What's search engine marketing (SEM)?

Search engine marketing (SEM) refers to the paid side of search marketing which involves paying for advertisements within search engine results and on webpages.

What Is Search Engine Marketing?

The definition of search engine marketing (SEM) has changed with the growth of search engine use. SEM was originally an umbrella term for marketing with search optimization, but it has evolved to refer to a specific strategy of paid search for more immediate, high volume results. Search engine optimization (SEO) is a long term campaign that uses tactics to garner authority and organically gain long term visibility.

Technology makes information infinitely accessible, but it can be overwhelming to navigate this extreme volume of data. Search optimization provides a clear pathway for traffic to locate a site, with the best authority, or answer to address a query. By harnessing the power of digital visibility, businesses have the chance to compete to get their products and services into the hands of the consumer.


SEO and SEM are both marketing strategies that work to build visibility online. While many think of the terms of “this or that” it is important to remember that though they are different, they are closely related. They complement each other when used in tandem or symbiotically for their full potential. The key difference between them is the investment of both time and money. 

  • SEM is a paid search strategy that boosts visibility quickly at a cost per click (CPC) or impression. 
  • SEO is a strategic plan that works to build online authority to prove to search bots that the site is a valuable representation of the query/queries, therefore, boosting its rankings in the SERPs over time.

Keywords in SEM and SEO

Search engine keywords are the blueprints of searching. They are words that users leverage to ask a question. The more often a word is used to ask or describe a question or topic, the more associated it becomes with that topic. Search engine marketing starts with keyword research to define which words will be of most use (by evaluating how people are searching for a topic or answer) and then tailor their content to mimic the query.

Both SEO and SEM rely heavily on keyword research to identify the most relevant queries to target and to help optimize landing pages. While keyword research for an SEM campaign might help advertisers create a better landing page for paid ads, an SEO campaign might instead try to craft a keyword-optimized answer to a common question. In either case, the page appearing readily in the SERPs will need keyword optimization in order to satisfy the visitors who click on it for more information.

SEM Strategies

SEM campaigns will require keyword research to inform ad campaigns around the targeted words used by your consumers. SEM strategies use paid methods to gain visibility in the search engine results page (SERP) of a search engine (Google, Bing, Yahoo), or on a webpage with Google AdSense, or may also be used for social media platforms like Facebook. 

Often SEM strategies, or paid search strategies, result in more immediate results, with a shelf life as long as the ad is being purchased. SEM campaigns can quickly build brand awareness, visibility, and revenue. This can be a quick way to make a big impact, especially if there is a lot of competition for keywords. SEM can be a helpful tactic for a new business without a lot of web presence, or to emphasize a branding change or website transfer. 


Pay-per-click (PPC) ads are purchased links that are displayed higher in the SERP, or ads that are placed on relevant websites or social media feeds. The company pays each time the ad or link is clicked, regardless of whether the click results in a conversion or not.

Ad Auction

Even though ads and link visibility in the SERPS can be purchased, the biggest buyer doesn’t always win. For every Google search or refresh of a social media feed, an auction takes place where a variety of factors determine the ad placement. These factors may include relevancy and/or keyword usage (Google’s quality score, and click-through rates for Facebook and Google) in addition to the cost a company has budgeted to pay-per-click. 


A click-through rate (CTR) is a metric that measures the number of clicks an advertisement receives divided by the total number of impressions. Impressions are the times that an ad or a link is loaded or displayed on a page, regardless of whether the ad or link is viewed or interacted with. A PPC click-through rate is the number of times the ads that are purchased are actually clicked on. 


Cost-per-click (CPC) is the amount that is charged to the advertiser every time their ad or link is clicked on. The CPC does not have a set value but can range depending upon the competition of keywords, the ad auction, and the budgeted max amount per paid click.


The cost-per-mille (CPM), sometimes referred to as the cost-per-thousand, is the amount that an advertiser pays for a thousand impressions. An impression doesn’t necessarily denote interaction or clicks with the link or advertisement, but refers to the number of times an ad or link has loaded on a search page, website, or social media feed. Impressions marketing tactics are generally used to boost visibility to create brand awareness.

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SEO Strategies

If SEM is a sprint to the finish line (or conversion/ purchase click), SEO is a marathon. SEO is a long term method that takes time and works to organically cultivate evergreen web traffic as a result of creating a valuable and authoritative online presence. White hat SEO techniques are used to improve the quality of a website by concentrating on delivering the right signals to Google and providing a good user experience. This can be done with three techniques. 

Content Optimization (On-Page SEO)

Creating informative and linkable pages on a website that expand resource knowledge is key to sending the right signals to bots, letting the search engine's algorithm know that the website is relevant and authoritative. This content is also highly stylized to meet the needs of a readership by being informative, and perhaps even entertaining.

Link Building (Off-Page SEO)

Content that is authoritative, high quality, and worthy of being used as a resource (optimized content) has the ability to be linked to from other websites. The quality of these links and the ability to be a linkable resource is rewarded by the search engines. Links help inform search engines of the broader context in which the website belongs, and the value of the quality of its content.  

Technical SEO 

Technical SEO is the framework of the website, the backend structure and foundation. It is composed of non-content elements, such as site speed, mobile accessibility, crawlability, site architecture, and security. Improving technical merits can often result in a near-immediate boost in the SERP.

Selecting a Search Marketing Strategy

The best practices for online visibility are strategies that help meet specific goals and address the particular needs of the company. If a website is looking to sell a product quickly, without concern for longevity or building a consumer base, SEM is a brilliant way to do so. If a company is looking to build value over time and continue growing traffic, SEO strategies are the road map to success.

The best search engine marketing practices, however, combine the powers of both SEM and SEO. This can help build authority as a long term investment with keyword rich and linkable content, but also maneuver quickly and advertise at high volume.