Intro to search engine marketing - header image

#1 Starting search engine marketing (SEM)


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Do you want to get customers from search engines? If so, keep reading and learn the key tips to attract clients from search engines.

Today I will define the field of search engine marketing and review three opportunity areas in Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). This article will serve as a foundation for the future content.

You have three opportunity areas in search: paid results, local results and organic results. In this guide, you will learn about each opportunity area and the first steps you can take.

Let’s first place search engine marketing (SEM) in a broader field of digital marketing.

Search engine marketing in the digital marketing mix updated
Diagram showing search engine marketing in a digital marketing mix.


Let’s define search engine marketing.

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) refers to strategies used to enhance a business’s visibility on search engines. It involves tactics to increase a) website traffic and b) brand exposure through paid advertising and optimization efforts.

How is it different from other digital marketing channels?

People move through awareness, consideration, and decision-making stages in the customer journey. SEM focuses on reaching potential customers when they actively search for products or services, making it a crucial part of their journey.

In contrast, social media marketing and banner ads are not always there when your customers search.


Search engine marketing offers unique advantages compared to other digital marketing channels:

  1. Intent-based targeting: SEM targets users actively searching for specific products or services, capturing high-intent audiences at the moment they express interest. This intent-driven approach often leads to higher conversion rates compared to broader targeting in social media or display ads.
  2. Immediate visibility: With Google Ads, businesses can quickly gain visibility on search engine results pages (SERPs) by bidding on relevant keywords. This immediacy contrasts with the time it takes to build an audience or visibility through organic growth on social media platforms.
  3. Highly measurable results: Google Ads, Google Search Console and Google Business Profile Insights provides detailed metrics, allowing for precise measurement of ROI. Metrics like click-through rates, conversions, and cost-per-click offer clear performance indicators, enabling better optimization and budget allocation.
  4. Targeted local reach: Local search optimization is particularly effective for local businesses aiming to attract local customers. This localized approach is often more challenging to achieve with broad-reaching social media campaigns.
  5. Flexibility and control: Google Ads provides flexibility in budget allocation and ad customization. Businesses have control over when and where their ads appear, allowing for targeted campaigns and adjustments based on real-time performance data.

While social media marketing and display ads have their merits in building brand awareness and engaging audiences, SEM stands out for its precision targeting, immediate visibility, and measurable results, making it a powerful tool in a comprehensive digital marketing strategy.


There are three main opportunity areas in SEM: paid, local and organic search (natural search, search engine optimization or SEO). Let’s look into each one of those areas in detail.

Paid search

Paid search (sponsored) results (Google Ads) in Google search engine
Example of a paid search opportunity area in Google.

Paid search involves placing ads on search engine results pages (SERPs) that appear when users search for specific keywords related to your business. For instance, imagine you run a local bakery in Southern California.

With paid search, when someone searches for “fresh pastries near me”, your bakery’s ad could appear at the top of the results, attracting potential customers to visit your website or store.

For a strong start with paid search, consider: 1) what target actions users will take when landing on your website after a click, 2) what’s the cost you are willing to pay for a conversion (desired customer action), 3) what are the keywords your customers might look for, 4) characteristics your customers look for in a trustworthy vendor.

Create your Google Ads account. We’ll dive into setting things up in one of the future articles.

Read a more detailed guide on paid search ads.

Local search

Local results in Google search engine
Example of a local pack (Local search) results in Google.

Optimizing for local searches ensures your business appears prominently in location-based results when people search for nearby services or products.

For instance, if you operate a pet grooming service in San Diego, optimizing for local search means that when someone in San Diego searches for “pet groomers near La Jolla,” your business is more likely to show up in the local map pack, increasing visibility among local pet owners.

Please remember that you should set up a Google Business Profile to get a local-pack listing (part of the top 3 results by the map). Also note, to qualify for a Google Business Profile, you business should either…

  1. have a business location that customers visit,
  2. or service your customers at their location within a set geographic area.

For a strong start in local search, consider 1) creating a complete Google Business Profile, 2) generating reviews, 3) building business citations, and 4) optimizing your website for local rankings.

Read a detailed article and make sure you subscribe to my newsletter (bottom of the post). It’s free.

Organic search (SEO)

Organic results in Google search engine
Example of organic search results (blue links) in Google.

Organic search results are generated using multiple algorithms to produce the most relevant results for the user search query. As a business owner, you don’t pay for clicks.

Getting your pages into the blue-link section of the SERPs commonly refers to SEO or search engine optimization.

Let’s say you manage a small landscaping business in Orange County. By optimizing your website with high-quality content about landscaping tips, using keywords like “best garden design in Orange County,” and ensuring your website loads quickly and is mobile-friendly, you increase the chances of appearing higher in organic search results.

For a strong start in SEO, consider 1) a solid technical foundation, 2) relevant content for your target audience, and 3) external websites linking to you (backlinks).

Read the article on starting SEO.


It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the amount of details. So, here’s the roadmap. Start simple. Master the basics. Grow from there.

SEM approach diagram showcasing three strategic steps
Step-by-step approach to search engine marketing diagram.

Here’s a very to-the-point approach to search engine marketing that works for the majority of small business owners I teach.

1. Start strong with Google Business Profile

Begin by establishing a presence on Google Business Profile. Check the GBP setup process. This free tool allows you to manage how your business appears on Google Search and Maps. It’s a great first step to enhance visibility in local searches.

2. Gradually explore Google Ads

As you gain confidence, consider exploring Google Ads. Start with a small budget and targeted campaigns. This paid advertising platform can effectively reach potential customers searching for what you offer.

3. Concurrently, optimize for SEO

Simultaneously, focus on optimizing your website for organic search (SEO). Improve content quality, use relevant keywords, and ensure a user-friendly website structure. This helps boost your visibility in unpaid search results over time.

In conclusion

Now you know what search engine marketing is and what opportunity areas exist. By the way, these opportunity areas are consistent through Google, Bing and most other search engines.

In future articles, I will dive deeper into these opportunity areas and show you how you can improve your presence in local and organic search and optimize your ad spend in paid search.

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