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SEM for Beginners: How to Get Started With Search Engine Marketing

Search engine marketing (SEM) is a powerful tool for businesses. It allows you to pay for advertisements that are pre-screened to interested parties based on what they are searching for. Best of all, you only pay if the customer clicks through the ad and takes the first step down your sales funnel.

This guide will walk you through the very basics of SEM along with tips for optimal keyword choice, getting the most out of your marketing budget and how to use SEM tools to manage your marketing campaigns.

What Exactly Are SEM Ads?

If you’re completely new to SEM, there is a simple way to quickly understand the concept. Go to Google and type in a product or service your business provides.

The search results should consist of the usual list of links. You may see some special links at the very top or at the side of the main results that are designated as paid or sponsored, however. These are SEM ads. Businesses pay for these ads to be attached to certain keywords or phrases that people type in while searching.

Google is the primary outlet for SEM ads, but you can pay for them at just about any of the major search engines; Bing, Yahoo! and Baidu all have SEM programs. Many of the popular social media platforms, such as Facebook and Pinterest, have their own SEM variants for internal searches and for matching profile interests.

Another term you’ll see for SEM programs is PPC, or pay per click. The two terms are interchangeable for the most part. PPC refers to the fact that viewers have to actually click on the ad and be taken to your page before you are charged for an ad view.

How Keywords Work

The things people type into search boxes are called keywords (or alternately keyphrases if they consist of more than one word).

The main body of search results (the ones that aren’t paid for) is called the organic results. The main business model of Google and their competitors is to match people to the most useful and relevant organic results for their search term. They do this through a combination of an artificial intelligence program that ranks pages for each individual search term and manual review of search results by teams of actual people. They may also use data they have about the searcher to promote results that are most relevant to them specifically; for example, if someone in Miami searches for “computer repair”, Google will usually use their location to prioritize the sites of local computer repair businesses.

This same technology is also put to use in SEM, but the process is a little different. The search engines want to match searchers with ads that are just as relevant to them as the organic results. Relevancy isn’t the sole factor at work, however.

The way businesses get SEM slots for a particular keyword (or phrase) is to put bids in on them. The business that has the highest bid and is the most relevant to the target phrase will win an SEM slot. The highest bidder is not necessarily guaranteed a spot; they can be beaten out by lower bidders who have sites that are more relevant to the phrase they are bidding on.

How The Bidding Shakes Out

First, you identify the keywords you want to advertise alongside.

You then place bids on those keywords. Your bid is called a maximum cost per click, or max CPC. As the name indicates, that’s the most you’re willing to pay for each web searcher that clicks through your ad.

Each search engine will also evaluate your ad and assign it a quality score. This is their determination of how relevant your ad is to the search term you’ve chosen.

A simple rule of thumb to determine your overall likelihood of winning a bid is to calculate your ad rank by multiplying the amount you’re willing to pay by your ad’s quality score. Whoever has the highest ad rank usually gets the SEM slots.

How do you determine how much to pay for an ad? The best thing to do is determine what the average value of a click is for you. The most basic way to do this is to take the amount you expect to make from each conversion related to the ad and multiply it by the percentage of people who convert after visiting the page. Of course, you’ll have much better data on this after you’ve run some ad campaigns and seen their conversion rates.

Choosing Keywords

Your choice of keywords and phrases to target has a huge impact on your overall conversions.

Keyword quality scores aren’t just a means for search engines to protect their business model; they’re also a great predictor of how likely to convert the traffic you’re reaching is. So how do you develop these relevant keywords?

The big trick is to identify specific things your business does that people are likely to be searching for, but to know when a keyphrase is getting so long and specific that it’s unlikely someone will actually type it in.

The most basic keywords for any business to start looking at are the specific products and services they offer, ideally distilled down to no more than four or five words. Instead of trying to stuff all of your services into one search phrase, break each item down into a keyphrase and run different SEM ads for each.

Businesses that serve a specific region also need to get that region’s name into the phrase while still attempting to keep things to five words at most.

You’ll find competition is usually high on these particular phrases. It may still be worth putting in a bid if you can beat the competition on relevance. If the terms are already too saturated, however, the best thing to do is focus your SEM campaigns on the items you offer that few to no other businesses offer.

Your keyphrase strategy isn’t something you need to get absolutely right immediately. You’ll probably find you need to monitor keywords over time and adapt your strategy to the ones that are working. Fortunately, this is easy to do. You can change your max CPC on a keyword or even remove it entirely at any time. It’s a very fluid system.

Helpful Tools

There are some tools online that can help you find relevant keywords for your business and size up the existing competition on them. Free tools of this nature include:
• Google AdWords Keyword Planner
• Google Analytics
• Bing Webmaster Tools
• SEO Book
• SEMRush
• SpyFu

Keyword Screening Methods

There are various ways to revise and filter your selected SEM keywords.

One important one is the use of negative keywords. If you’re an experienced Google searcher, you probably know that you can use basic Boolean algebra terms to help refine results. For example, if you put a minus sign in front of a word, it tells Google to exclude that word from your results. You can do the same thing with your SEM phrases. This helps to screen out unrelated traffic from other markets that might overlap with your keywords.

Most search engines also automatically include minor semantic derivations of your selected keyphrases, and they will sweep up auto-correct traffic that enters minor spelling or punctuation mistakes while searching. If you’re in a situation where you only want traffic searching for an exact phrase, you can put that phrase in quotation marks to indicate it must be typed exactly that way to qualify for your ad bid.

When deployed correctly, these screening methods will keep you from paying out money in ad clicks that aren’t really seeking what you’re selling.

Your Overall SEM Campaign

An SEM strategy usually identifies a group of viable search phrases to target. Larger businesses target hundreds, even thousands of these. When you start dealing with large quantities, you can start sorting them into campaigns where you can control variables like individual budgets and the regions where you want them to be displayed.

That should get you started with SEM. As previously mentioned, experimentation is a huge part of success in search advertising. Track your analytics figures and conversions to see what’s working and make adjustments as needed.