SEM Marketing Best Practices: Transforming Search Into Sales

Learn elements of excellent search engine marketing to turbo-charge your paid search campaigns.

By Tom Wintaugh | September 5, 2023 | 7 minute read
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A majority of all shopping now starts with a web browser, with 6 out of 10 purchases beginning online, and more than 40% of all ecommerce originating with a Google search. For this reason, Search Engine Marketing (SEM marketing) continues to stand out as an effective tool to capture targeted traffic and drive conversions. As consumers increasingly turn to search engines for their purchasing decisions, exploring SEM can be worthwhile for businesses that want to stay competitive. In this blog, we’ll decode the format and goals of search marketing, to help you turn searches into tangible sales. 

What Is Search Engine Marketing? 

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is a digital marketing technique used to increase a website's visibility on search engine results pages (SERPs) through paid advertising, organic content searches, and other forms of SEO. While SEM is related to (and relies upon) Search Engine Optimization, the term “SEM” is most often used to refer specifically to paid search content. SEM marketing involves bidding on keywords so that a business' ad will appear when those keywords are searched for, driving targeted traffic to a website. We looked at the features of various site search service providers here.

Why Are SEM Ads Effective? 

Search ads can be very effective because they help businesses display their products to customers who have already indicated their interest (and potential sales value) with their web searches. The immediacy of search ads allows businesses to connect with potential customers at the exact moment they're searching for a product or service, making them more likely to convert. SEM ad budgets can be more effective because the targeted user has already made an inquiry about the subject at hand, and is likely predisposed to purchase or investigate further. For these reasons, advertisers continue to be very bullish on search ads, with Google Ads clocking more than 55 billion in ad revenue per quarter. 

SEM vs. SEO 

The primary benefit of paid SEM over SEO is speed. While SEO can take months to show results, sponsored SEM campaigns can provide immediate visibility on search engines.  

  • SEM encompasses both paid and organic search strategies, including SEO efforts. The goal of all SEM is to gain visibility and engagement on search engines. Paid SEM campaigns directly target searches for specific keywords and serve ads in those search results. 
  • SEO focuses on optimizing a website to rank higher in organic search results over time. This is a more long-term (and less costly) strategy that involves optimizing content, building backlinks, and improving site structure. SEO relies upon providing relevant content for specific user searches and waiting for search engine algorithms to determine relevance. We wrote more about the difference between content-oriented SEO and technical SEO here.
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Common Search Ad Features 

While there is some variation from platform to platform, most SEM marketing ads are comprised of these three elements: 

  • Headline: This is the first thing users see. The goal of the headline is to succinctly recognize (and answer) a relevant user search, in the most compelling voice possible. In just a few words, a great headline should capture attention, quickly demonstrate an understanding of market conditions/preferences around the search term, and invite the user to take action by clicking the ad (read more about essentials of great CTAs here). It is a common practice to include the primary keyword in the headline. 
  • Description: More detailed copy that provides additional information about the product or service. Google allows 90 characters for description text, which translates to about 1-2 sentences. Descriptions should be very concise and persuasive—the goal here is also to "answer" a user's search quickly, and suggest what additional benefit or information will be gained by clicking the link. Principles of effective product descriptions also apply here. Some ad formats allow for multiple short headlines and descriptions. 
  • Landing Page: Once a user clicks on an ad, they're directed to a landing page. This page should be relevant to the ad and optimized for conversions. Some ads might link directly to a product page where a sale can be made, while others direct users to pages with more detailed information and methods for contacting the business. The landing page is where the user's journey from interest to action culminates. 

Using Keywords with SEM Marketing 

Keywords are the foundation of SEM marketing. They determine where and when your ads will appear, and are the primary way of targeting an audience, before any industry or demographic factors come into play. Determining exactly what your target audience is searching for at the start of their purchasing journey requires a deep understanding of customer behavior/personas, pain points in the industry, and competitor messaging. These insights should be paired with an analysis of individual keywords’ search volume, competitiveness, and CPC price. With a nearly infinite number of potential search terms to choose from, it's crucial to: 

  • Conduct thorough keyword research with SEO service providers to identify terms your target audience is searching for and your competitors are ranking for 
  • Group related keywords and create very specific ad groups based on intent and demographic data 
  • Use both broad and long-tail keywords to capture a wide range of search queries 
  • Complement SEM campaigns with additional site content (like blogs) optimized for related keywords 
  • Remember that keywords are not static—regularly review and refine your keyword list based on performance data

Helpful practices for SEM Marketing 

1. Don’t just rely on intuition for keyword selection.

Every SEM campaign should begin with thorough keyword research with an eye towards using keyword volume and difficulty data to determine the best candidates. While there might be “common sense” keywords around every product category, many of these terms are either too competitive, or in some cases too specific, to draw a large amount of searches to an individual SEM ad. There are many online tools dedicated to data-supported keyword research which can aid selection of keywords with the best chance at traction. Read a detailed explanation of how to select keywords your competitors are missing here. 

2. Think of the landing page as the essential partner of the SEM ad.

Effective SEM ads don’t end on Google. The whole point of SEM marketing is to capture traffic and direct it to an intended web page, be it a product page or a form fill. So, the search ad copy is only half of the equation. For this reason, landing pages should be directly relevant to the ad copy and optimized for conversions using proven ecommerce UI CRO techniques A mismatch between the ad and the landing page can lead to higher bounce rates and wasted ad spend.

3. Set a clear goal for your SEM campaigns.

SEM advertising can produce many more positive results beyond that initial click. Determine what you aim to achieve with your SEM campaigns, whether it's brand awareness, demand generation, or direct sales. Each of these objectives requires a different strategy, and keywords and messaging should be calibrated specifically to the goal at hand. Then, consider what metric results would constitute success. 

4. SEM campaigns require frequent adjustments and should never be “set and forget.”

SEM campaigns have many moving parts which determine success and costs, such as the frequency of searches for a given keyword, competitiveness for that traffic, and the overall value of a target audience to businesses. Conditions can change rapidly, so a strategy and budget that worked last quarter might be too costly and ineffective today. We looked at elements that drive web traffic here. It’s important to continuously track the performance of SEM campaigns using tools like the Google Ads dashboard. Good campaigns constantly adjust bids, refine keywords, and test different ad variations to optimize performance.  

5. SEM campaigns can be a valuable source of market research.

Very specific market insights are another benefit of SEM campaigns, which can act as an indicator of user interest around keywords or effectiveness of a specific messaging approach. SEM advertising results can confirm that an audience for products exists and is active online—or the opposite. An SEM campaign which “fails” to deliver clicks might actually be a very valuable data point about what doesn’t work for an audience. 

SEM Costs and Conversions—What is a good SEM CTR rate? 

SEM marketing costs are highly variable based on the search platform, size of search audience, and the degree of competition for the specific keywords you're targeting. Average SEM campaigns on Google Ads produce a 3-5% CTR, or click-through-rate, meaning 3-5 out of every 100 users who are served a search ad will click on the content. This average can also go up or down based on the specific ad format, with text-based Search Network ads outperforming Display Network ads by more than 4 to 1 for clicks.   

For B2B businesses which score and qualify leads, user engagement with an SEM campaign can be used as an indicator that a site visitor is a potential lead and is ready to be connected with appropriate messaging and outreach. The challenge then becomes determining an ad budget which is proportionate to the eventual amount of sales produced from those clicks and leads. 

Well-targeted SEM marketing is a powerful way for businesses to reach larger audiences. 

SEM marketing remains a powerful way to to drive traffic, increase visibility, and boost sales. It’s important to identify the goals of the campaign, select keywords which balance relevance with budget, and use results to continually hone messaging and targeting. Web search is playing an increasingly huge role in all purchasing decisions, making SEM an important way for brands to connect with customers at the beginning of their buying journey. 

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About The Author

Katy Ellquist

Katy Ellquist, Miva’s Digital Marketing Strategist, is an accomplished writer, marketer, and social media analyst who has created sophisticated content campaigns for a broad range of professional clients. She brings to Miva a complex understanding of ecommerce trends and techniques, building upon extensive digital agency experience and a prior role as direct liaison to Miva’s top accounts. Katy is a regular contributor to the Miva blog, covering essential ecommerce topics like design & development strategy, site optimization, and omnichannel selling, with the goal of increasing the actionable knowledgebase of the entire Miva community.

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Author's Bio

Tom Wintaugh

Tom is a Content Marketing Specialist at Miva.

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