Search engine marketing (SEM) involves tactics for increasing website visibility and traffic using paid digital ads and search engine optimization (SEO). Explore our small business search engine marketing guide to learn how it works, what’s involved, and the tactics you need to employ for success, including the best options should you need expert help.
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How Search Engine Marketing Works
Think about the last time you conducted a search online. The results break into two categories. Paid ads appear at the top of the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) and are identified as such. Non-paid, aka organic search results, are listed below paid ads. If you click on an ad, the search engine charges the advertiser. But click on the organic results, and it’s free traffic for the business.
Organic results are shown based on the search engine’s ranking methodology, which determines the best answer to a search query. Paid SEM results, on the other hand, are shown based on advertisers’ specifications for keywords, geography, and budget.
When a user searches for specific words or phrases (the keyword), search engines apply the geography of the searcher and the amount an advertiser is willing to spend. Based on this, it determines which relevant paid search ads to list at the top of SERPs.
For example, when setting up ad keywords in Google or Bing for a local lawn service, you will select a geographic area for ads to be displayed based on city name or ZIP code. This allows search engines to deliver targeted, local results to potential customers without offering results outside your local market.
Each time a potential customer clicks on your ad, the search engine charges your ad spend an amount determined by the market demand for those ads. You pay per click (PPC) for each visitor who finds your website via paid ads. You may see the automated process Google or Bing use to determine per-click prices, referred to as an auction.
The 4 Main Elements of SEM
Whether you’re building a campaign for a major national brand or a local business, search engine marketing comprises four main elements: paid search ads, landing pages, website SEO, and business listings. Collectively, these four elements work to create a sustainable website marketing strategy for getting found in search quickly and ranking in a long-term, cost-effective way.
The four main elements of search engine marketing are:
- Paid search advertising, aka PPC: Pay-per-click (PPC) advertising is the process of creating paid ads that display alongside top search results based on keywords. It provides a way for your business to quickly rank in search results for keywords your site doesn’t yet rank for organically. This makes it a good short-term strategy for building brand awareness and connecting with ready-to-buy customers.
- Landing pages: A landing page is a unique web page created specifically for use with a sales or marketing campaign, including paid ad campaigns. In order words, users clicking your ad will be directed to “land” on the corresponding landing page, serving as a sales tool to reinforce your ad’s message and drive conversions. Read our guide on how to create a landing page to learn more.
- SEO: Search engine optimization (SEO) ensures search engines can read (or crawl) your website and recognize its content as good search results for specific keywords or search terms. It covers a range of tactics, from keyword research to SEO content marketing, technical SEO, and link building. It also entails following best practices for titles, descriptions, SEO tags, and page headings and subheadings (to name a few).
- Business listings: Many places people search for businesses like yours offer free business listings, such as Google My Business, Bing, Yahoo, and Yelp. You can easily create or claim your free profiles on these sites and provide key details about your business to rank highly in business search results.
Used together, these four mainstays of SEM provide a well-rounded strategy for increasing your website rankings. They enable you to generate exposure and website traffic quickly and sustainably, creating an effective short- and long-term strategy.
Keep in mind that using SEM effectively requires that you first build a small business website and populate it with high-quality content. Otherwise, no matter how much traffic your site gets, it’s not likely to generate leads or sales.
7 Essential Search Engine Marketing Tactics for Small Businesses
Now that you know the main elements of SEM, it’s time to put them to work. To be effective, your strategy needs to combine several tactics.
Open the drop-down items below to learn more about how to create and implement an effective search engine marketing plan
To develop an SEM strategy, use keyword research tools like Semrush or SE Ranking to identify the keywords you want your site to rank for in search. Think about what types of keywords or phrases your ideal customer would type or speak into an online search to find a business like yours. Then incorporate them into your ad campaigns and website content.
In addition to search volume, check the difficulty of ranking for those keywords and the average cost-per-click in paid search. Then determine your budget and how much you want to allocate to paid vs non-paid tactics. To help you get started, read our article detailing how much it costs to advertise on Google.
Also, consider which PPC advertising platforms best suit your target audience. For example, compare Facebook Ads vs Google Ads to see which is the best way to reach and convert your audience.
Add the keywords you want your site to rank for into new or existing content so that search engines will associate your site with those keywords. If your business primarily serves customers within a local region, you’ll also need to know what local SEO is and incorporate locale-based keywords into your overall strategy.
As part of an overall SEO content marketing plan, use your target keywords strategically in page titles, article subheadings, image alt-tags, and meta descriptions. Also, be sure to follow Google’s site guidelines and best practices.
As mentioned earlier, many business directories (Google, Bing, Yelp, and others) allow you to create free business listings. These listings, sometimes called SEO citations or local SEO citations, provide dual value in a link back to your website and as another way for prospective customers to find your business.
Create profiles on online directories where your ideal customers might be looking, and at a minimum, claim or set up your Google Business Profile. When people search your business or the types of products or services you sell, your site, profile, and customer reviews will appear in Google search results.
Online business directories include general directories like Google My Business, Yelp, and Facebook, and audience-specific sites like Door Dash, Houzz, Tripadvisor, and The Knot. Adding and managing these listings gives your business more ways to get found by those who aren’t aware of your business and, in return, drive traffic to your site.
Whether it’s Google or Yelp, various platforms consider a business’ average customer review rating and the number of reviews it has to determine its placement in search results. This is one way businesses can rank higher on Google. Those businesses with high ratings from a number of people are deemed the best, so encourage customers to leave reviews.
Landing pages are dedicated web pages people are redirected to when they click on an ad or engage with other marketing campaign types, such as a sales email blast. They increase conversions by being laser-focused on getting the site visitor to convert by buying something, filling out a web form, or taking some other action you want them to take.
If you need inspiration, check out our roundup of landing page examples. Learn what makes each one effective and how you can incorporate the strategy into your own landing pages.
You can create dedicated landing pages on your own website. But if you don’t have a website or prefer to use a third-party platform, we recommend HubSpot CMS. You’ll be able to create up to 20 landing pages free and get expert tips to optimize your landing pages and ads. And you can integrate the world-famous HubSpot CRM (customer relationship management) software for free to ramp up lead generation and nurturing.
Create pay-per-click advertising campaigns to put your ad at the top of search results. Similar to SEO, Google search ads are based on keyword triggers you choose that the platform then uses to display related results. If you’re new to PPC advertising, read our guide on how to advertise on Google, which shows how to create your first campaign.
Alternatively, remarketing ads are web banner ads shown on other websites to people who visited your site during a set time period, such as the last six months. Remarketing is often less expensive than search ads, making it a cost-effective supplement (or even alternative) to expensive PPC marketing campaigns.
Other types of ads to consider are social media advertising on Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms. And keep in mind that ads work differently on different platforms.
For example, Google Ads and Google Local Services Ads put your brand on top of SERPs in ready-to-buy online searches. On the other hand, paid social is more appropriate to introduce your brand to members of your target audience based on demographics, interests, and location.
Once your SEM strategy is fully implemented, continue to monitor your site, online profiles and reputation, and PPC campaigns with free analytics tools like Google Analytics. Track your site’s traffic growth, bounce rate, and domain authority to indicate effective SEO efforts, and use Google Ads Manager to track your ad campaign performance.
Take the insights you glean and use them to improve campaign performance, lower the cost of Google Ads, and increase your return on ad spend (ROAS). In addition, plan to use A/B testing to try different versions of advertisements and landing pages to identify more ways to maximize conversions.
In addition to Google Analytics, get more tools to check website traffic, performance, and conversions (for your site and those of your competitors) with Semrush. Start for free and see how easy it is to identify top-performing keywords and which ads are producing the most conversions.
Benefits of SEM for Small Businesses
Effective search engine marketing delivers many benefits, from increased brand awareness to growing sales. Ultimately, what SEM does for small businesses is to transform their websites into useful marketing tools that generate leads, conversions, and sales.
Here are the top five reasons to use SEM:
- Rank higher in search results: Get better leads with organic search. Organic leads from searches convert at a higher rate than PPC leads. (Source: First Page Sage)
- Build brand awareness: Nearly nine out of 10 (87% of consumers) used Google to research local businesses in 2022, up from 81% the year before. And nearly all consumers (98%) use Google to find local businesses. (Source: BrightLocal)
- Compete against top competitors: More than 99% of users click through a listing on the first SERPs page. If your competitors are ranking, you should be too. (Source: HigherVisibility)
- Increase website traffic: The top-ranked search receives approximately 39% higher click-through rate than the next closest competitor. (Source: First Page Sage)
- Generate immediate sales: Half of Millennials search for local businesses on the go and are more than twice as likely to visit a business immediately than other age groups. (Source: Reviewtrackers)
There are plenty of reasons to use search marketing tactics as part of your overall marketing plan. SEM helps sites rank highly in search engine results pages, which builds brand awareness and increased site traffic. For more information on how to best leverage search engine marketing, read our list of Google Search statistics.
Best Search Engine Marketing Services for Small Businesses
If you lack the time and bandwidth to build and execute a search engine marketing plan, consider outsourcing SEM to one of the best digital marketing agencies for small business. Here are four alternatives to fit almost any advertising budget:
Best for: Outsourcing SEO and paid advertising in a la carte or bundled plans
Best for: All-in-one solution with a smart website and digital ad management
Best for: Affordable expert AI-powered SEM services and tools
Best for: Project-based tasks (e.g., building a landing page or an ad campaign) by pre-vetted SEO pros
Cost: Monthly plans from $500-$650
Cost: Custom, likely from $1,000-$2,000 to start
Cost: Monthly PPC plans from $600 plus ad spend
Cost: Services from about $100 and up
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Can I do SEO on my own?
Small business owners can do their own small business SEO using free tools like Google Analytics and Semrush. However, effectively executing SEO entails a learning curve for different kinds of tactics, some of them highly technical, and all requiring the investment of time. To learn more, check out Semrush’s beginner’s guide to SEO.
How much should a beginner SEO cost?
Depending on whether you hire a professional and which tools you employ, beginner SEO costs can range from just the investment of your time to several hundred dollars per month. For a low-cost outsourcing option, try Fiverr, where project-based experts can help you plan and execute SEO for as little as $5.
Does SEO really work for small business?
Yes. Search engine optimization is a vital part of your small business search engine marketing efforts. In fact, 46% of all Google searches include local intent, while more than 80% of local searches eventually result in conversions. SEO marketing for small business not only works, but it is more important than ever.
With the number of online searches that start on engines like Google and Bing or directories like Yelp, small business search engine marketing is a must-have strategy, not a nice-to-have. For a small business, SEM doesn’t have to be expensive, and you can build and execute your own marketing plan using free resources available to you.
Our top pick for best digital marketing agency is WebFX. They have all the services your small business needs to get organic and paid traffic through Google. Get a plan tailored to your business, starting with a free consultation.