Getting Started With Search Engine Marketing and Google Ads

Search engine marketing (or SEM) is a huge opportunity for digital businesses.

Search engine marketing (or SEM) is a huge opportunity for digital businesses. But it can also be a daunting experience for businesses just getting started. It’s important you understand what you want to achieve and the options available to you. Then you can start driving real success from paid search on Google and other search engines.

Experts estimate the largest search engine, Google, receives 7 to 10 billion searches every day. So it is no surprise that a growing presence on the platform excites smart marketers. It offers their businesses an easy way to scale up sales on demand.

But confusion often arises as a result, with business stakeholders raising questions like:

‘How do we rank higher?’
‘Which keywords do we target?’
‘What is search engine optimization?’
‘What is search engine marketing?’
‘Which one should we be doing?’ 

These are all legitimate concerns. And they need strong answers if you want to enjoy the vast amount of relevant traffic that search engines can bring to your website.

In this article, we answer these questions with a focus on search engine marketing. We cover all the basics you need to get started. What is search engine marketing? Is it better than SEO? And how do you get started as a business?

What Is Search Engine Marketing (SEM)?

Let’s kick this off with a simple definition to get the ball rolling: 

Search engine marketing is the practice of marketing a business using paid advertisements that appear on search engine results pages (or SERPs). Advertisers bid on keywords that users of services such as Google and Bing might enter when looking for certain products or services […].


These ads appear at the most desirable areas within the search results. They compete with the organic results of a search engine, for which websites do not pay.

Where search engines can relate a search term to a product, ads may also display as product listings. For example, Google may display ads in the Shopping section of search results pages.


Digital marketers debate the question of whether their business should focus on Search Engine Marketing (SEM) or Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

You can use SEO to improve the organic ranking of your website, product or service. The higher your position on a search engine results page (SERP), the more clicks you can expect.

SEO is a long-term commitment. It involves many facets of proving the value of your website and content to search engines like Google. Although SEO is labour intensive it also doesn’t involve any upfront costs to rank. 

So, SEO or SEM?

The answer is almost always both. 

SEM increases visibility, clicks and conversions with less effort than SEO. It is also targeted, predictable and you can see results immediately. It is the best way to promote your valuable web pages such as product pages or when you need to drive traffic with limited time.

SEO delivers longer-term result and is a worthwhile strategy for sustainable, future success. 

Introduction to Google AdWords

Although many search engines are available, by far the biggest is Google. You advertise on Google via their dedicated advertising tool, Google AdWords

AdWords allows you to run ads through two networks: 

  1. The Google Search Network
  2. The Google Display Network

The search network is the most relevant when we talk about search engine marketing.

The platform allows you to pick keywords or phrases which are valuable to your business. You can then create your search ad based on your specific goals and run those ads to generate clicks.

Google awards ad spaces on a bidding basis with a realtime auction for each results page. The volume of searches and the number of businesses competing in the same space drives the price you pay.

What Is Cost Per Click (CPC) and Cost Per Acquisition (CPA)?

There are two metrics which you can use to measure your success in SEM: CPC and CPA.

Cost Per Click (CPC) is self-explanatory. You pay for every click that someone makes from the search results to your website. How much you pay is based on the auction system that runs for each search results page. 

Cost Per Acquisition (CPA) bases what you pay on when a desirable action is taken. For example, when someone signs up for a newsletter, watches a video or clicks to call you. This can be a good way to only pay for what is valuable to your business. However, if you are not geared to convert visitors once they have clicked your ad this is likely to be an expensive method.  

Which is best for you will depend widely on what your goal is. 

Finding the Best Keywords

Finding the best keywords for your business is critical to success. It is a factor in whether you make a significant return on investment, or a significant loss, on your SEM spend.

It is worthwhile setting time aside to research which keywords you should be targeting. Start this process by noting down all the relevant keywords and key phrases. These are those keywords which your target customers are searching for.  

Shorter phrases like ‘coffee beans’ may be a good option. But these phrases may be competitive and expensive. They are also likely to drive a lot of irrelevant traffic to your site. Using long-tail keywords like ‘where to buy Fairtrade coffee beans UK’ will drive more relevant traffic. It will likely be less costly per result. 

When you have your list, you can check its viability and find more inspiration using online tools. The most popular tools include KWFinder and Google Keyword Planner.

These tools will return useful information such as how many searches are made for each of your terms, and whether those terms are competitive. They also suggest other relevant keywords which may be beneficial to your business. 

Bidding Strategies for Search Engine Marketing

How you bid for ad space on search engines will depend on what you are trying to achieve. We have already mentioned two of the most common costing options, CPC and CPA, but where are these best used?

If your goal is to drive very specific actions on your website, then CPA is likely to the best option for you. For example, your success event might be someone entering their email to sign up for a free course. Then paying for each email input is the best way to measure and improve your return on investment. 

CPC is best used when you want to drive clicks through to your site. This may be best when you want to generate broad interest around your business.