What is SEM: A Beginners Guide

If your organization is doing business online, then you have probably heard about SEM, which is short for Search Engine Marketing.

Since most customers start their search online, you must maintain good search visibility for your businesses. SEM is one of the strategies to help you achieve that. It encompasses using paid strategies to boost the search visibility of your business.

Companies use it to appear in relevant search results on search engine result pages (SERPs). To do it, they have to target keywords and keyword phrases relevant to their target customers. When their potential customers enter those specific keywords in a search engine, they see the paid ad on the top of the 1st SERP.

SEM has been around for over a decade now, and marketers refer to it using several interchangeable terms, such as paid search ads, paid advertising, and pay-per-click advertising (PPC). Don’t get confused if you run into any of these terms; they are simply synonyms for SEM.

To help you out tackle one of the most powerful online marketing strategies, we’ve put together an SEM guide for beginners. You’ll find out what SEM is used for, the difference between SEM and SEO, and more.

Differences Between SEO & SEM

While SEO and SEM are the main pillars of a successful online marketing strategy, they are two completely different things. As we stated earlier, SEM stands for search engine marketing, and SEO stands for search engine optimization.

The only thing that brings SEO and SEM together is the concept of keywords. Keywords are used to fuel both SEM and SEO strategies.

Advertisement that can be used to target anyoneContent relevant to your business and target customers
Instant resultsTakes months

SEM refers to the process of business using paid ads on the search engine platform to appear on the first page of SERPs. Search engine marketing leverages paid search strategies to improve the organization's online visibility, services, and products. Simply put, companies have to pay Google to display their ads on the search result pages.

An example of what is SEM

Search engine optimization doesn’t revolve around paid search strategies. SEO encompasses various types of strategies that are all free. As a result, businesses can also get on the 1st page of SERPs, but without paying Google or any other online advertising platform.

An example of SEO

Now, let’s take a look at differences. SEM uses paid ads to get you on the top of the first page of SERPs. On the other hand, SEO is based on content relevant to your business and target customers. The relevant content is what gets an organization a free spot on SERPs.

The key difference is the time required to see the result of SEO and SEM efforts. SEM delivers instant results. As soon as you launch your SEM campaign, the ads will appear in the relevant searches. SEO is a long-term strategy. It takes several months and sometimes even longer to reap the benefits of a well-planned SEO strategy.

Although SEM and SEO are different, they are both vital for the success of an online marketing strategy. SEO can help you boost your website traffic and generate new leads. SEM has an impact on the bottom of the funnel. It can help you boost conversion rates and capture more sales.

SEM Fundamentals

Now that you understand what SEM is and what makes it different from SEO, you are ready to learn about SEM fundamentals. The following information will help you to understand what is SEM search engine marketing and how it works.


When you comb through the resources about SEM, you’ll probably stumble upon the phrase “SEM platform.” It typically refers to a search engine platform where you can place search ads. The platform will display your ads every time a user enters a relevant keyword or keyword phrase.

There are two commonly used SEM platforms – Google, owned and operated by Google Inc. and Bing, owned and operated by Microsoft.

Common SEM platform - Google Common SEM platform - Bing

Google is the most popular search engine platform, and it is quite logical to find the Google Ads platform to be the most popular one. With over 3.5 billion searches per day, Google provides you with a unique opportunity to display your ads in front of the largest user base online. It even has a dedicated tool to help you streamline your SEM campaigns – Google AdWords.


A keyword is a term that you will often encounter if you engage with online marketing. In the SEM frame of reference, keywords are the specific terms or phrases that you use in your SEM campaigns. All the search queries on a platform containing keywords you’ve targeted will generate SERPs with your paid ads on the top of the page.

Let’s say you are in the email marketing niche and want to advertise your new email marketing platform. If you target the term “email marketing platform,” your ad will show in the search results when a person searches for that phrase.

You have complete control when it comes to choosing and avoiding specific keywords. There are four types of keywords. You can use only one, all of them, or any combination in your campaigns to get the best results. Here are the keyword types that are available to you:

Keyword TypeHow to use it
Broad match keywordsThese keywords enable you to target variations of your target keyword. It is a great way to tackle the unique nature of natural user search query. Some people use the plural form or make a spelling mistake when searching.
Instead of only targeting email marketing, broad match keywords will enable you to target other variations, such as “mail marketing platforms” and “email advertising platform.”
Broad match modifiersThese modifiers can help you serve your ad to people that use words you marked with a plus sign. +email +marketing +small business +affordable. Thanks to the modifiers, you can boost CTR and attract highly qualified leads to your website.
Phrase match keywordsThese keywords enable you to diversify targeting to encompass your exact phrase and add phrases that come before or after it. The phrase match keywords are designated with quotation marks. If we follow our example phrase, match keywords would be the “best email marketing platform” or “email marketing platform for small business.”
Exact match keywordsExact match keywords enable you to extend your targeting to words that are synonyms or closely related to your primary keyword target. Here you can target other variations of your keyword, including abbreviations and words in a different order. The exact match keywords are designated with brackets. For example, you can target (” and ([platforms for email marketing]).
Negative keywordsSEM platform also enables you to fine-tune your campaign and blacklist the words you don’t want to target. Some search queries may be semantically related to your target keyword.
On the other hand, users may have a completely different intent. You can use negative keywords to display your ads in front of people interested in purchasing your products or services. Negative keywords for our example would include “email marketing platform guide” or “email marketing platform prices.”


Using specific keywords is just one way to tell the search platform when to display your paid ads. Search platforms offer refined targeting that you can use to include additional filters and display ads to the most relevant users. Here are a few filters that you can use in your SEM campaigns:

  • Geo-location targeting – use ZIP codes or geographic location as a filter to display your ads only to people living in specific areas.

Geo location targeting for SEM campaigns

  • Ad schedule targeting – easily manage your ad schedule, set the days of the week, and the time of the day for the platform to display your ads.

Ad scheduling targeting

  • Demographic targeting – use age and gender as filters to further refine your targeting strategy and display your ads to specific demographic categories.

Demographic targeting

  • Device targeting – display your ads only to users using desktops, tablets, or smartphones, or deliver a unique ad copy to each user group.

Device targeting for SEM campaigns

Account Structure

Certain rules apply to the SEM campaign organization. Account structure refers to a specific way all your SEM campaigns are organized. Every SEM campaign follows the same account structure. It is within the specific categories that you can set up the targeting and keywords. Account structure encompasses campaigns, Ad Groups, and Keywords and Ads.

CampaignsAt the top of the account structure, we have “Campaigns.” You can use the campaigns to better organize your account, which is extremely helpful if you plan to run SEM campaigns with different goals and to target different demographics.

For instance, you can create a different campaign for users looking for an email marketing platform for businesses and users who are bloggers looking for an email marketing platform to efficiently send a newsletter. You can even run a promotion basing your email marketing platform ad on “Last Call % Discount.”
Ad Groups“Ad Groups” is the next element in the account structure hierarchy. Ad groups are within a campaign. With ad groups, you can organize your SEM campaigns even better if you are targeting users with different intents. It is recommended to have ten or below “Ad Groups” per campaign.

For instance, within the Ad group targeting people looking for an email marketing platform for their business, you can create two ad groups. One to target users looking for an affordable email marketing solution, and the other to target users looking for enterprise email marketing platforms.
Keywords and AdsFinally, we have “Keywords and Ads.” Every “Ad Group” can have a unique set of ads and keywords targeting specific users. One “Ad Group” should have no more than three ads and 20 keywords.

For instance, the ad group targeting users looking for an affordable email marketing platform can contain ads and keywords that promote free trial and an affordable pricing plan. The other ad group targeting people from the enterprise section can contain ads and target keywords about advanced email marketing platform features and bulk email.

Ad Copies

Ad copy is what a platform that serves users who use targeted keywords. If you take a look at search result pages, you will notice that often top results have that “Ad” tag.

Example of ad copies

In most cases, the ads look entirely the same as organic search results. However, they contain more information. For instance, Google even supports product carousels as an ad format for businesses interested in advertising single products.

Ad product carousel

If we take a closer look at the ad copy anatomy, we can see that every ad copy has several sections (from top to bottom):

Example of SEM ad copy

  • URL – it allows you to insert a link that takes users directly to what they want to buy.
  • Headline – is the most prominent element in an ad copy. Google allows you to have up to three headlines, separated by a vertical pipe. Headlines will show differently depending on the device.
  • Description – this section enables you to enclose details about your products or services. It is also suitable to place your call to action.
  • Site extensions with a short description – add additional links to quickly enable people to go to specific pages of your website.

Additionally, you can add the following information to your ad copy:

  • Callout extensions – add additional text to inform your customers about your business or products. They are often used to highlight unique offers.

Callout extensions in SEM campaigns

  • Location extensions – add map, distance, and address to help people find your business with ease.

Location extension

  • Seller ratings (Shopping ads) – communicate the quality of your services and products to instill trust and boost click-through rates.

Site extensions - seller ratings

  • Price extensions – inform users about your product and services range and prices to add more value to your ads.

Site extensions - price extensions

  • Structured snippet extensions – add more text below your ad description to help people instantly find more about your products or services.

Site extensions - structured snippet extensions

  • Message extensions – add a link to your ad copy to enable customers to message you directly.

Site extensions - message extensions

Ad Auction

Once you setup and launch an SEM campaign, you have no guarantees that the platform will always choose to display your ad when a user searches for relevant terms.

The competition out there is harsh, and the chances are that other businesses are targeting the same keywords as you are. SEM platforms have an algorithm that assesses how your ad competes with other companies targeting the same keyword and decides whether to display your ad.

This algorithm is, in fact, “Ad Auction.” It decides the future of your ad copy by taking the following three factors in the account:

  • MAX CPC Bid – the maximum cost-per-click bid is the maximum amount you are ready to pay if a person clicks on your ad. The more you are willing the pay, the higher the chances are that your ad will be displayed. However, this can have devastating consequences on your SEM budget. If many people click your ad, it will drain your budget quickly.
  • Quality Score – the moment you create your ad, the platform will analyze it and assign a unique Quality Score to it. While we don’t know the formula platforms use to calculate the Quality Score, it is most likely that the relevance of keywords, click-through rate, and ad performance are the key factors. The quality scores are ranked out of 10.
  • Ad Rank – finally, the platform will calculate Ad Rating by formula MAX CPC Bid x Quality Score and assign it to your ad. Ad Rating enables the platform to decide the position of your ad on the SERPs if several ads are picked for display.

Benefits of SEM

When you are new to online marketing, it may be hard to choose which strategy to pursue. You need to know what benefits each one brings to the table to make an informed decision. Here are the benefits of SEM so that you can understand the importance of SEM and what role it has to play in a digital marketing strategy.

Efficiently Build Brand Awareness

Building brand awareness from scratch is a challenging task. SEM can help you achieve results faster and build brand awareness instantly.

Your ad will start appearing in the relevant searches, and more people are going to find out about your business. Suppose you use several Ad Groups at once to diversify your targeting strategy. In that case, you can inform people from various demographics and different buying intents that your business offers the products and services they are after.

Target the Whole Marketing Funnel To Generate Revenue

SEM is the only digital marketing strategy that provides instantaneous results. To fuel your business ideas, you need to maximize revenue as soon as possible. Paid ads can help you do it in a fast and controlled fashion.

With a refined targeting strategy, you can control who will see your ads. Basically, you can target every phase in your marketing funnel. For instance, you can use search ads for customers at the bottom of the funnel. The combination of search and display ads can help you reach people in the top funnel while they are still in the research phase. While using the display ads can help you fuel your remarketing efforts.

Easily Scale Up or Down

SEM is one of the most scalable paid marketing solutions. You get to decide the scope of your campaign. You can start small and scale-up or scale-down at any time you want.

The ad performance reports will help you quickly identify the bottlenecks in your operation and ads that don’t work. The scalability also applies to the amount of cash you are willing to spend on your paid ad campaigns. You can set a daily budget and completely control the cost of your paid advertising.

Reach Anyone You Want

Search engines are an essential tool for everyone connecting online. According to the latest reports, Google and Bing account for 94.27% of the global search market, meaning that if you choose to use paid ads on these platforms, the chances are that you can reach practically anyone you want.

On top of that, the ability to target specific keywords, location, demographics, devices, and to schedule ads enables you to reach the right people in the right place and time. All this can help you boost the performance of your ads and capitalize on your SEM efforts.

Make Your Brand Name Familiar

Building recognition from the ground up demands devotion and years of consistent efforts. One would think that there is no shortcut. Since 93% of online experiences start with an online search, SEM can help you get your brand out there and start working on making it familiar to your target customers.

People don’t need to click your ad. It’s more than enough to appear on the top of 1st SERP. As more and more people see your ad, they’ll start to recognize your brand. This practice is great for reinforcing name recognition with your target customers.

Display Ads With Great Accuracy

There is no digital marketing strategy that can reach your prime target better than SEM. It allows you to handpick keywords relevant to your target audience and even choose keywords relevant to customers with different intent.

If you have identified your prime goal, features such as device and demographic targeting will help you display your ads with great accuracy. By catering to your target customers' specific needs and appearing as a brand that cares about solving their problems, you will start building long-lasting relationships.

Become More Competitive and Stand Out From the Crowd

Making your way up the organic search results ladder is hard, especially if your competitors have years of SEO efforts behind them. However, you do share the same market. Wouldn’t it be handy to appear in the same search results as they do without spending years on SEO?

A perfectly devised SEM strategy will enable you to run campaigns and display your ads in on the same SERPs your competitors are found. SEM will give you a competitive advantage and enable you to increase your customer base. Your ads will appear on the top of SERPs and in front of buyers who are interested in your competitors’ products and services. Also, they will appear “higher” than their organic SEO counterparts.

Better Cost-efficiency

SEM is considerably cheaper than traditional advertising. Traditional advertising is based on casting your net wide to reach only a handful of buyers with intent. SEM is entirely the opposite. You get to choose which segment of the marketing funnel you want to target. You can stick to targeting only people at the top of the funnel or cast your net wide as well.

Also, you have control over the costs and ability to assess the performance, which is something traditional advertising never managed to offer. You can tell ads with low conversion rates from those that are high performing. You can also up- or down-scale your SEM campaigns in a few clicks, while terminating a traditional advertising contract is more complex and usually comes with penalties.


As you can see, SEM has many implications on the success of your online marketing strategy and provides a shortcut to achieving both short-term goals and long-term online success.

Since all the ad copies link back to your official website, it’s also essential to get your site ready for SEM-generated traffic. If you think that SEM is a large-scope operation and something you can’t do on your own, you can turn to the professionals. When it comes to SEM Singapore, Heroes of Digital is a SEM agency in Singapore that has helped thousands of businesses do SEM, get SEM audits for their websites, generate leads, and increase revenue.

If you have any questions, feel free to speak to our friendly digital consultants and get your answers today!

Xavier Tan
Xavier is the Co-Founder of Heroes of Digital. He started social media marketing and SEM long before it became popular in Singapore. His passion is in helping businesses grow through effective lead generation. He has overseen campaigns for Amara Hotel, NTU, Marina Bay, L'Oreal, and 100+ SMEs.
Get notified of the latest digital marketing trends and strategies
We talk about the latest digital marketing strategies, trends, and best practices, stuff that only insiders in the digital marketing industry like us know.
  • Categories

  • Newsletters

      Get the best digital marketing articles delivered to your inbox on time.

    • Find out our
      superpowers and
      see how we can help
      your business grow
      with digital marketing


      Our certified digital marketing consultants will provide you with a risk-free marketing consultation, which includes:

      Get a customized strategy to generate more leads and sales
      Find out the 5 essential elements for digital marketing success
      Find out what your competitors are doing and how to beat them

      Get a free proposal


      We were born to save SMEs from ineffective digital marketing. Most digital marketing agencies in Singapore lack the proper digital marketing expertise, and transparency. They take SMEs for a ride, over-promise them on results. The end result is unhappy clients wasting a lot of money and resources. We are here to save them.


      Google ads
      Social media marketing
      Website design

      WHY US

      Case studies
      Our team
      Our culture



      linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram