Search Engine Marketing (SEM): A Guide to Maximizing Lead Acquisition

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Developing the ideal plan for utilizing search engines to grow your business is the focus of SEM (Search Engine Marketing). SEM employs a variety of strategies, such as running search advertising and conducting keyword research.
Table of Contents

SEM (Search Engine Marketing) is all about creating the best strategy for using search engines to boost your business. There are several techniques used in SEM, including keyword research and running search ads. It's challenging to pick the right channel from so many options. In this guide, you'll learn how to use effective SEM tactics to optimize user acquisition and to devise a strategy that will help improve your conversion. Let’s go through the major types of SEM available, things to consider when developing an SEM strategy, and helpful resources to get you started. 

What is SEM?

SEM (Search Engine Marketing) refers to a marketing technique aimed at increasing the number of visitors to a website using search engines — SEO and paid ads are only a few of such techniques. 

Due to their similar-sounding acronym, SEM and SEO have often been confused for each other, despite being distinct in every sense. SEO (Search Engine Optimization), in contrast to SEM, is a series of processes aimed at ranking one’s site for a particular keyword — or sets of keywords — on search engines like Google. Hence, SEO can be seen as a subset of SEM. 

Types of SEM


SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is a marketing strategy aimed at ranking one’s site to the top of search engine results.

Screenshot of Google search results for Search Engine Optimization with red enclosure

If you were to create content that relates to a keyword such as “search engine optimization”, the action you take to optimize the content so it ranks higher when a user searches for similar content on the web is what marketers refer to as SEO practices.

Users are more likely to click on search results that pop up at the top of their searches. Consequently, a higher ranking on search results for the right keywords means a higher acquisition rate for your business — and unlike paid ads, you’ll get this stream of traffic at no cost whatsoever. 

The only downside to this is that ranking on the first page of search results takes time — even if you have high-quality content and you tick all the right SEO practices. It takes even longer for highly competitive keywords, averaging three to six months. In most instances, there is no guarantee your page will ever make it to the top, and if it does, there is no telling for how long. We advise you to seek the help of an SEO specialist to get the most effective guidance tailored to your business needs.

Search Advertising

Search advertising or simply “search ads” are basically paid ads that appear at the top and bottom of search result pages.

Screenshot of Google search ad results for ad optimization tools with red enclosure

Ads like these, though easy to run, can be costly. They operate on the pay-per-click model, and advertisers pay an amount only when their ads are clicked by users. Search ads return results faster than SEO. All you need is to set up the needed keywords and bid an amount, and your ads can go live in a day. It is the perfect model to gather access in the shortest time.

Helpful resources:

>> Google Ads: A guide to get started

>> PPC Vs. SEO: An Analysis of Two Powerful Acquisition Models

Google Search Shopping Tab

If you plan to sell clothes or electronics, consider using Google's shopping tab. “In contrast to a search ad, which displays text only,” as Google wrote, “Shopping ads show users a photo of your product, plus a title, price, store name, and more.” 

Screenshot of Google shopping search results for wallet, with top results enclosed in red line

Previously available only to those who paid for Google Shopping Ads, Google added a shopping slot in October 2020 to curate relevant products to keywords, and at no cost to the benefiting retailer. You’ll need to register as a Google Merchant to run paid listed ads on the shopping tab or even have Google rank your products.

Getting started? Here:

>> Recommended ways to list your products on Google for free

>> About shopping campaigns and shopping ads

Google Local Search Ads

Google My Business allows businesses to manage their online presence across all of Google's products, including search and maps. It is free and, once your business is verified, you can use this tool to run Google local search ads.

Local search ads on Google Maps for desktop
Photo Credit: Google: Local Search Ads

Initially, users could only use Google Maps to find directions to a particular location, but now they can explore local spots along their route — from restaurants to movie theaters. They can also pull up the reviews of these places, view photos, and even purchase tickets straight from their phone. And therein lies a great opportunity for businesses, especially those that primarily render services.

Once you register your business on Google My Business, you can run ads directly on users' local maps. When your business happens to be nearby a user or on the route to where they were headed, you could reach them with little effort. Although Google local ads might be expensive compared with other SEM ads, it has the flexibility of converting users in a brief window. 

Helpful resources:

>> Google My Business: Registration and owner verification 

>> How to show local search ads on Google Maps

TrueView Discovery Ads

In TrueView discovery ads, also known as “Video discovery ads,” YouTube helps you reach your target audience by placing your brand alongside relevant videos. These ads are displayed at the top of YouTube’s search results, YouTube watch next, and the home feed of the YouTube mobile app.  

Truview discovery ads on video results for desktop
Photo Credit: Google: TrueView Discovery Ads

Most YouTube ads are embedded at the start or in the middle of videos — called in-stream ads — often displayed to uninterested users and leading to wasteful advertising costs. This makes TrueView discovery ads effective as they run on cost-per-view bidding. The only concern is that creating this kind of ad is time-consuming and resource-intensive. 

In addition to creating attractive video content, the images and text displayed in the ad must be highly appealing in order to be clickable. If you're considering going down this route, we recommend you consult a production agency before investing a large amount of your marketing budget.

Start here:

>> Google Help: An overview of video discovery ads

Things to Consider in Developing an SEM Strategy

How much is your budget?

It is vital to consider how much you're willing to spend on SEM campaigns before you allocate funds to them. Not only is SEM essential, but also quite profitable. The potential returns will vary depending on your business, what you offer, and your customer journey map. 

In case you have an inflexible budget, we recommend starting with Google My Business. The cost of publishing content on your website might be close to zero, but ranking well on search engine result pages (SERP) will take a lot of effort. Paid ads can be effective even with little budget as long as you keep best practices in mind. 

Is your aim long or short-term?

Determining how fast you need results will affect how your SEM strategy pans out. If you need to quickly acquire users, running search and related ads may be your best option. Although it may cost you, the control you will gain over the online presence of your business is worth it.

For long-term growth, SEO is generally the best strategy. It may not deliver results in the short term, but once you rank at the top of SERPs, you can expect consistent exposure. 

What is the nature of your web content?

The number of pages your site has, among other factors, can influence your SEM strategy. If you need only a few shallow pages on your site, you will not have much chance to rank, and investing your resources in SEO is probably not a good idea. If you have an extensive website with diverse content, however, SEO is likely to yield results.

TrueView discovery ads are most effective when, for whatever reason, your visual content is only meant to get your target market to notice you. Search ads are for direct sales and their content is usually a showcase of the products in question. Rather than just serving as a promotional tool to get people to your site, your content should extend your brand image, and the channel you choose to run any campaign should reflect that. 


Search marketing remains one of the most effective and cost-effective marketing tools for businesses. Its speed and flexibility allow marketers to tap into a vast audience while being mindful of how much they can afford to invest. Once you decide what content you want to create and what marketing goals you want to achieve, creating SEM strategies around the right channels become much easier. 

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