When it comes to digital marketing, we’re the first to admit that some channels are confusing. For example, what’s the difference between search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM)? They seem a bit redundant, wouldn’t optimizing for search also fulfill marketing for search engines? If your head spins about it sometimes, it’s reasonable.

Small business search engine marketing comes down to a few keys points that relate to SEO, but stand on their own as to what they can offer to your business for digital marketing results.

What is search engine marketing?

Search engine marketing (SEM or “paid search”) is the process of gaining website traffic and visibility on search engine results via paid ads.
How PPC ads display for search engine marketing

The term “search engine marketing” used to encompass both SEO — getting traffic via “free,” “organic,” “editorial” or “natural” search results on search engines — and paid search (so thinking they are the same thing is completely reasonable). Despite the fact that both SEM and SEO are marketing strategies on the same platform (search engine results pages-SERPs) that use keywords, SEM is now used exclusively to describe paid efforts because the tactics involved in each are so different.

Who’s involved in SEM?

In the United States, the major search engines that offer paid search are Google, Bing and Yahoo!. For those of you who have ever wondered how companies like Google make money, paid search is your answer.

Google AdWords is arguably the most-popular paid search platform that search marketers use, followed by Bing Ads (which serves a significant amount of ads on Yahoo!, creating a network).

There are other “2nd tier PPC platforms” and social networks that offer PPC advertising options. 2nd tier PPC platforms are actually difficult to define because they vary so greatly in technology and offerings. For example, some offer cross-device advertising, while others are niche experts and have small highly-targeted segments on a network. Many of these 2nd tier PPC platforms are huge networks that publish ads on well-established media websites, such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

At Vivial, we work with a 2nd tier PPC platform partners to give our customers access to highly-targeted inventories on highly-desirable sites, such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Coupons.com, to name a few. These publishers would be price- prohibitive to our customers if they were to work directly together. However, Vivial is able to place opt-in ads for our customers on these sites (at a price our customers can afford) because we have a stronger collective purchasing power vs. one local business.

How does SEM work?

Keywords are how your ad is connected with searchers and their searches. By effectively using keywords, you will reach the right customers and grow your business. Identifying and optimizing keywords is one of the most challenging aspects of SEM and many businesses simply choose to outsource the task to experts.
pay per click

If you choose to outsource SEM, you can expect to have a dedicated account manager who will assist you with selecting high-impact keywords, while also providing recommendations about how to make your program more effective. For example, at Vivial’s SEM account managers work behind the scenes 24/7 to optimize keywords and then report back to their clients with metrics and results on a regular basis (depending on the level of involvement the client wants).

Often these ads are referred to as PPC, or pay-per-click, because they direct traffic to your website via a paid link. Search engine PPC advertising through Google involves bidding on keyword phrases relevant to your target market and ads. The price of a keyword fluctuates with its demand. Keywords that have a high demand (because they generate a lot of traffic) are more expensive than ones that are relevant to a smaller audience.

The PPC model isn’t exclusive to search engines — many other types of publishers and content-focused websites use the model, primarily with “display” (or “banner”) ads. Content sites usually charge a fixed price per click vs. the bidding system that Google uses.

Define success to achieve it

Before you embark on any advertising campaign, you should have a clear vision of what you want to accomplish and how you will measure success.

Some businesses may want to increase traffic to their brand new website, while others want to increase the number of phone calls to a certain location. By setting a clear goal (and how much you are willing to spend to get that end result) you will be able to determine a strategy for your advertising campaign and how to measure your success.
Have one message per PPC ad to be able to track what works for Search Engine Marketing

To keep your metrics clear to understand, I recommend that you set up one campaign for each goal you have. Like a science experiment, you can have a “control” to base changes off of and truly know what works.

Target your keywords

UNDERSTAND NEGATIVE KEYWORDS: Negative keywords are keywords that drain your resources by getting clicks from people who aren’t going to become customers. Eliminating negative keywords on a routine basis will save you time, money and provide you with better analytics/ insights.

To target keywords effectively, and know why certain campaigns are more effective than others, you should try to align keywords with your business goals. One way to do this is to think holistically about the different ways that customers would search for your business. If you were a customer, what keywords would you put into a search engine to find out more about a product/service that your business offers?

One of the benefits of Google AdWords is the ability to manage many different campaigns that have different keywords. Since different keywords have different purposes, you can measure each against different goals that you set for each individual campaign.


Small business search engine marketing allows you to start reaching your ideal target customer quickly, without having to wait for your SEO power to kick in. Get started on your own or with an expert to start seeing the benefits.

Find out more about using Google AdWord’s from opening an account to setting up your first campaign in A Google Marketing Guide.
google marketing guide cover

Download your free copy of A Google Marketing Guide today! 

What challenges do you find with SEM? Let us know in the comments below.

  • So all in all SEM is different than SEO because it mainly works with paid sites, rather than the organic ones? Also, if I were looking into getting my website to show up more on the internet what would the cheaper option be? From what I am getting from this SEM is much more expensive, since the only sites I’ve seen using the service have been the top sites most people have already heard of.

    • Eugene Farber

      Hi Luke,

      SEM is essentially paid advertising on search engines (these are the results you see with a little “Ad” marker by them). Essentially, companies bid on different terms that customers might be searching for, and the highest bidders show up at the top (this is a bit simplified but that is the essence). SEO, on the other hand, helps you rank organically within the results below the ads. SEO isn’t free. At the very least it takes time, whereas SEM is more immediate (you can start showing up in search engines as soon as you start bidding). What is more cost effective really depends on the terms you are going after, the competition, and how much time you want to spend. Unfortunately there’s really no black and white answer here.