What is SEM?


Many people are still asking in the current market, what is SEM? And is it something I should be utilising? SEM simply stands for Search Engine Marketing – that is, the process of gaining more traffic on your website using paid strategies to appear on search engine results pages.

This is different from SEO, which uses organic strategies, unpaid, to appear in the results more often, and both of these fall under the umbrella of Search Marketing. This essentially means that a good marketing strategy can consist of both SEM and SEO. SEM can be a very useful strategy if it is optimised correctly, and we will briefly go through some of the important components of SEM here.

SEM Platforms and placements

An SEM platform is just the search engine which allows you to place an ad that appears when you have searched a topic, most successfully Google. Your ad then appears on the search engine results pages (SERPS), and how high up this list depends on your ad rank which we will describe below.
With an SEM strategy, your ad will be identified as an ad, usually in the corner, so that users know it is a paid ad, and you will only be charged if someone clicks on it. This is good as you only pay for it working, but then you must decide how much you are willing to pay for a higher placement.

Where you get placed

When a customer types in a search request, a process occurs which is described as an ‘ad auction’, determining where your ad gets placed within the SERPS. This is based on a number of factors, but has been boiled down to a formula:
Max CPC Bid x Quality Score = Ad Rank

Your max CPC (cost per click) bid is how much you are willing to pay each time a person clicks on your ad. A lower CPC means you are getting a better return on your investment, but in the ad auction a higher CPC could place you in a more prominent position on the page and gain you more attention.

Your quality score is a little more complicated, but consists of factors like click-through rate, relevance of keywords and historical performance of past ads. Your ad rank obviously determines how high up the page you are, and therefore makes it more likely that you will get clicks. You can raise up your quality score by making your ad as relevant as possible, using the right keywords both within your ad, and on your landing site, to greater show your ad is aligned with the users search intent. A higher quality score means you can spend less on your max CPC bid in a way to reduce your expenditure, and maximise your web traffic.

SEM Keywords

When you set up your SEM campaign, it is necessary to identify the keywords you want to target or even avoid. These keywords are crucial for ensuring your ad is relevant and therefore successful. For example, if you target the words ‘ceiling fan’, your ad will show when the user has typed in that search. These keywords are often split into groups:

Broad Match Keywords

This targets any word or phrase which is related, including synonyms, misspelling, and anything similar.

Phrase Match Keywords

This targets an exact few words, but includes extra words added before or after, such as the best ceiling fan, or find me a ceiling fan.


Exact Match Keywords

This targets the same intent of the user, accepting misspellings, shortened versions and reordered words to gain results that match the exact search, like ceiling fans or cieling fan.

Negative Keywords

Negative keywords, as suggested by the name, are words that show what you do not want. These include all of the above types, aimed at getting rid of searches that may be tangentially related, but do not fit with your ads intent or that of your campaign.

SEM Targeting

Once you have used your keywords to target which searches will produce your ad, you can take it a step further with SEM targeting. This allows you to further specify and narrow down the parameters to ensure your ad is being seen by the right people, at the right time.

Targeting by location allows you to designate a certain area in which your ad will be shown, specific to region or Zip code, to make certain your ad is where it needs to be.

Targeting by device clearly decides if your ad should only be shown on a mobile phone or other devices.

Targeting by a schedule allows your ad to be shown at specific times of day or days of the week, to better ensure its suitability and raise your clicks.

Finally, targeting by demographic can be of use in showing your ad to your target age and gender groups.

When used in conjunction all of these techniques can ensure that your ad appears where it should, when it should, and to whom it should, forming a working SEM campaign.


SEM is a paid process through which you can gain more clicks by appearing higher in the results pages of a search engine. It is different from SEO, which is not paid but rather uses organic methods to again try and gain a higher rank and appear more often in SERPS. You can better your chances in the ‘Ad Auction’ which determines how high you are through many factors, like how much you are willing to pay per click and your historical performance, and improve your keywords to make your strategy more impactful. By correctly using and utilising SEM you can improve the traffic on your site and convert that into more sales with the right targeting. SEM is an effective marketing strategy within the Search Marketing umbrella, and if you have any further questions about SEM, and whether or not it is right for your brand, please don’t hesitate to ask us for more information and guidance.