campaign Creation: Once you have your keywords, you can start creating your SEM campaigns. This involves setting a budget, choosing your bidding strategy, and creating ads. 

  3. Measurement and Optimization: Once the campaign is up and running, you need to monitor its performance and make necessary adjustments. This includes tracking your click-through rate, cost per click, and conversion rate. To ensure you don't miss anything, you can set up alerts for critical aspects of the account and set a specific review schedule. 


Take Advantage of SEM to Do SEO

SEM and SEO are two closely related disciplines that can help you improve your brand’s visibility in search engine result pages. There are ways to use SEM to improve your SEO efforts. For instance, the data collected from your SEM campaigns to rank keywords.


Most Popular Search Engines for SEM


When it comes to search engines, Google is often the first one that comes to mind. However, other SEM platforms can also deliver good results. Here are the three main solutions for search engine advertising.


Google Ads

Google Ads is a leading search engine advertising platform. Here are some tips for using it:

  • Match types determine how closely a user’s search term matches your chosen keywords. In Google Ads, match types range from broad match (the widest) to exact match (the strictest). You can also set negative matches to exclude certain search queries from showing your ads.
  • Google's search engine advertising is mainly based on text ads, including a title, visible URLs, descriptions, and extensions.
  • CPC (Cost Per Click) refers to the price you pay for each click on your ads. The cost depends on factors such as ad quality and bidding.


Bing Ads

Bing Ads (or Microsoft Advertising) is a robust alternative to Google Ads. It reaches a significant potential audience (almost 10% of the market share) and has excellent targeting and configuration options. While similar to Google Ads, there are some differences to note:

  • Negative Keyword Matching: Bing ads have stricter negative keyword matching, allowing you to use only phase matching for negative keywords. 
  • Minimum Bids: Sets a minimum amount for maximum bids, which may affect your bidding strategy.  
  • Location Options: Bing offers location targeting with the ability to specify a radius within a city or zip code.
  • Ad scheduling: You can schedule ads to appear in 15-minute increments throughout the day or specify certain times for ad display. 
  • Extensions: Bing has image-specific and stock-specific extensions to enhance campaigns, offering flexibility for international targeting. 
  • Time Zones: You can set up different time zones within a single campaign. 
  • Filter reports: You can filter reports based on search partners and exclude those that are not relevant to your advertising goals. 



Yahoo's advertising solution allows you to reach users who perform searches on this search engine. Some key formats and options are available such as:

  • Display ads: These ads appear at the top, bottom, or side of a website or within the content.
  • Search ads: This classic SEM format shows ads in the search engine when users enter a specific keyword.
  • Sponsored ads in different formats: Yahoo offers image, carousel, and native video ads as additional ad formats.
  • Mail ads: These ads are integrated within inboxes or displayed through banners. 

Local SEM Campaigns


Local SEM campaigns allow advertisers with physical stores to reach potential customers who are geographically close to them.


To make the most of these, you first need to set up a business listing on Google Business Profile. This free service allows you to create a listing for your business and provide information such as your address, phone number, hours of operation, and website. 


Once your business listing is up and running, you can create local ads on Google Ads. These will show your business to people who are close to it or have shown interest in the area. Local SEM campaigns aim to increase physical store visits and achieve offline conversions.


Google local ads can be shown in:

  • Google search results when someone searches related to the company and its location.
  • On Google Maps through sponsored pins.
  • On YouTube, local ads can be shown to users likelier to click on them.
  • On third-party sites (through display campaigns).

In addition to creating a local campaign, having your business registered on Google Business Profile makes it possible to add location extensions to standard Google Ads.


The Benefits of Hiring a SEM Agency


SEM tools, such as Google Ads, can be complex to manage. There are many variables to consider, and optimizing your account and staying on top of results in real time can be challenging. Therefore, delegating this work to a SEM agency can be worthwhile. An agency can help you do the following:

  • SEM campaign planning: Defining objectives and budget and setting up the campaign structure, keywords, and ad groups.
  • Keyword research and management: Identifying the right keywords and setting the right match levels.
  • Ad copywriting: Creating clear, concise ad copy to persuade potential customers to click.
  • Campaign analysis: Continuously analyzing the data to make informed decisions and achieve the best results.
  • Quality score optimization: Optimizing the campaign to achieve a high-quality score will result in lower CPCs and better ad positions.
  • Bidding strategy: Setting the right bids to achieve the desired results.
  • Conversion rate improvement: Analyzing and adjusting different aspects of the account, from keywords to landing page design, to increase the number of conversions.

To get the best results from this kind of collaboration, we recommend that you look for a Google Partner certified agency, like ours!

SEM and Google Ads Ebook

Pere Munar

Pere Munar

Data Scientist at Cyberclick. PhD in Astrophysics from the University of Barcelona with more than ten years of research experience through data analysis and interpretation. In 2019 he redirected his professional career to the world of Data Science by graduating in Data Science and Big Data from the UB, as well as participating in the Science To Data Science (S2DS) program in London. He is currently part of Cyberclick's Data Science and SEM team.