What Small Business Owners Should Know About Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

What Small Business Owners Should Know About Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

All marketing efforts are ultimately about attracting customers, and, if you’re a small business owner, the digital marketing space has leveled the playing field in many ways. No longer is it only the larger companies with big marketing budgets that can take advantage of targeted marketing efforts. Even small businesses with limited financial capacity for marketing can make a big digital splash, and search engine marketing (SEM) offers one avenue to do just that.

SEM Defined

Search engine marketing (SEM) is increasingly relevant as more people make online purchases or compare products and services online before making a commitment to purchase. According to a study from the Pew Research Center on “Online Shopping and E-Commerce,” about 79% of Americans have made an online purchase, and many rely on internet searches to provide information about products and services, including reviews from other users. SEM directs some of that online traffic to you and your business—usually to your website first—by matching your specific offerings to specific search criteria. Some of this traffic can come from implementing a really good search engine optimization (SEO) strategy using keywords to describe your business that align with the terms people most commonly type in a search query, and our article on “Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Fundamentals for Business Owners” will give you more information about the function of SEO.

What SEM has come to mean in the digital marketing world, though, is paid advertising that attracts traffic to your website rather than relying only on SEO to send new customers your way. Often, SEM is referred to as “pay per click” advertising or PPC, and the two largest platforms for SEM are, it’s no surprise, Google and Bing. Google Adwords and Bing Ads function very similarly, and a successful SEM campaign will depend on a good understanding of your customers and potential customers (your target audience) and a good use of keywords that complements your onsite SEO strategy. Both Google and Bing offer different types of SEM or PPC marketing options: “text” ads that appear in search results and “display” ads that include images and appear alongside the search results. SEM text ads work well and allow many small business owners to acquire new customers without breaking the bank. Whether you’re trying to do your own marketing or working with an agency on SEM, it’s important that you understand some of the pros and cons.

Search Engine Marking (SEM) Advantages

Obviously, there are advantages to using SEM to attract customers; otherwise Google and Bing wouldn’t be making money offering PPC advertising. Here are some of the biggest reasons to consider using SEM, especially if you're a small business owner.

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Increased Visibility and Immediate Traffic: Instead of hoping potential customers find you when they’re searching for businesses like yours on the internet or waiting for months and months hoping your SEO efforts will place your information foremost in those internet searches, you can place an ad so that the people in your target audience will find you—and find you sooner.

You Can Target Your Message: SEM advertising allows you to choose who sees your message and when they see it. When setting up your ad, you can target particular geographic locations, certain times of the day, users with specific demographic characteristics, and many other factors to reach an audience that is more likely interested in what you’re offering. This advantage can be especially useful for businesses in niches such as manufacturing that won’t have a lot of social media traffic or other online activity.

Strengthen Your SEO Strategy: When the keywords in your SEM ads complement the keyword strategy on your website and on your social media channels, you’re giving all these efforts a huge boost. Keywords are powerful tools because, as author Kirk Williams points out while defending the role of keywords in paid search, a keyword “reveals individual, personal, and temporal intent.” Keyword searches tell us what individuals want, and your SEO strategy with relevant keywords can show what a great match your business is for that user. As the major search engines discover that your paid searches and your online content are in sync and reaching that user intent, your online credibility goes up in their eyes.

Take SEM for a Test Drive: Yes, that’s right. Unlike other advertising methods, you can more easily test what works and what gets the best response. You can run different ads to see which headline or copy attracts the most clicks to your website. You can edit the ads during the time you’ve set them to run if you think an edit will generate better results. You can even pause your ad and resume it later or stop it altogether.

Cost effective: SEM allows you to control what you spend on your advertising. You can set a daily or monthly budget and Google and Bing will place your ad when appropriate and only until your specified budget is spent. You pay only when users actually click the ad and visit your site, so you are paying for results rather than placement. In many cases, SEM can lower the cost to acquire new customers.

Tracking Features: Knowledge is power. SEM platforms allow you to track information about where and how your customers find you. You know more about their online behavior and can use this knowledge to refine future SEM advertising efforts and develop other marketing initiatives.

SEM Disadvantages

Small business owners necessarily wear many hats. From bookkeeper to customer service manager to marketer, small business owners are often in a position of trying to be everything to everyone and oversee every aspect of their business operations and growth. SEM is not an undertaking that is simple or without risks, so be aware of some of the disadvantages and potential obstacles before you begin an SEM campaign.

Special Knowledge Required: As marketer Dianna Huff explains when writing about her first experience with an SEM marketing campaign, “It’s deceptively easy to start an AdWords campaign . . . . It’s much more difficult, however, to make your campaign effective.” While Google and Bing both make their platforms relatively user-friendly, understanding the various ad options and analyzing data from your foray into SEM may not be as straightforward and may not be a job you want to tackle on your own. Having assistance from an experienced digital marketer can make a big difference in your ultimate ROI.

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It’s Time Consuming: SEM is also not a one-and-done marketing effort. Successful SEM campaigns require monitoring and tweaking as the campaign progresses in order to get the best results. Even if you have a great understanding of the SEM process, as a small business owner, you may not have the time to devote to the success of the campaign.

Targeting Can be Misleading: Though the ability to deliver your message directly to your target audience is one of the best advantages of SEM, a targeting strategy may also present some challenges. For some businesses, the target audience is easily identifiable. A restaurant, for instance, in a particular geographic location would likely target customers in that particular town. Other target audience characteristics might appear to be obvious when, in fact, they’re not. For instance, personal interests will be more important than any gender or age segmentation. You may unknowingly be aiming at the wrong target without realizing it, and that can be a waste of time and money.

Cost Structure: While the Google and Bing SEM platforms are, on the whole, designed to be user-friendly, the cost structure is anything but. It’s downright confusing. Because each campaign is based on keywords and because other advertisers want their ads targeted to people searching for the same keywords, you’re essentially competing against other companies to get your ad in front of the right people. You can set limits on what you will spend on any ad campaign, but it’s difficult to determine an exact reach based on your budget. Google and Bing use an algorithm to determine ad placement, and that can be confusing. As John Lincoln, CEO of Ignite Visibility, explains in an article on how PPC works, “your ad placement is determined, in part, by your bid. The other factor that goes into ad placement is the quality of the ad itself. . . . its relevance to your keywords, your landing page relevance, and the ad's click-through rate.” It’s all as clear as mud, right?

Running an SEM Campaign for Your Small Business

As a small business owner, you want to oversee operations and marketing initiatives to make certain your vision isn’t compromised and to be sure your time and money are spent wisely. Having a basic understanding of what SEM is, how it works, and its advantages and disadvantages will guide you in determining if SEM is a good option for your business. You’ll also be more knowledgeable and confident in overseeing any in-house or outsourced SEM efforts.

Remember that one of the advantages of SEM is the ability to “test drive” it before making any substantial financial commitment. You can explore your options, and Hexalinks is always happy to provide guidance. So go ahead! Talk with your team or ours to schedule an SEM test drive.

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