Search engine marketing: a guide for small business

Ross Hall

April 26, 2021
(Updated on July 21, 2021)

Quote: SEM has a more immediate effect that makes it appealing for product sales and timely content

In December 2019, I published a report on how retailers design their mobile product pages. Within two weeks, over 300 people had viewed it, and several of these visitors had become leads. Search Engine Marketing drove this traffic, a set of techniques that short-cut the long-term organic growth of SEO for something more immediate.

This article summarizes Search Engine Marketing (SEM). It compares it with SEO, sets out four elements needed for success and how it can form part of a content marketing campaign.

What is SEM?

When you use a search engine such as Google or Bing, you see a list of links to web pages that match your criteria. Many of these links will appear thanks to SEO, or Search Engine Optimisation, where the page is designed to appear high in the list. These are called “organic” links because an algorithm has decided it is relevant to your search and of a high quality.

Paid adverts surround the organic listings. Sometimes the adverts are discreet, looking almost identical to organic listings save for a small sponsorship tag. Other times they’re more pronounced, appearing at the top of pages in large blocks designed to stand out. They may be at the top or bottom of the page and sometimes spread throughout it.

Chart showing where organic and sponsored listings are on a typical search engine results page

These paid ads result from “Search Engine Marketing”. Instead of waiting for Google to find and index the content, the listing is bought. While SEO can take months or even a year to work, SEM can generate results in a few hours.

How does SEM work?

The aim of SEM is to put an advertisement in front of someone that triggers a click. As with any form of marketing, it works best when you have a clear objective, budget and audience to target. The basics always apply, regardless of whether it’s SEO, SEM or any other form of digital marketing.

Assuming you have these basics covered, there are four key elements to consider.

Target Keywords

You need to understand the keywords your target audience uses to find what you want to promote. Keywords are a proxy for customer intent. We can assume someone searching for “black dress” is interested in purchasing a new outfit. It’s therefore reasonable to promote your latest deals on black dresses when these keywords appear.

Matching intent to keywords is the purpose of “Keyword Research”. These words and phrases are used to trigger your adverts and having a solid grasp on which ones are most useful is critical to SEM. Choose the wrong ones and you could pay to advertise to a group of people with no interest in your products.

There are tools available to help you identify target keywords. You’ll type in your chosen keyword and get back how often it’s used in searches, how often people click links and suggestions for alternatives. Most search engines have a tool that show performance across their site. There are also third-party products that try to show a wider view across multiple engines.

Example keyword research on "Black Dress" in Google. The platform recommends other keywords to target, as well as how much it could cost to get to #1 on the search results page.
Example keyword research on “Black Dress” in Google. The platform recommends other keywords to target, as well as how much it could cost to get to #1 on the search results page.


As with any form of advertising, you need strong creative that appeals to your target audience. Most adverts look the same as an organic listing in their layout, albeit with the tag to tell the reader they’re sponsored. Calls to action tend to be stronger and more focused on appealing to a specific audience or search.

Adverts are not limited to text. You could use images or video, depending on where you’re placing your adverts and what you’re trying to achieve. It’s not uncommon to search for clothes and find the top of the page features outfits that match your criteria.

You can also experiment with your adverts. For example, you may group sets of keywords together and create slightly different adverts for these groups. Variations within these groups can give you insight into what works best. You can then refine your advertising to raise its performance.

Screenshot of a google search for black dress showing the mix of paid for and organic search results.
Typical search engine results page for “Black Party Dress”. Note the page is dominated by paid advertising.


In print advertising you pay a publisher money and you’re guaranteed your advert will appear in a certain number of magazines. This isn’t how SEM works.

SEM uses bidding to decide which advert appears where and in what form. You’ll bid against competitors, with the highest prices getting their adverts to appear on a keyword’s page. Competition can be fierce for keywords that are searched often or have high click-through rates. Setting daily budgets limits spending getting out of control, and you can allocate budgets differently across keywords and groups.

The good news is bids are usually for how much you’ll pay if someone clicks your advert. This is called “Pay Per Click” or PPC and is a result driven form of payment. Your advert might appear 100,000 times, but if only 2 people click on the ad, you’ll only pay for those two leads. Once the link is clicked, it’s down to your landing page and experience to convert them to a sale.

Screenshot of a user interface setting the bidding parameters for a
Screenshot of the LinkedIn interface for setting budgets and scheduling.

Landing Pages

Any advert should have a call to action, a clear link to your site with strong verbs to encourage a click. Where the link points to is called a “landing page”, and they’re often ignored in SEM design. Yet having a solid destination for people to arrive at can be the difference between success and profit, or another waste of the marketing budget.

Landing page design is about context. Your search engine advert started a conversation that you need to continue once the visitor is on your site. If you’ve advertised a new dress, make sure the visitor arrives on the page where they can buy that dress. Advertising a report should take them a download page. Dropping them onto a home page or a general product page is likely to be a waste of money.

Using SEM and SEO Together

Search Engine Optimisation and Marketing are not mutually exclusive. In some circles, SEO is thought of as part of SEM. I see them as complimentary rather than one as a subset of another.

For content marketing, SEO is a given. Content must be optimised to drive organic growth. This takes time, and when you’ve written something you think is timely, then SEM can give it a short-term boost. Paying to promote it for a few days can bring people knocking on your door who have an immediate need.

However, SEM doesn’t impact SEO. Paying to boost your content for a week doesn’t mean it’ll appear higher in the rankings when your campaign ends. That still depends on it being carefully crafted, other people linking to it and all the other ingredients that go into search engine optimisation.

The general rule of thumb is SEO takes time to work; SEM works for as long as it’s being fed money.

It’s not all about Google

Think of search engines and you’ll probably focus on Google or Bing. While it’s true the vast majority of searches take place on these sites, there are other places where SEM applies.

Amazon, eBay and many other market places support SEM to varying degrees. If you’re active on a site that lets users search for products, investigate whether they support SEM and if it could fit your needs better than Google.

The bottom line

Search Engine Marketing allows you to put targeted, timely ads in front of people actively searching. Like any form of advertising to be successful it needs a clear aim, research about your target audience, strong creative and copy, and a sensible and managed budget. While SEO can take weeks or months to produce results, SEM has a more immediate effect that makes it appealing for product sales and timely content.

As with any advertising, it works best when it’s in front of people in the right context. Thinking outside the box of Google and Bing to Amazon, eBay and others might produce unexpected results.

I'm Ross Hall, a writer and researcher based in Kobe, Japan. You can talk to me about B2B, sustainability and strategic management.

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