digital marketing

How to get results with Search Engine Marketing

For many businesses, the customer’s journey starts with search. Search topped the list of U.S. online marketing channels for the shopping industry, for example, ranking higher than direct web visits and referrals.

In search results, ad placement matters: the closer to the top your link is, the more likely people are to click on it. There are two ways to move your website into a good spot on search engine results pages (SERPs): Search engine optimization, which uses a mix of activities to help URLs rank well in the “organic” section of search results, and search engine marketing.

Search engine marketing (SEM) uses paid search ads to get more web traffic through desktop or mobile web search. (The term once referred to both paid ads and SEO, but has since shifted to focus only on paid options.)

SEM isn’t a substitute for other promotional activities, especially considering people ignore search ads most of the time. However, a competitive cost per acquisition makes paid search a valuable way to attract new customers, boost search engine presence, and support other marketing campaigns.

While advertising typically lets you pay for placement—you decide where people see it—SEM is a more fluid process. It generally uses pay-per-click (PPC)—also called cost-per-click (CPC)—which is a process that uses an auction and ranking system to determine which ads appear in which order.

With PPC advertising, ad placement is determined by two things: the maximum an advertiser bids for search queries, and their Quality Score (i.e., the relevance of the ad, keywords, and landing page content).

Search engines aim to deliver exactly what a searcher is looking for. Creating such a well-targeted SEM campaign depends on:

Understanding the specific target audience
Setting specific goals for the campaign
Choosing the right keywords to target
Organizing those keywords into focused campaigns and ad groups
Writing compelling advertisements
Driving traffic to a landing page that delivers the right information and is optimized to convert
Managing an SEM campaign requires constant monitoring, testing, tweaking, optimization, and learning. The process is similar whether you choose to advertise with Google or Bing—which also drives search advertising for Yahoo. Here’s what you need to know to get started.


As it applies to online marketing, your keywords are the words or phrases people use when they search for information that’s related to your brand, product, service, or industry.

Keyword research identifies the terms that are currently the most relevant to your business and the most profitable for your marketing campaigns. They have a direct impact on promotional campaigns, including:

Search engine marketing (SEM): keywords guide where you spend your search advertising budget.
Search engine optimization (SEO): keywords influence your on-page optimization, from URLs, titles, and tags to the content you publish.
Content marketing: keywords help shape the content and resources you create, from directing your social media efforts to creating eBooks and blog content.
Keywords can also guide other promotional efforts—even business decisions. In their “Beginner’s Guide to SEO,” the team at Moz wrote: “The usefulness of this intelligence cannot be overstated; with keyword research you can predict shifts in demand, respond to changing market conditions, and produce the products, services, and content that web searchers are actively seeking.”

There are two types of keywords:

“Short-tail” or “head” keywords are the top 10 or so terms—usually just one or two words in length—that drive search traffic to your website. These keywords tend to be very broad and are responsible for the majority of the traffic you get through search engines.
“Long-tail” keywords are longer phrases of three to five words that generate less—but more specific—search traffic.
Some keywords will remain static, but others may change based on trends, news, events, or your own promotional efforts. Regular monitoring and A/B testing identifies the terms that most effectively convert people into customers or prospects, the cost and competition for each keyword, and the terms your competitors are using and succeeding with.


Search is driven by keywords; so are pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns. While it seems easy enough to come up with a handful of words that are related to a business, a thoughtful cluster of keywords can easily spiral into hundreds of closely related words, variations, and phrases.

That’s why keyword research is so important, not just to generate a list of keywords, but also to pare it down to the set of keywords that are most relevant to your business. When it comes to PPC campaigns, what’s just as important as your keywords is how you organize them.

Keyword groupings are closely related keywords organized around a theme, like product, service, audience, or searcher intent. These groupings help determine when, and in which position, an ad will show up.

They also influence how search engines determine relevance between a keyword, an ad, and the webpage the ad directs people to—key factors in determining a Quality Score. “Quality Score is primarily a measure of relevance, and improving keyword Quality Score is a matter of structuring your PPC campaigns into small, well-organized, tightly knit groups of keywords,” said WordStream, a PPC software company.


The first steps in keyword research are often internal. Consider your business, your market research, and the most visited pages on your website.

What are the most logical keywords tied to your brand—like industry, type of product or service, or profession?
What terms do people typically use to find your website?
What are your customers looking for?
Your next steps will be to:

Check the popularity of the word on your list
Expand your list with other related keywords
Cut any keywords that aren’t likely to perform well
Many professionals who work in online marketing have honed their keyword research skills, including Google Analytics, SEO, SEM, or PPC specialists.


A pivotal component in a search engine marketing (SEM) campaign is a well-written ad. Other factors influence whether your ad will be displayed, but success is determined by whether your ad can inspire anybody to click through.


There are different ad options available for different search engines—for example, some formats specifically target mobile users—search ads are primarily text based.

A standard text ad for Google or Bing includes:

A headline of 25 characters maximum
A display URL (i.e., your main URL) of 35 characters maximum
The destination URL (i.e., your landing page)
A brief description
For Google ads: two lines of 35 characters each
For Bing ads: 71 characters total
While the ad specifics are similar between the two leading search engines, follow the links to learn more about SEM options on Google or Bing.


Both Google and Bing use pay-per-click (PPC), also referred to as cost-per-click (CPC), which Google describes as “a bidding model that charges advertisers only when someone clicks on their ad.”

That model means that an SEM campaign isn’t just creating an ad and putting it online. Every time someone enters a search query that’s related to a keyword you’ve set for your campaign, the search engine looks at all the advertisers competing for that keyword and—in an instant—holds an auction to decide which ads win a spot.

(One objective of the keyword research that drives your SEM campaigns is to cut any keywords that are so competitive you won’t realistically win an auction for them.)

The winners of the auction are generally determined by something called ad rank—a rank that considers the maximum bid set by each advertiser, which can range from pennies to unlimited (within certain restrictions), and an ad’s Quality Score. Other factors that influence an auction include the type of device being used, the searcher’s language preferences, their location, and the time of day.

An ad’s Quality Score is based on a few factors, including how relevant the ad is to the actual search, the expected click-through rate (CTR)—how likely someone is to click on an ad with that keyword—how closely related the ad is to the targeted keyword, and the landing page experience. Making sure your website is mobile friendly will also likely impact your ad’s Quality Score, with search engines prioritizing mobile-friendly sites for mobile device users.

The landing page experience depends entirely on how well you’ve optimized your landing page. It’s a factor that can impact not only your Quality Score, but also separately influence your ad rank and advertising costs.


Which network is right for your advertising campaign? One major factor is user preference: Google is by far the more popular platform, with roughly three-quarters of market share, but that doesn’t mean Bing doesn’t deserve your attention.

Different people have different search preferences; despite Google’s popularity, you may find that your audience preferences are more diverse.

You can get an indication of this by checking your website analytics. For example:

Compare the number of referrals you get from Bing versus Google, which will reflect the number of people who found your site via each search engine.
See which mobile devices people use to look at your website. Windows phones, for example, use Bing by default.
See which browser people use to access your website. The majority of Internet Explorer users use Bing for their search queries.
There are other differences to consider like formatting, budgeting options, and targeting. But the primary consideration is whether the people you want to reach will see your ad in the first place!


It isn’t the basic building blocks but the subtle details that are the real challenge behind a PPC campaign.

Choosing the right keywords, for example, takes a thorough understanding of a business’ goals and objectives—it’s easy to spend a lot of energy aiming ads at the wrong people. That isn’t to say a good campaign will be optimized from day one, either. Running a PPC campaign takes a lot of time, refining keywords, groupings, tweaking ad copy, revising the landing page, and monitoring results.

To run a campaign you need someone who has solid experience with keyword research and PPC campaigns, as well as copywriting and analytics. On an ongoing basis, they must be prepared to track, analyze, and optimize the different elements of your campaign to get the maximum possible conversions.

Look for PPC specialists and PPC management experts who have experience across multiple campaigns. Google offers AdWords certification, and Bing also offers a training program.


Generally speaking, a landing page is any page on a website. Most typically the homepage, it’s a page that is accessed—“landed on”—via a link on another site. They can be individual blog posts, product description pages, or content like an “About Us” page.

When it comes to marketing, a landing page has a specific role: to convert. As part of a marketing campaign, a landing page, also called a “lead capture page,” is optimized through language and design to get a visitor to convert by taking a specific action.

With this goal in mind, you can be creative about how to best use that page:

Target a specific audience group, highlighting information that’s specifically relevant to their needs and interests.
Support a specific advertising or PR campaign with links to relevant materials.
Promote sales of a particular product or service, prompting people to either purchase or provide their information for further details.
Focus on a particular topic, like an area of specialization, product, or service.
Optimize to support a PPC campaign, contributing to a great Quality Score by delivering the exact information searchers are looking for.
Collect visitor information for contests and special offers.
Organize information to build on presentations at an event or conference to gather feedback, track information requests, or download materials.

Since landing pages are meant to move someone to take a specific action, the key to an effective landing page is focus. In the context of a PPC campaign, this means creating a page that delivers exactly what people are looking for.

For example: If you sell household electronics and your paid ad promotes your selection of noise-cancelling headphones, your landing page should feature your noise-cancelling headphones. Directing people to your homepage instead, where they’ll need to sift through your product categories or do another search, will lead to frustration and a poor chance of getting the sale.

Planning your landing page, you should answer the questions that are critical to any promotional campaign, including your objective, target audience, and metrics. The narrow focus of the messaging will guide your landing page design, but here are a few other considerations.

Clean design. From the headline to the images you choose, it should be very easy to see what the page is about, why it’s relevant, and what the next action should be.
A good headline. Your headline should be compelling and direct, interesting but not so clever that the topic of the page isn’t still obvious. A compelling headline tells someone they’ve found what they’re looking for and encourages them to read on. Try to match your heading with a trigger word (i.e., why, why, how, or when) that matches the visitor’s intent.
A compelling call to action (CTA). Whether you want a visitor to make a purchase, give you their contact information, or download a file, the CTA should be easy to spot and optimized to get the most conversions. Will your mailing list get more sign-ups with a button that says “subscribe now,” “register today,” or “sign me up?” You may need to do some testing to find out.
Optimize your lead capture form. Lead generation forms aren’t just a critical part of landing page design; if you get it wrong, people won’t bother filling it out. There is no standard length for sign-up forms: website review service WooRank has found that shorter forms generally get more responses, but people who take time to complete a longer form tend to be higher-quality leads. As with a CTA, only testing can tell for sure what your particular audience will do.
Follow other standard SEO best practices to ensure your entire landing page is optimized.
In addition to a copywriter to write enticing copy for your campaigns, you’ll also need a web designer to create polished and optimized landing pages that will get people to convert.


A/B testing is a simple concept: test two nearly-identical versions of the same thing and see which one does better.

There are many websites that offer advice, case studies, and best practices for marketing campaigns. But the only true way to test what works with a target audience is to test different options live and see what happens.

You can A/B test anything. Here are a few ideas:

How does using clipart versus photos of real people impact conversions?
Does adding video to your sign-up page improve results?
Do people respond better to headlines focused on action or benefits?
Fine-tune your call to action (CTA): Do response rates change with different language, color of buttons, link placement, etc.?
How does the length of your sign-up form impact completion?
Testing different elements can give you the insights you need to:

Tweak headlines and descriptions for better results
Refine landing pages to perform better
Compare identical ads on different search advertising networks
Refine your keyword groupings


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