The Bewildering History of SEM: All You Need to Know - In: Search Engine Optimization

In : Search Engine Optimization Comments : 0 Author : Sam Barraza Date : 30 Mar 2020
SEM Blog

The term Search Engine Marketing (SEM), although named two decades ago, is still surrounded by a heavy smog of unclarity. For marketing newbies and experts alike, it is difficult to find information online that clearly outlines its meaning, especially since there are many articles out there constantly contradicting each other. This search for objective truth has easily become an infuriating pursuit for people wanting to jump into digital marketing. 

Here at Birch, we want to simplify the learning process and bring some clarity to the table concerning SEM. Do you want to fully comprehend what SEM is and how it can help improve your business? First, be sure you understand the basics of SEO. Need a refresher? Visit part 1 of this install here. Okay, now back to SEM – let’s begin from its conception: 

History of SEM  

In a 2001 article for Search Engine Land, American technologist Danny Sullivan popularized the term Search Engine Marketing (SEM) to categorize both SEO and paid search. However, although Sullivan meant for SEM to function as an umbrella term for both paid search and SEO, it didn’t take long for marketers around the globe to start transforming SEM into a term for paid search –  and paid search only. Hold your horses – we know what you are thinking: How did this happen? 

Well, ten years later, Danny revisits his thoughts on SEM by writing “The Name Game: Does SEM = Paid Search? Does Search + Social = Inbound Marketing?” The article explains that the gained popularity of SEM as a paid search term was mainly at the hands of Wikipedia, who defined SEM as “the act of buying listings on search engines” (We checked, and it currently defines it as “promoting websites by increasing their visibility in search engine results). 

Although wrong, Wikipedia’s definition stuck, and unwilling to go against the tide, Sullivan now relinquishes his original definition by the end of the article. He invites the reader to accept SEM as the “practice of buying listings” as well. So, you heard it from the top. As of now, SEM is widely regarded as solely paid search. 


SEM versus SEO

Search Engine Optimization is the process of optimizing your website in the hopes of getting organic traffic. In other words, it’s quite literally – free real estate. SEO methods such as on-site SEO, off-site SEO, and technical SEO are pivotal in the process of making your content “search engine crawler friendly.” This increases the chances of ranking higher in Search Engine Results Pages (SERP). If you wish to go more in-depth about SEO, you can read our past blog “Deep Dive into SEO: The Good, Bad, and Worst” where we talk about white, black, and grey hat SEO tactics.

A younger Danny Sullivan might say that SEO and PPC fall under the same SEM umbrella. However, as explained earlier, today’s Danny Sullivan will agree that SEM is now most commonly used to refer to paid search. Paid search, also known as pay-per-click  is different from SEO in that it uses a formula to calculate the price of an online ad. Advertisers then go ahead and pay a fee each time a user clicks on their ad. While the primary benefit of SEO is its “freeness,” PPC ensures your space in searches. 

SEM Strategies

SEM strategies can differ in intent and execution depending on the channels that are utilized, but all involve the same general planning steps. Here are a few strategies to help you understand SEM and how you can implement it in your own business:

PPC Keyword Research 

Any good campaign begins with some keyword research, and the starting point for keyword research should be to brainstorm. Your campaign should not be solely dictated by fancy software. Instead, you should humanize the process by simply putting yourself in your prospective customer’s shoes. What are they searching for and how do they word these searches? 

Divide your keywords into four main categories: brand terms, general terms, related terms, and competitor terms. 

Brands terms: keywords that contain your brand/business name.

General terms: keywords that relate to your product or service.

Related terms: keywords that users who want your product/service might be searching for.

Competitor terms: keywords that contain the brand/business names of your competitors. 

Now, we are not advising you to completely disregard keyword tools, but to think of brainstorming as a successful starting point of your campaign. Your own keywords might end up correlating with the ones given to you by software, which will only serve to assure you that you are heading in the right direction. 

Google Ads Account Structure

If you’ve heard of PPC you have probably heard of Google Ads, the online advertising platform where marketers pay to display brief ad messaging that publicizes their product or service. The structure of these ads is important, as it is the defining factor that controls how your ads are triggered and when and where you want them to appear. Building a sound and logical structure also results in better quality scores by Google, which later manifests into better results and lower prices. Here are the main components of a high-performing Google Ads account:


SEM Google Ads Account

Campaigns: Establish a Foundation

On the campaign level, you are able to set up your budget, network, language, ad schedule, target locations, and device targeting. Remember to build your campaign based on what type of business you are running. Each campaign has a type, and it is up to you to choose between search network, display network, shopping, video, and universal app. Therefore, it is vital to do some soul searching and really dive deep into your business’s high-level goals before committing to one of the types listed above.

Ad Groups: Build Your House

Your ad groups are sets of similar ads that will display based on bids and keywords established within the ad group.  These keywords will then trigger your text ads and direct the user to a relevant landing page. Wordstream goes on to recommend a maximum of 7-10 ad groups per campaign, ~20 keywords per ad group, and 2-3 ads per ad group. 

Keywords: Interior Design

Now it’s time for some keyword research. Make sure to use keyword tools such as Google Ads Keyword Planner found inside your Google Ads account and other free or third-party options. There are four different keyword match types, which function as “parameters that can be set on your keywords to control which searches trigger your ads.

Broad Match: Allows you to reach the widest audience which can mean irrelevant traffic.

Modified Broad Match: Gives you the reach of Broad Match but is a little more selective by making your ad match when the search term includes keywords you designated with a plus sign.

Phrase Match: Your ad will only appear when a user types your keyword phrase in its exact order. This type allows you to have greater control over your campaign.

Exact Match: This one doesn’t need much of an explanation. You designate the exact words you want users to type in order to trigger your ad. 

Ad Text: Exterior Design

Google Ads Help defines text ads as a “form of marketing communication that advertisers can use to promote their product or service on the Google Network.” Simply put, this is the text users who trigger your ad will see. Ideally, you want to have 2-3 ads per ads per group, which will then direct to the landing page. Always remember to use copy that is both intentional and that incites the reader to take action. 

Building out an account is not as intimidating as it seems. It is key to understand all the moving parts of your account structure to be able to establish an effective plan that will acquire relevant traffic and lead them to your landing pages. When building out this structure, remember what each element means and what each dictates in order to launch a successful and attention-grabbing ad. 


There are more PPC strategies, tips, and tricks out there, but with this solid foundation, we hope we were able to cut through the noise and offer valuable clarity – because we know it was needed. 

Although effective – and when done right almost magical – SEO does not always ensure your place in the SERP. It might be time to give SEM a try. Raise your total volume of traffic by targeting clicks in paid search and use this laser-targeted visibility to your advantage. And if you are ready to take off into the world of PPC, do it with a dependable partner that will manage and optimize your campaigns. 

Contact Birch River Design Group for more information about our PPC services for a holistic approach towards everything search-related.

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