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f you’ve been running a business for a while, you’ve probably heard about SEO, or search engine optimization. While it is a useful tactic for driving leads, it’s not the only one. Enter search engine marketing, or SEM.

SEM is particularly helpful for small businesses. While SEO is an effective way of driving traffic long-term, it takes time to start working. SEM gets you to the top of search pages more quickly and puts your business in front of more potential customers.

Sound intriguing? Read on. This article will show you how SEM works and how to create effective SEM management strategies for your business.

How search engines work

To understand search engine marketing, you have to understand search engines. The most popular search engine, and the one you'll probably use for small business SEM management, is Google. Google processes more than 91% of all web searches.

Search engines such as Google use software called web crawlers to find and identify web pages. When someone searches for a topic, Google will analyze their search term to return pages it views as the most relevant and trustworthy.

Those pages appear on a search engine results page (SERP). The higher a page ranks, the more valuable Google thinks it will be to the searcher. Most results are organic, meaning the site owners don't pay for their ranking. Instead, Google's algorithm determines which web pages are best for that search.

Many SERPs also show sponsored results called search ads. A search ad looks the same as an organic result, except it has the word "Ad" next to the listing. Those ads are the result of search engine marketing. They appear because a business bids a certain amount of money to rank for a specific keyword.

Keyword research and strategy

One of the first things you do when designing a search ad is choosing target keywords. Your chosen keywords determine which searches you might rank for. Ensure that the chosen keywords are highly relevant to your product or service. This not only improves your ad's quality score but also enhances the user's experience as they're more likely to find what they're searching for.

Competitive analysis tells you what keywords your competitors are using and how difficult it will be to rank for each keyword. To conduct this analysis, you need one or more keyword research tools.

Some of the most popular keyword research tools for SEM management include:

  • Google Keyword Planner
  • Moz Keyword Explorer
  • Ahrefs Keyword Explorer
  • SERanking
  • SEMRush

These tools allow you to enter potential keywords and return important information, such as:

  • Keyword search volume: How many people are searching
  • Top competitors: Who else is trying to rank
  • Related keywords: Similar search terms
  • Average cost per click: How much you'll pay if people click on your ads

This information becomes the foundation for your SEM strategy. Once you've identified the highest-potential keywords to target, you can set your budget for each keyword and start designing ads.

Creating effective ads

Google uses a format called responsive search to help marketers build top-performing ads. To create a responsive ad, you submit a selection of headlines and descriptions. Then, Google tests different combinations to determine which wording works best for your audiences.

Google also offers the following advice for writing compelling ad copy:

  • Focus on the user's needs and how they'll benefit from your product
  • Craft content that relates to your target keyword

Google helps you create effective text by rating your ads on an Ad Strength scale. Ratings range from Poor to Excellent and consider factors such as:

  • Number of headlines and descriptions provided
  • Uniqueness of each header and description
  • Relevant keyword inclusion

Google even offers suggestions for improving your Ad Strength rating. Advertisers who go from Poor to Excellent see an average of 9% more clicks and conversions.

Once you've been running paid ads for 28 days, you'll have the option to enhance your search ads with image extensions. According to Google's website, images boost advertisers' click-through rates by 10%.

You'll also have the option to set up call ads for searches on devices with calling capability. These ads allow users to tap or click on your ad to call you directly.

All ads, regardless of format, should have a link to a unique landing page. A landing page is a page on your website designed specifically to encourage a visitor to take action, which can be anything from signing up for more information to making a purchase.

Landing pages should be simple, relevant to your ad, and easy to navigate, with a compelling call-to-action. Only include essential information about the product or service, its features, and how to take the next step.

Bidding and budgeting

Google Ads run on a pay-per-click (PPC) basis. You bid based on how much you're willing to pay for each click. That bid, along with the quality and relevance of your ad, determines whether Google chooses you for a given search result.

Search ads are ideal for small businesses because you choose how much you spend. As a Google advertiser, you'll set an average daily budget, which is the amount you're comfortable spending per day on search ads. You'll never pay more than your daily budget multiplied by 30.4 in a given month.

Within that budget, your ad spend works on a billing system. Your account will include a maximum cost-per-click. A max CPC is the most you're willing to pay for a click on a specific keyword.

With your max CPC as a basis, you'll choose either manual or automatic bidding. Automatic bidding adjusts your bids based on your average daily budget. Manual bidding lets you select your bid amount for individual keywords, with your max CPC setting an overall limit.

A higher bid increases your ad's chances to run, but quality is also a factor. If your ad is high-quality and search-relevant, you may not need the top bid.

So, yes, you do need to pay for SEM, but you don’t need to invest thousands of dollars to get the ball rolling. You can test different metrics and measure your return on investment to see whether it’s worth putting more effort into it. For instance, if you spend $300 on SEM and you end up getting $3,000 in additional sales for your comic book business, then it might be worth investing more.

Tracking and analytics

Track your Google Ads performance is by using key performance indicators (KPIs). KPIs are quantifiable metrics that tell you whether your ads are helping you reach your goals.

Choosing performance metrics

Essential KPIs for Google Ads include:

  • Click-through rate: The percentage of people who click your ads
  • Return on ad spend: How much money your campaign generates
  • Cost per acquisition: What you spend on search ads for each paying customer the campaign generates
  • Cost per conversion: What you spend for each desired user action, such as making a purchase or filling out a form on your landing page

Your Google Ads account comes with a free conversion tracking tool. You specify what actions you want visitors to take, and Google will track how often it happens.

Analyzing website activity

For even more data, link your Google Ads account to Google Analytics. Your analytics page will show what people do on your website after clicking your ad.

For instance, assume a customer clicks on a search ad promoting your newest product offering. The ad brings them to a landing page highlighting the benefits of that product and offers 20% off for customers who enter their email addresses.

Google Analytics will track that process. Assume the customer later clicks on an emailed coupon and ultimately buys the product from your business website. The tool will track that journey, too.

This information helps you strengthen the customer experience and understand areas for optimization. It tells you whether your promotions lead to sales and the paths customers take to purchase. This information enables you to design more effective ads and improves your return on investment (ROI).

For example, if you notice a high bounce rate, it may indicate a disconnect between what your ad promises and what your site delivers, or it might point to a poor user experience. Evaluate these metrics within Google Analytics to further improve on your search ads.

Local search marketing

Locally focused marketing is more important than ever for small businesses. According to a recent survey, 98% of consumers go online to research local businesses, and 87% do their research on Google. Both numbers are historic highs.

Local search ads help you show up in more of these searches. These ads appear in search results and Maps searches when a search term indicates the need for a local business. For example:

  • Barber near me
  • Movies starting soon
  • Vehicle inspection garages
  • Pharmacies open now

Local search ads often appear at the top of results for these searches.

Adding location data

To show up in local search ads, Google needs to know where you are. If you're just getting started, providing this information is as easy as entering your address. Google can then use that address to choose which local searches to consider you for.

For example, suppose you own a martial arts studio and want to enroll more students for the upcoming school year.

You know families want convenient activities, so you go to your Google Ads account and add location information. The next day, a mom in your area searches for "jiu-jitsu kids classes near me." Google chooses your local search ad, sharing your location and its distance from the searcher.

Manually adding location data is the simplest way to show up in these kinds of searches. Another option is to create a complete business profile, which can attract even more attention.

Creating a Google Business Profile

A Google Business Profile is an easy way to manage your business's presence on all Google properties, including Search and Maps. It's a free multimedia listing that includes everything a local customer might want to know about you, including:

  • Location
  • Phone number
  • Business hours
  • Customer reviews
  • Location photos
  • Services offered

Customers can contact you directly from your profile or click through to your website. Also, once your profile is complete, your ad campaigns will use it to draw location information for local searches.

Advanced SEM strategies

Search ads are the foundation of SEM, but there's much more you can do.


Remarketing engages audiences who have interacted with your business in the past, whether or not they purchased anything. Google Ads lets you remarket to people who have visited your website simply by adding snippets of code to your site.

The code includes a Google tag, which tracks site visitors. Combined with a unique remarketing snippet, it allows Google to match your ads to people who have shown interest in specific products or services.

Display advertising

Display advertising lets you go beyond SERPs to advertise on millions of websites and apps. You provide Google with an assortment of content types, including images, headlines, logos, and ad descriptions. Then, Google draws from that content to create unique ads targeted to each property's audience.

Video advertising

According to recent research, 96% of marketers see video as an essential part of their strategy. Google video campaigns make it easy for you to place marketing videos on your customers' favorite sites, including YouTube.

As with search ads, Google video campaigns let you choose a goal, bid strategy, and budget. You can also target audiences by location, language, or interest. It's a perfect entry into multimedia advertising for small and growing businesses.

Shopping campaigns

Shopping ads let you promote specific products online. Before you create one, you'll need to set up a Google Merchant Center account and add the products you plan to sell. Once entered, those products can appear across Google properties in searches for that product type.

You can set up a standard Shopping campaign or use Performance Max to promote multiple products from a single campaign. Performance Max uses automation, so it's a great choice if you prefer a more hands-off approach.

Choosing the right SEM tools

Effective small business SEM management strategies are data-informed, flexible, and diverse. Achieving all three goals can be challenging, but SEM tools make it easier.

SEM tools can analyze keyword choices, report on competitor activity, and analyze your ad's performance data. Some tools have more functionality but cost more per month. Others are low-cost or even free but have limited functions.

You get to decide what tools work for you and your business. As you research available options, consider the following factors:

  • Your monthly budget: How much you can spend on a new tool
  • Must-have features: What you need your SEM tool to do
  • Integrations: Whether you need the tool to coordinate with your existing marketing stack
  • Customer sentiment: How other users have rated the tool's help features

Many full-feature SEM management tools also help with SEO. Look out for those options if you plan to connect your SEM and SEO efforts.

Creating your SEM management strategy

Your small business SEM management strategy can be as simple or complex as you need it to be. Want to focus exclusively on search ads? No problem. Sign up for a Google Ads account and follow the instructions.

Want to expand into other strategies, such as video or display ads? A bit more content will broaden your options exponentially.

Most importantly, know what you want your strategy to do and how you plan to measure results. Track your measurable metrics, such as conversions or purchases, and pay attention to how much they cost. Your success versus the money invested will show you the path forward.

Novo Platform Inc. strives to provide accurate information but cannot guarantee that this content is correct, complete, or up-to-date. This page is for informational purposes only and is not financial or legal advice nor an endorsement of any third-party products or services. All products and services are presented without warranty. Novo Platform Inc. does not provide any financial or legal advice, and you should consult your own financial, legal, or tax advisors.

May 29, 2023
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