Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

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The term ‘search engine marketing,’ shortened to SEM, refers to digital marketing techniques and strategies that aim to grow a website’s overall visibility, specifically within search engine results pages (SERP). It references the auctioning or buying of sponsored results space at the top of search engine results.

The term once referred to both SEO and paid, but tends to focus more on paid search advertising now. It’s also commonly referred to as pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. 

The history of SEM

It was not long after the internet bloomed into a widely available reality that early iterations of search engine marketing began to take root. OpenText Corporation was the company that trailblazed the efforts, setting up the world’s first pay-per-click (PPC) advertising services. This was considered an early form of SEM – though the term itself wouldn’t appear until a bit later.

At the turn of the millennium, Google launched Google AdWords to 350 eager customers – it would go on to be the biggest publisher in the space for this type of digital advertising, encompassing its greater product scope with a rebrand to simply “Google Ads” in 2018.

Danny Sullivan coined the term ‘SEM’ in a 2001 Search Engine Land article. It was then that the term would begin to gain some recognition and widespread usage within the digital marketing vernacular.

SEM’s popularity rose as major search engines supported manual bidding for top SERP spots in 2005, and by 2006, SEM was growing faster than traditional advertising.

Why is SEM important?

Consumers across the globe are researching, shopping, and socializing online – in order to increase a company’s reach, harnessing SEO and SEM tools alike is a crucial strategy. After all, most new visitors are going to be finding a site through organic search (though having a strong backlink profile never hurts.)

In SEM, advertisers are able to only pay for the impressions that are going to result in qualified visitors. It requires significant keyword research and query examination, but when done right, it can be an impactful way for a company to utilize a marketing budget.

It’s sometimes considered one of the fastest ways to draw traffic to a website, as it catches visitors when and where they’re most likely open to brand new information.

How does SEM work?

Through a tangle of algorithms, search engines like Google ensure that only the most relevant results come back from a search query. Their goal is to create the best experience possible for its users, so discovering what it considers ‘the best’ is the entire point of their elusive algorithm.

Ads, or paid results, will appear right at the top of the page prior to the organic search results. Those paid listings are usually highly relevant to the search term they’re appearing on, meaning they’re much more likely to garner attention- and, importantly, clicks.

A SEM campaign is usually set up in “SEM networks,” a self-serve operation wherein a marketing professional can get a campaign up and running. They can conduct research, select keywords, and even pinpoint an exact location where the ad should be displayed in – a feature handy for local SEO campaigns.

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