Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is one of the most useful parts of an online marketing strategy. It can also be one of the more confusing topics for many small business owners who might not have experience with online advertising or with the intricacies of search engines and how they play a role in online promotion.
In this article, we’ll examine what SEM is, the different promotional elements that comprise it, and how to use these elements on major platforms like Google and Facebook.
What Is Search Engine Marketing (SEM)?
SEM is an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of online marketing practices. At its most basic, SEM is the practice of optimizing and promoting your website to achieve higher rankings on search engine results through paid media buys and other methods. This is primarily achieved by using tools that optimize your website’s content in a way that influences how your website is seen and incorporated into search engine results.
Why Search Engine Marketing (SEM)?
SEM might be viewed as a very narrow slice of the online marketing pie. But in truth, your website’s visibility and overall perception is largely determined by where it ranks on search engines. By using the practices below to ensure that your site is “search engine friendly,” you’ll have a better chance of attracting more attention from consumers that use search engines to find products or services similar to what you and your organization offer.
Basic Parts of SEM
SEM is comprised of four primary components:
- Reputation Management
- Link Management
- Directory Inclusion
- Pay-Per-Click Advertising
Let’s examine each one of these in more detail.
While initially coined as a public relations term, reputation management is a critical online practice that, when handled correctly, can aid your company’s search engine results. Reputation management consists mainly of addressing information about your company across the internet, whether that information is positive or negative.
Reputation management is really about assessing consumer attitudes and perceptions regarding your company. What are people saying about you and your brand? What type of feedback is readily available for others to find, and is it favourable?
For example, your company has a profile on Yelp, and among the dozen or so positive reviews, there is a lone, very negative review from a dissatisfied customer. Responding to this review via Yelp and correcting or addressing the information in the review is one aspect of reputation management.
Another example might come from internal sources. For instance, an employee conducted an online search and found an entry about your company that contains wrong or outdated information. Correcting this entry and ensuring that the same outdated information isn’t available elsewhere online is another way to manage your online reputation.
While search-engine logic can appear mysterious to most, it’s actually a set of algorithms that help parse enormous amounts of collected data into easy-to-read bits. One thing that search engines look for when scanning a website’s data is the number of links available for users to get to that website. The practice of link management is slightly more involved than just going to a bunch of random websites and looking for a way to get your site mentioned.
Link management, or how links are structured across websites, is developed in two different ways: Reciprocal and Non-Reciprocal.
As the name implies, reciprocal links are formed when you place a link to a website on your site and they place a link to your site on theirs. In general, search engines view reciprocal linking favourably, as it implies a level of trust between the two sites.
Non-reciprocal links, or inbound links, are links that appear on one website, but with no link back to it. In general, search engines view these links less favourably, as there is no inherent verification in simply putting a link on a website.
In addition to the link structures themselves, search engines will also evaluate the quality of a site and how contextually appropriate those listed links are for the site that they’re on. For example, if your company sells supplies to local farms, a search engine will place a higher value on a link placed on a website that deals with farming as opposed to a link placed on a website that deals with theatre. Relevance is the order of the day.
Directory inclusion is also known as “site indexing.” Search engines add thousands of new websites every day. As a consequence of this immense volume, search engines are hard-pressed to keep up with all of this new data and immediately include it in their results. Search engines use online directories as a way to verify and track new information.
There are two main directories: Yahoo Directory and Open Directory Project. Each of these directories requires websites to submit information that must then be reviewed by a human editor. For Google, an online tool is available that allows websites to submit an XML sitemap file that will ensure all pages are found.
Even after indexing your site via these methods, there is still a chance some of your webpages will not be indexed. There are a variety of factors that can lead to this, but a common reason is that search engines often overlook webpages far removed from the root directory of a site (i.e. yoursite.com/brilliant will be indexed, but not yoursite.com/brilliant/fantastic/we’re_wonderful).
If you’ve spent any time investigating online advertising in the past five years, you’ve probably heard of Pay-Per-Click Advertising (PPC). PPC ads work precisely as their name implies: advertisers only pay for an ad if it generates a click from a user.
How Does PPC Advertising Work?
Depending on what service you use (i.e. Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc.), PPC ads are targeted based on keywords or audience, appearing for online users that search for a particular product or service or those that fit a specific demographic profile. In all cases, these parameters are determined by the advertiser, giving him or her far more control over their ad campaign and spending than other traditional forms of online advertising.
However, PPC ads do have their drawbacks:
1. They’re not very pretty.
Conduct a Google search. On the first search engine results page (SERP), scan the “sponsored ads” either at the top of the page or to the right-hand side. You’ll see a block of text, typically four lines long, with a hyperlink. This is Google’s version of a PPC ad, and it’s not very attractive. PPC ads generally do not offer advertisers any real control over how the ads look.
2. They have become a bit common.
Many people are so accustomed to the look of SERPs that they often overlooked these sponsored ads in favor of organic search results. Additionally, on platforms like Facebook, some users view these sponsored posts as inauthentic, making it unlikely that their users will click on them.
The Tricky Part of PPC: Bidding and Budgeting
While PPC ad campaigns put more control in the hands of the business owner, they also require a more intensive setup and ongoing maintenance in order to maximize your investment. This is due to the fact that not all clicks are created equal, at least not in the world of PPC:
- The amount you will pay for a click is directly tied to the parameters you use to establish your campaign.
- Possible parameters include: geography, select demographic information, interests and keywords.
- Depending on the popularity of any of your chosen factors, the price per click can be high or low.
Take this SEM example. You own a bike shop in Dalston. You want to create a pay-per-click campaign on Google that targets people looking to purchase a bike or bike accessories in your area and the rest of London.
If you were to select broad keywords like “Bike” and “Hackney,” the cost for these keywords would be very high. These keywords are in demand since they are 1) generic and 2) targeted to a large and popular borough, respectively.
In this instance, more appropriate keywords might be “discount bikes” or “affordable bikes” and the name of your part of Hackney. It’s important to note that you do not have to bid on location keywords, as search-media providers will allow you to target your ads geographically without having to buy location-specific keywords. This is especially important for small businesses in large cities, as they can easily blow their daily keyword budget on a city name.
Once you’ve input the keywords you want to use, you will be given an estimated bid price and the opportunity to set a daily keyword budget. As your ad is clicked on throughout the day, the keyword bid amount will be deducted from your budget. Once your budget reaches zero, your ads will no longer display for that day, and the cycle will start again the following day.
To continue our example, let’s say you’ve decided to bid on “discount bikes,” “affordable bikes” and “mountain bikes” for your campaign. The ad platform reports an estimated bid for these keywords at £0.25 each. If you set a daily keyword budget of £5.00, you would only be able to get 20 clicks before your budget ran out.
Setting Up a PPC Ad Campaign
There are two main players in the PPC advertising arena: Facebook and Google. Below are the steps involved in creating and managing a PPC campaign via each site.
To create a PPC ad on Facebook, follow these steps:
- In the footer of Facebook.com, click on “Create Ad.” This will take you to Facebook’s advertising main page.
- Click on the Create an Ad button in the upper-right corner of the page.
- Select what you would like your ad to accomplish. Facebook offers more options than simple clicks. Among your choices are: Page Post Engagement, Page Likes, App Installs, Website Conversions and Offer Claims.
- Enter your website’s URL, and select the images you want to use for your ad. Facebook will first look for images already present on your website, but you have the option of uploading specific images as well.
- Select the parameters you want to use. With Facebook, you are afforded even more choices due to the amount of information users share via their profiles. This means that you can target not only by geography and demographics, but also interests as well. As you make your selections, Facebook’s potential audience calculator on the right side of the screen will show you how many people you can target.
- Create your ads. Facebook recommends that your PPC ads have no more than 90 characters. When drafting your ads, you’ll want to:
- Remember your target audience and the keywords you’re using. If people search for “discount bikes,” what are some of the phrases you can use in your ad to further capture their attention? You probably wouldn’t want to say something like “Most expensive bikes in Dalston,” but something like “local bike deals” might make more sense.
- Use an appropriate accompanying image. As you have a limited number of characters to use, let your ad’s visuals do some of the heavy lifting. Make sure it’s relevant enough to convey the message that 90 characters may cut short.
- Include a targeted destination. If you are advertising something specific like bike deals, make sure your ad clicks-through to a page that displays these deals on your website. If you want the user to download an app through your ad, make sure the link takes them to the download page. Use the URL as a guide to shepherd the users to the destination you choose.
- Lastly, you’ll need to turn on SEM bidding and budgeting, and get started. Once you’re ready to go, make sure you’ve set your daily budget and bidding allowances, and let Facebook’s algorithm start doing the work.
Google’s SEM service is called Google AdWords. Follow these instructions to create a PPC ad:
- Create an account with Google (if you have an existing Gmail or YouTube account, you can use it for AdWords).
- Select your geographic location. Per the example of the bike shop above, consider your location’s size when making such a selection. There are probably dozens of bike shops in Hackney, but maybe only a handful in your specific part of Dalston.
- Use the SEM Keyword Planner to select your keywords. Google offers a variety of self-service tools to aid advertisers in creating Google AdWords, including a keyword planner. This tool will not only display recommended keywords based on the terms you use to describe your product or service, but it also provides historical data on keyword performance.
- Set your daily budget and keyword bid amount. These two steps often go hand-in-hand. Google also offers the option of selecting automatic bidding. This allows Google to optimize your bids in order to get the most out of your daily budget. Similar to Facebook, you’ll want to set a budget that you’re comfortable with spending every day. If you’re uncertain on how much to start with, try a small number, such as £5 or £10, and then see what type of results it generates. You can adjust your bids and budgets on a daily basis until you find the combination that generates the results you want.
- Create your SEM ads. Similar to Facebook, Google AdWords offers recommendations for the structure and content of your ads. Additionally, you can use different AdWords for select keywords, which gives you the chance to compare and contrast results and see which ads work best for you. Similar to adjusting your budget amounts, you can also change your AdWords any time you want.
- Use Google metrics. Google AdWords offers robust back-end tools that measure your AdWords performance and can greatly help you analyse your return on investment. Using this available information can only make your advertising smarter and stronger in the future.
Using SEM to your advantage isn’t especially difficult, but it will take some time and patience to truly get a full understanding of the different ways you can benefit from its use. By using a combination of reputation management, link management, directory inclusion and PPC advertising, you can easily and effectively promote your website via search engines and increase your business’ visibility and—in the long run—revenue.