MDP Blog

Everything You Need to Know About Search Engine Marketing

One of the most effective ways to grow your business and reach new customers is search engine marketing or SEM. While it's crucial that you leverage organic strategies to attract traffic over the long term, sometimes this isn't enough because competitors will outbid you on paid searches.

This is where SEM comes into play.

For instance, consider what happens when I type "best VPN" in Google -- notice that all the first results I get after my query are all ads. That means someone has spent money with AdWords for their company to rank for these specific keywords/phrases!

Screenshot of results for the search 'best VPN'

Now, my focus is on Google because it's the most popular search engine.

Out of 100 searches, 35 searches start on Google and last about a minute. If there are other businesees outbidding you through advertising campaigns that push them above yours in SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages), it will be difficult for your business to appear at the top organic results.

If you want your customers to find you, you need to be on top of a Google SERP. However, the only way to appear at the top when other businesses are paying for ads is to also invest in SEM (search engine marketing).

Buying ads ensures that people see your product or service first when they're searching for something related to what you offer online!

What is SEM (Search Engine Marketing)?

Search engine marketing, or SEM for short, is a type of advertising that uses paid ads to make sure your business's products and services appear on search engine results pages (SERPs). When someone types in certain keywords related to your business on their computer or mobile device, the ads you're paying for will pop up.

When using SEM, Advertisers bid on keywords that users of services such as Google or Bing might enter when looking for certain products. Search engines, in turn, allow advertisements to appear alongside search engine results, giving the advertisers’ ads top priority to appear first in the results and be seen by potential customers.

Google's various ad formats allow consumers to view ads that are either text-based or product-based. Product listing ads, for example (also known as Shopping Ads), contain a variety of information and provide users with the ability to quickly browse products while looking at price points and reviews.

winter coats images from amazon

Search engine marketing provides the opportunity for advertisers to place their ads in front of motivated customers who are ready to buy at the right time. Search engines have an advantage over other advertising media because they offer you targeting options, making it a very powerful and effective way for businesses to grow quickly.

Search Engine Marketing vs Search Engine Optimization

Both of these terms are often confusing for people who are fairly new to digital marketing.

Essentially, the goals for SEM and SEO are to increase traffic to your website or business by boosting the chances of your brand appearing higher in search engines for particular keywords.

That said, the approach with each of these techniques is fundamentally different.

On one hand, SEM requires you as an advertiser to pay Google to bring you traffic and clicks. SEO, on the other hand, uses keyword research and placement to generate organic (non-paid) traffic.

While SEM brings you the traffic you desire faster, it costs you money as you have to bid for those keywords. As for SEO, the results are slow but gradual. The upside is that with SEO, you only need to invest your time, not money. The technique you choose is highly dependent on your advertising budget and needs.

However, it’s important to note that these two strategies are a key component of any digital marketing strategy because:

SEO brings evergreen traffic in the form of organic search results, which is helpful for driving brand awareness at the top of your sales funnel (referred to as top-of-the-funnel by marketers).

While …

Search engine advertisements drive conversions at the bottom of the funnel.

The Basis of Search Engine Marketing: Keywords

The success of a search engine marketing campaign is highly dependent on the target keywords. Hence, keyword research becomes an instrumental part of the process. Besides, when customers are searching for a product, the results they get are based on the keywords they enter into the search engine.

Keyword Research

The first and most important step in an SEM strategy is identifying the right keywords to target in your bids. Start your research and find keywords that your target audience would potentially use when searching online. Think about your ideal client, when they are thinking about products like yours, what terms do they use to search?

What queries would they enter in the search engine? Often, these keywords will be brand terms and industry keywords that are synonymous with your product or service. They could even be terms that define your competitors. Still, it’s equally important to identify what intent consumers have when using particular keywords.

Are they ready to buy or are they looking for more information? Once you figure out the user intent, then you can choose keywords that your audience is likely to use at their particular point in the buyer journey. Categorizing your keywords by buyer intent also helps you manage your ad budget better.

For instance, if you have a limited advertising budget, it would be more strategic to focus on bidding on keywords that signify a buying intent. These keywords are also referred to as having commercial intent. Typically, keyword phrases with commercial intent would have modifiers such as:

  • Free shipping
  • Deals
  • Coupon code
  • Buy online

Targeting these keywords would mean that your target audience is customers who are at the bottom of the sales funnel and are looking to make a purchase.

Companies with a larger budget can, on the other hand, bid on a wider variety of keywords with different keyword intent like:

  • Navigational intent
  • Transactional intent
  • Navigational intent

Keyword Competition & Volume

Researching keywords is vain work if the keywords you identify have zero related searches. In other words, you want to identify keywords that people are actually using. Otherwise, you won’t get any traffic or traction for your ads even if you win the bid.

However, it’s also critical to note that you don’t necessarily want to target keywords with an extremely high number of searches. The higher the search volume a keyword has, the higher the competition and the more expensive it will be to bid for that keyword.

So, how do you choose your keyword? Well, I recommend sticking to keywords with a mid-range or lower search volume depending on the average search volume for your chosen keywords.

Additionally, these keywords should have low competition. But you’ll have to look strategically as these types of keywords are not easy to come by.

In the end, you have to determine a sweet spot between volume (demand) and competition (budget).

Cost of Keywords

As mentioned before, the more competitive a keyword is, the more expensive it is. So, Google shows ads with the highest bids and the highest quality score (Google assigns each ad a quality score to determine which one is most relevant for each keyword).

If the highest bids get the highest placement, then it means the lowest bids are not shown. The more competitive your bid is the higher your chances of appearing in searches.

Structuring Your Account and Campaigns

Theoretically, it’s possible to bucket your keywords together in a single ad even if you’re targeting multiple keywords for multiple products or services. However, that is recipe for disaster as the most competitive keywords would gobble down your entire ad budget and decrease the quality score of your ads at the same time.

That is why it’s essential to have a siloed structure for your Google Ad account. An example could be something similar to this:


  • Shoes
  • Shirts

Ad Groups:

  • Under Shoes – Tennis and Walking Shoes
  • Under Shirts – Polo shirts


  • Under tennis shoes – tennis shoes, best tennis shoes, shoes for tennis, red tennis shoes
  • Under walking shoes – walking shoes, black walking shoes, men’s walking shoes, walking shoes for women
  • Under polo shirts – red polo shirt, golf polo shirt, polo shirt for golf, button-down polo shirt

Google Ads campaigns have several levels as highlighted above. Breaking down your campaigns into levels makes it easy to manage each ad while tracking the ad spend to get the best ROI.

Below is a breakdown of what makes up each level:

  • Campaign – This is the main level for managing your ad groups
  • Ad Group – consists of a set of keywords you’re targeting clustered by theme.
  • Keywords – these are the search queries you’re bidding on. A clustered set of these makes up an ad group.
  • Ad – this is the copy that accompanies or is displayed for the keywords you choose to bid on.

With such a siloed system in your ad account, you’ll be able to identify what’s working and what’s not so you can tweak your ads for better performance.

Ad Copy

When all is said and done, it’s the copy of your ads that will ‘speak’ to your audience. The more appealing and compelling your copy is, the higher the conversions you’ll get. Your ad writing prowess will determine whether your audience is convinced to click on your ads or not.

A Google ad has three main components namely:

  • Title
  • Display URL (where people who click will be redirected)
  • Description

Once you understand what your target audience would be searching online, then you can write copy that addresses their interests and desire. Most importantly, remember that with SEM, you don’t just launch your campaign and forget it.

The best campaigns are those that you monitor and constantly tweak to maximize your ad spend. That means A/B testing your ads and optimizing keywords continuously to improve ROI.

Best Search Engine Marketing Tools

Some aspects of SEM can be time-consuming without using the right tools. Tools make keyword research more efficient and help you to monitor the performance of your ads and improve them.

Below is a list of the best SEM tools on the market.

Google Trends

If you’re on a tight budget and don’t have the capacity to pay for tools right out of the box, Google has some of the best FREE ones to kick off your SEM. One of these is Google Trends. This free tool allows you to identify the search volume of particular keywords by region, language, or time frame.

It also gives you the ability to determine the most trending keywords and which ones are past their prime. The last thing you want is to bid on keywords that are past their high and are currently on a downward trend. For e-commerce businesses, Google Trend’s capacity to measure interest by region gives you the insight you need to tailor your ads to specific locations.

Google Ads Keyword Planner

Google is the largest and most popular search engine. It’s only logical that as a marketer, it would be at the top of the list of search engines where you want your ads to appear. In that case, the search engines keyword planner is among the best SEM tools in the market. Best of all, it’s free!

Google Ads Keyword Planner is a powerful keyword research tool. With insights including the performance of particular keywords over time, you can narrow down on keywords with the most potential for your business.

The best bit about this tool is that other than keyword insights, it also suggests possible bid prices you can expect for the keywords. That way, you know whether it makes sense to target a keyword depending on your budget. Even better, once you settle on your target keywords, Google Ads Keyword Planner allows you to launch campaigns from the tool.


If your budget is not too tight, you’ll want to try SEMRush. This SEM tool is best known for its prowess at:

  • In-depth keyword research
  • Keyword rank tracking
  • Site audits
  • Traffic analysis etc.

If you want to rank for long-tail keywords organically, SEMRush is arguably the best tool to use. Other SEM efforts that the tool does well include:

  • Figuring out where your competitors are spending their marketing budget
  • Analyzing competitors’ geographical presence
  • Figuring out how much you should spend to bid on specific keywords
  • Discover who you’re competing with when bidding for keywords
  • Figuring out which keywords your competition is targeting
  • Studying the composition and structure of your competitors’ ads

In short, if you want to find loopholes you can fill to outrank your competitors, SEMRush is the tool to use.

We know which tools to use when researching target keywords on Google and which tool gives you the insights you need to outrank your competitors. But do you know a tool that taps into multiple search engines, including social media channels? does that with near perfection.

This ability allows you to segment your keyword research by channel e.g., Twitter, Instagram, App Store, Bing, Amazon, YouTube etc.

Still, that barely scratches the surface of what this tool does. My favorite feature of is that once you input a target keyword, it provides you with tens of variations and phrases, allowing you to extend your list of potential keywords exponentially.

The tool leverages Google’s autocompleting feature to come up with relevant keywords based on your base keyword. With the free version allowing you to generate more than 700 long-tail keyword ideas for every search term, you can imagine how many keywords you can identify in minutes.

Couple that with its ability to analyze keyword trends and you have a winner.

The keyword research and SEM tools mentioned above are by no means a conclusive list. However, they’re some of the best you can leverage. You don’t even need to pay for a keyword research tool to start.

Once you identify your need, you can use a combination of these tools to kickstart your SEM strategy. By following the steps highlighted in this post, you’ll be well on your way to laying down a winning SEM strategy.