Quick guide to SEM and strategies for online success

Put us to the test
Put us to the test!
Analyze your site
Select the database

It is an umbrella term that includes both organic and paid strategies that share the same goal: to increase a website’s visibility in search engines. Today we are going down a parallel path to the traditional ones on our blog, because we are going to provide additional guidance on online marketing and SEM: without presuming to be exhaustive on such a delicate and broad topic, our goal is to present a concise but sufficiently in-depth guide to search engine marketing activity, with some insights on how to use SEOZoom’s tools to intercept interesting angles on which to focus our strategy.

What is SEM: definition and meaning

Let’s start with a purely grammatical detail: in Italian, one can indiscriminately use either the feminine or the masculine form to define Search Engine Marketing and SEM (and thus, one can write and say “the” SEM or “the” SEM, etc.); however, the use of “the” SEM is more common and widespread in most publications and discussions on the topic, and so in this article we stick to the masculine form to maintain more consistency with the prevailing usage in the field.

SEM, which stands for Search Engine Marketing, is a digital marketing strategy that focuses on promoting websites and content through search engines. In a nutshell, this activity is based on the optimization of organic search results (i.e., SEO) and paid advertising (SEA), with the goal of increasing online visibility and attracting a quality audience to the site’s pages, which is larger and more interested in the products or services offered.

In fact, SEM campaigns make it possible to target specific groups of users based on demographic, geographic and behavioral criteria, ensuring that ads are shown only to relevant and interested audiences. In addition, Search Engine Marketing offers tools and metrics to monitor and analyze the effectiveness of campaigns, allowing strategies to be optimized and performance to be continuously improved, but also the ability to quickly adjust campaigns and budgets according to business needs and goals, so as to make the most of the opportunities offered by the market and search engines.

Who is Search Engine Marketing dedicated to and what is it for?

Given this background, it is understood that SEM is aimed at all businesses and professionals who wish to increase their online presence and reach a quality audience. This digital marketing strategy is suitable for both small and medium-sized businesses and large companies, regardless of their industry, and can also be used by professionals and freelancers offering services or consulting, allowing them to increase visibility and authority in their field of expertise.

SEM is used to improve the online visibility of a website or specific content, increasing traffic and attracting a quality audience interested in the products or services offered: through the optimization of organic search results and paid advertising, it allows, in fact, to reach a wider audience and target specific groups of users based on demographic, geographic and behavioral criteria, while the available tools and metrics allow monitoring and analyzing the effectiveness of campaigns, so as to obtain the insights needed to better target strategies and continuously increase performance.

Which sites and brands can do SEM and why

And so, virtually all sites and brands can benefit from SEM, regardless of size, industry, or type of products and services offered. In particular, analysts believe that these activities are particularly useful for e-commerce sites, blogs, information sites and service sites, as it precisely allows them to increase visibility and traffic, improving the chances of conversion and sales.

Still, brands operating in highly competitive industries or wishing to expand their presence locally, nationally or internationally can benefit greatly from SEM because of its flexibility and ability to target specific groups of users, just as it can serve brands wishing to promote events, launch new products or services or improve their online reputation.

Differences between SEM, SEO, SEA and PPC

Before delving into technical issues, we need to open another parenthesis to clarify some of the acronyms that come back when talking about digital marketing and search marketing in particular, such as SEM, SEO, SEA and PPC, trying to define each of these specific activities and find out their peculiarities and differences with the others.

  • SEM (Search Engine Marketing)

SEM is the set of digital marketing strategies that aim to promote a website by increasing its visibility in search engines. It is an umbrella term that includes both organic (SEO) and paid (SEA and PPC) activities, which are its main and most common components.

  • SEO (Search Engine Optimization)

SEO is the component of SEM that focuses on optimizing a website to improve its visibility in organic search engine results, without direct monetary investment; its main goal is to achieve the highest possible rankings in SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages) for certain keywords or keyword phrases, and is essentially divided into:

  1. On-page SEO, which involves, among other things, optimization of content, titles, meta descriptions, URL and site architecture.
  2. Off-page SEO, which takes the form of link building strategies, social media promotion and other off-site activities.
  3. Technical SEO, which involves optimization of site speed, structured data, indexing and mobile compatibility.


  • SEA (Search Engine Advertising).

SEA is the component of SEM that deals with paid advertising on search engines: it involves buying advertising space in search engine results, usually through auction systems such as Google Ads or Bing Ads. Ads are displayed in prime positions in SERPs, increasing the visibility of the website and attracting qualified traffic. These campaigns allow ads to be placed in sponsored search results, paying only when a user clicks on the ad. SEA offers faster results than SEO, but it requires a financial investment and careful campaign management to avoid wasted budgets and get a good return on investment; moreover, it does not give long-lasting results because the visibility disappears when the campaign is deactivated.

  • PPC (Pay-Per-Click)

PPC is an online advertising model in which advertisers pay a commission every time a user clicks on one of their ads. PPC is closely related to SEA, as it is the most common payment model used in search engine advertising campaigns, but it can also be applied to other advertising platforms, such as social media (e.g., Facebook Ads) or third-party websites.

To recap, then, SEM or Search Engine Marketing is the entire complex of activities required to improve the presence of a site and its pages on search engines; SEO focuses on optimizing the site for organic (and therefore free) results, while SEA concerns paid advertising on search engines, which often takes the form of the PPC payment model, which can also be applied to other advertising platforms.

How SEM works and how this activity is done

SEM therefore combines two very specific souls: optimization to appear among organic search results and paid advertising.

In order to carry out an effective SEM campaign, it is necessary to combine both components, working on the one hand on SEO – and thus on the process of optimizing content and web pages, which includes such activities as keyword analysis, content refinement, site structure management, and quality backlink creation, among others – and on the other hand on Pay-Per-Click advertising, which takes the form of creating and managing paid advertising campaigns on search engines.

As we know, SEO is a long-term activity that requires time and effort, but can lead to long-lasting results and a steady flow of organic traffic, while SEA offers faster results, but also requires financial investment and careful campaign management to avoid wasted budgets and achieve a good ROI. And so, integrating both strategies into a holistic point of view – as SEM is – serves to maximize results and preside over the niche market in a more comprehensive and profitable way.

The benefits of search engine marketing

Search Engine Marketing offers numerous benefits for companies and professionals who wish to increase their online presence and reach a wider audience. In particular, we can mention:

  • Increased visibility. SEM allows you to increase the visibility of your website and content in search results, both organic and sponsored, reaching a wider audience interested in the products or services you offer.
  • Accurate Targeting. SEM campaigns allow you to target specific user groups based on demographic, geographic and behavioral criteria, ensuring that ads are shown only to relevant and interested audiences.
  • Monitoring and analyzing results. There are specific tools and metrics to monitor and analyze the effectiveness of campaigns, allowing you to optimize strategies and continuously improve performance.
  • Flexibility and scalability. Campaigns and budgets can be quickly adjusted according to business needs and goals, so as to make the most of the opportunities offered by the market and search engines.

The greatest strength of search engine marketing, however, is that it gives advertisers the opportunity to present their ads to motivated customers who are already ready to buy, being at the right point in the funnel and at the precise moment when they are ready to make a purchase . No other advertising medium can do this, which is why SEM is so effective and such an incredibly powerful way to grow a business.

How to structure an SEM campaign

Going into some detail, typically a general SEM campaign is structured through a combination of optimizing content and web pages for SEO and creating and managing paid advertising campaigns. Certain strategic steps are considered crucial, such as:

  • Define business and marketing goals, such as increasing visibility, traffic, conversions or sales.
  • Conduct keyword research to identify the most relevant and best performing keywords for your industry and target audience.
  • Optimize content and web pages based on the selected keywords, improving site structure, content quality and quality backlink creation.
  • Create and manage paid search engine advertising campaigns, targeting selected keywords and constantly monitoring campaign performance.
  • Analyze and monitor the results of SEM campaigns, using specific tools and metrics, to identify any opportunities for optimization and performance improvement.

How to do keyword research for SEM

We mentioned keyword research among the core processes for SEM, which might surprise those who think this activity is only related to SEO. Actually, keyword research is used to identify the most relevant and performing keywords for each sector and target audience, starting from the analysis of the website or content to be promoted to center the main topic, from which the work of selecting relevant and related topics and clusters will move.

What changes are small nuances in the methodologies and objectives: in the case of SEM, and particularly for SEA and PPC, keyword research focuses on identifying keywords that have high conversion potential and can generate qualified traffic to the website through advertisements. In this context, it is important to consider not only keyword search volume but also cost per click (CPC) and competition to maximize the ROI of advertising campaigns.

To conduct keyword research for SEA and PPC, you can use tools such as Google Ads Keyword Planner or other specific software that provide detailed information on search volume, CPC and competition for selected keywords, as well as suggest new related keywords. In addition, it is crucial to analyze the keywords used by competitors and constantly monitor campaign performance to optimize keywords and ads.

Keyword research for SEO, on the other hand, focuses on identifying keywords that can improve the website’s organic visibility in search engines. In this case, the main goal is to find keywords with high search volume and relatively low competition to increase the chances of ranking in the top positions of SERPs. Keyword research for SEO also takes into account users’ search intent to create content that meets their needs and questions, and ultimately aims to select terms that present the best balance between search volume, competition, and relevance to one’s business.

Although keyword research for SEA/PPC and SEO has slightly different objectives and methodologies, both activities are complementary and can be integrated to develop an effective SEM strategy. For example, keywords identified during research for SEO can also be used in SEA/PPC campaigns, and vice versa. In addition, analyzing the performance of advertising campaigns can provide valuable information for optimizing content and SEO strategies.

The forms of SEM: what are the types of ads on Google

In the context of SEM and PPC on Google, we can identify several forms of ads available to advertisers who wish to promote their products or services and reach the desired audience. The most common forms of SEM and PPC ads on Google include:

  • Text ads. These are the most traditional and common ads that appear in Google’s search results pages (SERPs). Text ads consist of a title, description and a visible URL. Advertisers must create eye-catching and relevant text to attract users’ attention and induce them to click on the ad.
  • Display ads. Display ads are images, banners or text that are shown on a large network of Google’s partner websites, known as the Google Display Network. These ads can be targeted based on various criteria, such as user behavior, keywords, or website themes. Display ads are particularly useful for increasing brand awareness and reaching a wider audience.
  • Video ads. Video ads are short advertising clips that are shown before, during, or after videos on YouTube and the Google Display Network. Video ads can be an effective way to engage users and communicate complex messages in a visual and dynamic way.
  • Remarketing ads. Remarketing is a strategy that allows advertisers to show personalized ads to users who have already visited their website or interacted with their content. Remarketing ads can be text, display, or video and are shown on the Google Display Network or in SERPs. Remarketing is useful for keeping the brand in users’ minds and encouraging conversions.
  • Google Shopping Ads. Google Shopping ads are product ads that appear in SERPs or in the “Shopping” tab of Google. These ads include detailed product information, such as images, prices and reviews, and allow users to easily compare different shopping options. Google Shopping ads are particularly effective for e-commerce and online retailers.

PPC, Google Ads and the auction mechanism: a quick overview

Very often, SEM ends up identifying Pay-Per-Click (PPC) activities exclusively, even though (as mentioned) it is actually the broader set of activities to promote a site and brand on search engines.

Dwelling on the SEA aspects, however, we need to quickly analyze how the advertising mechanism works, particularly that of Google Ads, which remains the most popular platform, and what the auction system means.

And so, the auction mechanism is the basis of paid advertising, because they are the process through which advertisers compete to place their ads in search engine sponsored search results based on the queries entered by users. Specifically, advertisers decide to place bids for keywords that they believe are relevant to their target audience, and the search engine determines the position of the ads based on several factors, including the bid amount and the quality of the ad.

The auction mechanism is based on a real-time bidding system, which allows advertisers to compete for ad positions dynamically and flexibly by setting a maximum budget for their campaigns and establishing a maximum cost per click (CPC) they are willing to pay for individual keywords. The search engine takes these parameters into account and assigns ad placement based on the bid amount and the quality of the ad, which is evaluated through a score Google calls Quality Score.

Google’s Quality Score is an indicator that takes into account several factors, including keyword relevance, ad text quality, landing page quality, and user experience. A high Quality Score can improve ad placement and reduce the cost per click, making campaigns more efficient and high-performing. To achieve a good Quality Score, advertisers need to optimize their ads and landing pages, ensuring that they are relevant and useful to users who search with target keywords. Constantly monitoring and analyzing campaign and Quality Score performance is critical to the success of SEM strategies and to achieving a good return on investment.

What has been written applies specifically to Google Ads, which remains one of the most important and popular platforms for managing PPC campaigns due to its wide coverage and effectiveness in reaching the desired audience. This solution works precisely through an auction mechanism, in which advertisers compete to place their ads in the top positions of search results for certain keywords, and takes into account two main factors to determine the position of ads: maximum bid and quality score. As the official guide explains, Google’s quality score is an indicator that assesses the relevance and usefulness of the ad to users, measured on a scale of 1 to 10 and available at the keyword level; it is based on various criteria, most notably expected click-through rate (the likelihood that the ad will receive a click when it is published), ad relevance (the degree to which the ad matches the intention behind a user’s search query), and landing page experience (the level of relevance and usefulness of the landing page to users who click on the ad).

During the auction, Google Ads multiplies the maximum bid by the quality score to obtain the ad’s “rank”; ads are then placed according to their rank, with the highest-ranked ad appearing in the highest position. Advertisers pay only when a user clicks on the ad, and the amount actually paid is determined by the bid of the competitor immediately below them, divided by the quality score, plus one cent.

The auction mechanism in Google Ads ensures that the most relevant and quality ads are rewarded with better positions and lower costs per click. For advertisers, it is crucial to optimize ads and landing pages to improve quality score and maximize the ROI of PPC campaigns, and being able to take advantage of the visibility opportunities provided by Google Ads means placing ads in sponsored search results, Google partner pages, and Google’s Display network, reaching a large audience of users interested in the products or services offered.

How to use SEOZoom for SEM and SEA activities

Although, in general, the tools in SEOZoom are primarily dedicated to organic search SEO activities, there are nevertheless a number of data, metrics, and indicators that can be used in broader SEM campaigns or to refine the creation of SEA and PPC tactics, particularly to evaluate keywords and understand the level of difficulty relative to the overall context.

Specifically, the information is available in each type of analysis in the suite – and thus keyword analysis, domain analysis and URL analysis – and is integrated into various in-depth tools and tables, with reference to CPC value.

With this acronym in SEOZoom we define a fundamental concept for SEM, which is instead the cost per click (cost per click, hence precisely the acronym CPC) that SEOZoom is able to estimate in the form of an average value for each individual keyword with respect to the sponsorships made by all sites. Thus, one understands the difference with the meaning of PPC, which as mentioned identifies the overall “pay per click” activity and reports the total online advertising in Google Ads that a site invests in.

On the practical front, for example, we can analyze a domain in its entirety and immediately display a quote of its “traffic value”: this is an estimate based on the calculation of the CPC of each individual page, which thus returns the approximate figure of the investment we would have to incur in spending on Google Ads to obtain the same placements that the site has instead obtained with organic traffic. The value represents an estimate based on the CPC calculation of each individual page for which the analyzed site has keywords placed on the first page on Google, performed on a monthly basis.

The indication can be useful for analyzing competitors and trying to find possible angles to attack through promotional campaigns, or conversely to understand whether it is worth focusing on SEO work, on page or off page, to improve the site’s ranking. In theory, it can also suggest how much we could earn through Google Adsense: if there are high CPCs, it is likely the presence of more display advertisers willing to invest, taking care, however, to deepen the evaluations because ADSense earnings can be very variable depending on the sector.

If we choose to analyze a specific URL, on the other hand, SEOZoom is able to offer us an estimate of the organic coverage of the page, indicating the percentage coverage of the Ads present and the total CPC investment value. In detail, the suite shows in the Coverage box, in blue, the sum of the CPC of the keywords that the analyzed URL has placed on the first page, while the Total CPC box indicates, in light blue, the sum of the CPC of the keywords that are not currently on the first page: the percentage difference between the two values presented represents precisely the ADS Coverage, a figure that helps us to understand at a stroke how much the “traffic value” of the page could improve if all the keywords placed arrived on the first page on Google. The value of ADS coverage can be strategic for increasing the monetization with AdSense of our pages, because it also allows us to find out which are the keywords on which Ads advertisers invest the most and which, therefore, could offer us better returns in the face of a good placement in SERPs.

The last mode of analysis is the one concerning the individual keyword, which is perhaps also the most complex (in both meanings of the adjective): when we focus on a keyword, SEOZoom immediately responds with the figure of the average CPC incurred by advertisers, while in the lower field is the value of the level of competition present in Ads; this figure is between 0 and 1 (indicating, respectively, minimum level of competition and very high level of competition, with intermediate values expressed in decimal base) and is provided directly by Google Ads.

Then, as mentioned, average CPC and total CPC volume appear in some tools. In the first case, as is easy to guess, we refer to the weighted average of all the CPCs of the keywords placed for the URL under consideration (so many discordant values are excluded in the calculation to obtain the average figure). In addition to this, there is the total CPC value, which in practice represents a potential estimate of the sum of all CPCs of the keywords referencing the analyzed URL, so as to provide an idea of the value that this page might have, even when considering the CPCs of the various keywords.

Esempio di valore CPC totale

Analyze competitors to optimize strategy

SEOZoom’s SEM tools therefore provide us with useful information if we are thinking of initiating investments in Google Ads, to be used to improve and make pay-per-click campaigns more effective and to identify any critical issues in our project that need to be corrected or strengths to focus on.

The important and advantageous aspect of SEOZoom, however, lies in the continuous comparison between the paid search data and that of organic traffic, to understand how the SERPs are really composed also from the point of view of Google features, what are the potential costs of the investment, what are the traffic volumes of keywords and which keywords are more profitable, so as to have estimates on the actual return of a promotion compared to the results that can be achieved by working only on SEO optimization and with page strengthening campaigns through link building.

Iscriviti alla newsletter

Try SEOZoom

7 days for FREE

Discover now all the SEOZoom features!