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PPC ads can be an affordable and scalable way to grow your business. — Getty Images/KeremYucel

Search marketing is an umbrella term used to describe two common schools of thought with regard to digital advertising: search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM). Pay-per-click advertising, commonly known as PPC, is a form of SEM.

Below we will look at SEO and SEM in terms of search marketing, evaluate the similarities and differences between the two, describe the advantages of PPC and provide the basics of a successful PPC campaign.

What is search marketing?

Businesses that use both SEO and SEM in a synergistic way are often able to drive the most profitable results. But what do the terms really mean?

SEO stands for search engine optimization. Simply put, SEO refers to internet authority your business earns organically — which means something different than what you are used to — and for free. Instead of talking about raw fruits and vegetables, we are talking about raw data that shows whether traffic to your site has grown based on genuine interest, influencer links and successful optimization campaigns.

The entity who decides whether you earn SEO credibility is Google’s algorithm and other search engines like it.

SEM stands for search engine marketing. SEM refers to internet authority that your business must pay for. This comes in the form of advertising that is much more similar to traditional display-type marketing from days of yore. Today, the most common form of internet advertising is in the form of PPC advertising. This is also referred to as paid search.

When a company seeks to raise their authority both organically with SEO, and inorganically with paid search or SEM, they are using the best of both worlds to penetrate their target market through search marketing.

[For more assistance on PPC, check out How to Hire a Paid Search, PPC Vendor.]


Understanding how to structure a truly successful PPC campaign relies on understanding how these two close digital cousins are both similar and different. Here’s the difference between SEO and SEM:

Types of SEO campaigns:

  • Keyword optimization: Research keywords that drive business to your website and use them in compelling content.
  • Link-building: PR firms or freelance contributors ensure that links to your website appear on other high-authority sites.
  • Content marketing: Refers the rich tapestry of marketing techniques surrounding consistent, valuable and compelling content.

Much like building your own personal credit, building credibility on the internet using SEO techniques takes time and patience. Most of the time, the more strategies you deploy, the better your marketing will be. However, there are some exceptions to this rule.

Some SEO techniques known as "black hat" techniques are generally frowned upon within the industry. These include things like keyword stuffing, misusing tags and other activities that cost your site user experience and functionality in order to get a quick boost in SEO.

Google’s algorithm has caught on to these techniques and typically penalizes sites that try to use shortcuts to jump ahead. When it comes to SEO, it’s a long game — and not a cheap one, either. Some estimates suggest up to 50% of a digital marketing budget could be spent on quality SEO. It may seem like a lot but it’s sure to pay off when carried out effectively.

What about SEM?

If SEO is the marathon, then SEM is the sprint. As mentioned above, SEM — which usually refers to PPC, which is also referred to as paid search — is the process by which companies can buy keyword exposure on a search engine.

One thing both SEM and SEO have in common is that they both require keyword research. If you aren’t researching your keywords well before buying them, you are throwing your money into a digital abyss.

A typical paid search campaign works like this:

  • Company A purchases keywords they’d like to rank for.
  • After the agreement between Company A and the search engine is complete, Company A’s information is displayed as a small advertisement at the top or bottom of the search page when someone searches the specific keyword purchased.
  • The prime spot is for Company A’s information is "above the fold," or at the top results
  • Each paid search ad is marked with the word "Ad" somewhere on the line item but otherwise looks very similar to a typical search result.

As far as the transaction is concerned, Company A can enter one of two types of agreements: CPM or PPC.

  • CPM stands for cost per thousand times that your ad is displayed. This type of billing is typically done through an advertising agency and purchased much like remnant space.
  • PPC can be entered into directly between your company and Google or another search engine, using Google AdWords.

If you have the money to invest in PPC, you might be asking why you shouldn't just dump all of your money into PPC and skip SEO all together.

The answer to that lies in the click-through rate (CTR) and other metrics used to judge the effectiveness of SEM. For instance, Google’s CTR is 2%, which is objectively high for digital advertising. This means that 2% of the time, a user will click on an advertisement; while the other 98% of the time, a user will click on an organic result. This is why you need to focus your energies on both SEO as well as SEM to have the best long term success.

When a company seeks to raise their authority both organically with SEO, and inorganically with paid search or SEM, they are using the best of both worlds to penetrate their target market through search marketing.

Building a successful PPC campaign

PPC is a good solution for anyone who is getting ready to embark on a search marketing campaign. PPC can

  • generate new leads;
  • increase revenue; and
  • create brand recognition and awareness.

But PPC isn’t an end-to-end solution. The all-encompassing digital advertising standard for your business is found under the entirety of search marketing. It includes SEM campaigns like PPC, as well as organic SEO initiatives.

When you’re getting ready to start search marketing for the first time, it’s important you prepare your budget and set the right expectations. When done correctly, SEM and SEO exponentially increase your business success.

Now that you know what PPC is (paid search); and how it benefits your business (through quick, guaranteed exposure to a targeted audience), it’s time to discover how to organize your next great paid search campaign.

Step 1: Choosing platforms

There are two major players in the search engine world, and if you can, you should be on both of them. These are Bing and Google. Here’s the scoop on Bing Ads and Google AdWords:

Bing Ads:

Bing Ads covers Bing and Yahoo networks, as well as Search Partners partner sites. That means your keyword-based ad could show up on any number of search websites that are part of this extensive network.

Google AdWords:

Google continues to be the gold standard in “search engine everything,” and that’s no different when it comes to advertising. If you can only choose one engine to be on, it should be Google AdWords. Google AdWords gives you exposure to all Google search sites, Search Partners partner sites and Display Network. While it has a search marketing foundation, Google AdWords can also help you with your digital display ads across all of its networks.

Step 2: Research keywords

The next step is selecting the right keywords to get the job done right the first time. To figure out which keywords to use, find a good keyword tool. There are several free options online if you don’t have one in mind already.

A good keyword has a high search volume and low competition. These are metrics that you will have access to in most keyword tools. Another metric to look out for is keyword difficulty, which will tell you how hard it is to rank naturally for the term.

Before you get to this point, you want to start by thinking about your ideal customers and what their interests are. You can start to gather this information by using social media tools, keeping an eye on the competition and Google’s auto-complete feature. Only then should you move those ideas through a keyword tool that can offer suggestions and metrics.

Step 3: Select keywords and negative keywords

Once you have put together a strong list of potential keywords, decide which ones you are going to select for purchase in your campaign dashboard.

You want to choose two types of keywords:

  • Regular keywords, which are are going to be the ones on which your ad appears.
  • Negative keywords, which are words you definitely do not want your ad to appear on because they won’t convert to a sale.

Defining where your ad should not go is important, as it will help you save money in the long run.

Step 4: Structure your ad groups

When structuring your ad campaign, it makes the most sense to split your campaign into categories and groups. This will make things easier for you to manage and will likely achieve the best results. Here’s how:

  • Select categories: these are overarching themes like “Fall Items”
  • Within each category, identify ad groups: these can be things like fall makeup, fall sweaters and fall scarves

In the examples above, the category represents a larger group of like items with ads being deployed, while the ad group represents a more targeted group of ads that will each likely need different keywords in order to be marketed successfully.

Step 5: Focus on ad copy

Finally, while PPC ads are relatively small, up to 80 characters, it’s important to make the most of this small amount of space. In order to have an effective PPC campaign, you need to make sure your description is compelling enough to get a searcher's attention.

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