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Search engine marketing (also known as SEM, search advertising or pay-per-click ads) is a major, and growing advertising opportunity.

Compared to more traditional forms of advertising (such as television and print), search engine marketing (SEM) has major advantages. Like other forms of online advertising, SEM costs are relatively low, ad targeting is highly controllable and the results are traceable and meaningful. With so much good on offer, it’s little wonder that it is estimated that by 2017 digital media will overtake TV as the largest advertising category globally.

With search engine marketing fast becoming a standard part of the promotions mix, all businesses need a basic understanding of SEM. Understanding what SEM is, its benefits, drawbacks and applications will help you evaluate whether advertising through search is right for meeting your business goals.

What is search engine marketing?

Whether you realise it or not, if you use the internet to search, you have seen a lot of search advertising.

When you use a search engine, such as Google, for any term, the search engine delivers you search engine results pages (SERPs) with all the different things it thinks you might want. Some of these results are organic and others are paid advertisements.

Let’s look at the example of a Google search for ‘blue shoes’:

Search Engine Marketing example: results for blue shoes

All the results in both the red and green boxes are search advertising. The red box is text-based ads while the green box contains product ads – but the point is that all 10 of those results are there as the result of SEM activity.

Google AdWords is generally the most popular paid search platform, and with recent changes which removed sidebar ads (replacing them with Google Shopping ads like what you see in that green square) product advertising through Google for Retail is likely to become increasingly used as well.

Other search engines, such as Bing, also offer paid advertising, so it is well worth investigating which search engines your organic traffic is coming from before choosing.

The pros of search engine marketing

Consumers use search engines a lot. As in a LOT a lot. As in 1 trillion searches per year a lot.

This creates some major advantages for search advertising:

  • People use search engines to look for businesses, services and products both to learn more and with ‘buy now’ in mind.
  • There are many tools available to analyse the data of search, making it easier to identify the right keywords and terms to target.
  • Good quality ads and the right budget can get you on the first page of search results, even if your organic rank does not.
  • You can carefully control what terms your ads show for, when they show, on which devices and for people in which locations.
  • Your ads can follow your prospects around the internet with re-marketing.

Done right, search advertising can be a very effective tool to drive conversions at critical decision points in a user’s journey.

The limitations of search engine marketing

While the advertising potential using search engine marketing is huge, there are some drawbacks to SEM that you should be aware of before you choose to invest your advertising dollars:

  • SEM is highly data-dependant, meaning the most effective campaigns rely on research, careful keyword consideration and strong know-how for set-up and management.
  • Search has limited control when it comes to demographics (outside of location).
  • We cannot control exactly how people search, so continuous optimisation and adjustments are needed.
  • SEM has strict rules which can limit creativity in ads.
  • Unmanaged, or managed poorly, the cost of SEM will rack up fast.
  • SEM is constantly evolving – if you don’t stay up with the latest trends and rules, your campaigns will likely suffer.

In many ways, the biggest limit of search engine marketing is its learning curve. Getting started is relatively easy. But getting the most out of your time and money quickly becomes a confusing mass of data wrangling in complicated dashboards. Thankfully, Google is in the middle of making major changes to AdWords, which will likely make some of this easier on their platform. But SEM is likely to always need the love and care of a nerd to get the best ROI.

Who should use search engine marketing?

Many different businesses and organisations use search marketing in many different ways – it all depends on what goals you are trying to achieve. In my experience, search engine marketing works particularly well for:

  • service businesses targeting specific geographic locations
  • online retail and e-commerce sites
  • location-dependant businesses (including restaurants and tourism businesses)

No matter what, search ads are most effective when they have a clear call-to-action (CTA). This is bigger than adding ‘call now’ into the ad itself. The next steps the user goes through after clicking on your ad need to streamline their journey to your desired outcome, such as making an enquiry or buying online. If your website isn’t ready for a flux of visitors, sort that out before you start paying for ads.

Is search engine marketing right for you?

Maybe. Quite probably. But then again, perhaps not.

Before you invest in SEM or any advertising, spend the time to identify the target market and your campaign’s goal clearly. Be specific about who it is you are trying to reach and what it is you want these people to do. Defining a specific audience and goal will create parameters to work within as well as for measuring success.

Being able to clearly articulate who you are trying to reach and what you are trying to achieve will also clarify where you should advertise. Search advertising may be the ticket, but perhaps social media advertising is a better fit or you might find you need a combined approach across a few areas.

If you are thinking about advertising online, definitely consider search engine marketing. Just remember:

  • set clear parameters
  • do the legwork before you start spending, and
  • be realistic about your budget and ROI.

Search on!

Want to learn even more about search engine marketing? Looking to get SEM running for your business? Baker Marketing offer a full range of digital advertising services for all your search engine marketing needs! Learn more about our search engine advertising planning, training and management services or contact us now to get started!

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