With 61 percent of global Internet users researching products online, your business is just one of many competing for the same eyeballs. The competition is fierce, making search engine marketing (SEM) an effective way to keep your brand name prominent. In fact, SEM is rated the most effective paid vehicle for content marketing, according to the Content Marketing Institute.

With all this talk, it’s easy to want to dive headfirst into paid search. But hold your horses. If you move without a plan, you could cost yourself a lot of time and money. By researching the competitive landscape and testing a few campaigns first, you’ll be sure to figure out how SEM will best fit into your marketing strategy.

SEM Competitor Analysis

Researching your competitors doesn’t have to be daunting. There are plenty of tools to help scale your competition and estimate your cost-per-click (CPC). My favorite tool is the Google Keyword Planner. Simply enter the keywords you’ll be targeting, and any other target specifications and click Get Search Volume.

In the example below, the keyword “tennis shoes” has roughly 49,500 average searchers per month and the suggested bid is $1.01. We also see that 14.5 percent of “tennis shoes” traffic comes from California.

If you want to dive even deeper into your competitor’s strategy, you can. The tools and services that allow you to explore the back end of your competitor’s SEM strategy are endless. SEMrush, in particular, is great for finding the search terms your competitors are targeting. You can also preview the ads they’re using for each keyword. Many other useful tools are out there, so search around, and use the ones that benefit your SEM strategy the most.

Keyword List And Landing Page Optimization

The key to a successful SEM campaign is targeting very specific keywords. In our “tennis shoes” example, you can get even more specific and target “women’s tennis shoes” or “men’s tennis shoes.” Or, if your brand already has a healthy search volume, you can target keywords like “brand name tennis shoes” or “brand name men’s tennis shoes.” The more specific, the more relevant, and the more congruent your keywords are with the ad copy, the cheaper your CPC will be.

Experiment with a handful of high-volume keywords to start. List them out, and make sure they all have relevant ads and landing pages to accommodate them. Here is an example of how we could test keywords for a business that sells tennis shoes for men, women, and kids.

Conversions And Budget

Before you launch a campaign, make sure to set up conversions. Establish what you want to track (sales, sign-ups, etc.), and get the Google AdWords conversion tag copied to the page you want to track. To make sure you’re tracking conversions, go to the Tools tab, and select Conversions. If the Tracking Status reads “Recording conversions,” you’ll know you’re tracking correctly.

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You’ll also want to decide on your daily and monthly budget. Your budget depends greatly on your industry, so start with an SEM test budget you’re comfortable with. If your campaign is significantly limited by budget, you’ll see the status “Limited by budget” next to your campaign. Click on the icon next to this status, and you’ll see a suggested budget based on your keywords and can adjust accordingly.

Monitoring Performance

If you’re seeing poor performance right from the start, it’s likely your campaign just needs a little TLC. Monitoring your performance daily, weekly, and monthly is critical in order to start seeing a return on your investment. Your secret weapon is the Search terms report. You can use the Search terms report to see the actual searches that triggered your ads and to find common trends. For instance, maybe you got a lot of clicks from the keyword “high-quality women’s tennis shoes.” If so, you’ll want to add this keyword as an exact match, because adding more high-volume exact match phrases will lower your CPC.

Monitoring performance allows you to zero in on the search terms that are not converting and costing you money. When you find them, you’ll want to add these terms as negative keywords. Negative keywords are terms that are irrelevant to your product or service and can be added at the account, campaign, and ad group level. For the first month, keep an eye on this report daily, and make adjustments accordingly.

You’ll also want to monitor your bids. Make sure your budget is being allocated to a number of different keywords when you’re starting out. If you’re bidding too high on one keyword, it can take the majority of your budget and leave nothing left over for other potentially profitable terms.

The Big Question: Is SEM Working?

Unfortunately, there’s no sure solution to determine whether the paid search is right for your business. Your best bet is to research, test, re-test, and then make a decision based on your findings.

If your landing pages, campaigns, and keywords are fully optimized, and you’re following best practices and you’re still not seeing the return you would like, it might be time to explore cheaper search terms. For many startups and small businesses with a lot of competition from top brands with high budgets, SEM can seem like a lost cause. Your key to success, however, is to test and re-test for relevant and specific keywords. After two or three months of testing, you should have a clearer picture of whether or not a paid search is a gain or loss for your business goals.


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