SEM and why you need it to stand out from the crowd

Prepared by Kevin Sprague, CEO at

Get Found - For any organization seeking to build audience and customers in the 21st century an online presence is key. That presence may be made of a number of different components - a website or site(s), social media profiles like Facebook, Linkedin, and twitter, email systems like mailchimp or constant contact, and more. Typically, we approach the organization's website as a foundation element - the website is the place where you can control every aspect of the image and message and present your best case to visitors who arrive when browsing and searching the web.

Being found is a key element to long-term success for many businesses and institutions. We live in a competitive world - whatever product or service we offer is likely also offered by dozens if not hundreds or thousands of other organizations.

Before the web being "found" depended on the type of business you were - for a retail store or restaurant it was (and is) about location - we can't eat at a restaurant 1,000 miles away. For service organizations being found was a function of traditional advertising, yellow pages, directories, and in-person connections.

The internet changed all that. The world, once highly regionalized, is essentially "flat" from the perspective of a web search. One can find a financial consultant in Los Angeles as easily as New York - and delivery of virtual services is generally no longer a function of physical presence - if you find an organization that fits your needs you are likely to work with them no matter what their proximity to you.

How we find things today.

So - how do you get found on the web? There are two main elements that contribute to this - SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and SEM (Search Engine Marketing). These two elements work together.

SEO is fundamentally the practice of building online properties in ways that make them ideally suitable to the way that search engines work. For the purpose of this document we will talk about Google - the 800 lb. gorilla of search - but this applies to all search engines (bing, yahoo, etc.) Search engines work by continually crawling the web and indexing what they find. Primarily this is about indexing legible text - as search engines still have a ways to go identifying images, video, etc. - Basically, we are talking about the ability of a robot to "read" the text on your website, so that the robot can later deliver relevant search results via the keywords and phrases it has indexed.

Google indexes the entire web every few weeks - this means that your site is part of the vast database of information - trillions of pages - that google compiles. In addition to simply reading the text google seeks to make sense of your website through its structure - both the structure of content on a given page and the overall structure of the site. Think about it like an outline - if you want to break down a complex topic you outline your ideas with a headline, subhead and bullet points. The entire presentation can be seen in the way the content is ordered and structured.

In website design we perform SEO by building sites in a manner that rewards Google's algorithms - we structure data on each page with tags (H1 or Header 1, H2, Header 2, etc) to give the robots a clear picture of the outline of the content - for instance we might structure a page like this:

  • H1 > TITLE - About Gp Catholic Services
  • H2 > Integrated Discernment Process™
  • P> Content - GP Catholic Services uses Integrated Discernment, a process which we developed to help Church leaders understand and frame each high level issue from both spiritual and temporal perspectives to inform the strategic and tactical planning processes. This is a three-part process.... etc,
Here's a snapshot of the "About Us" page on GP Catholic.

When google indexes a page like this it will inform the search results - like this:

SEO - at the heart of it - is about making your site make sense to a robot. Secondarily, it's about including those words and phrases that correspond to what you do and what would be a likely search for your services - in other words - if you are an asian-fusion seafood restaurant - then you have to include those words - and preferably in phrase form that would be most commonly searched - in order for that to show. This may seem obvious - but too many organizations get lost in their own word-smithing and forget to STATE THE OBVIOUS about what they are - if that restaurant describes itself as "mythic melding of cultures from across the globe" then someone searching for "asian seafood" won't find them. Period. In the search below you can see how google identifies the key words by bolding them in the results.

A final aspect of SEO we focus on is managing, monitoring and optimizing our client "Google My Business" profiles. These profiles appear when a customer searches on desktop or mobile, but are particularly important to mobile as the profile doubles as the business' location, or "pin" on Google Maps and when optimized correctly will show up first for relevant searches on mobile.

"Google My Business" desktop listing and mobile listing showing call buttons

The listings are free from Google and display important information such as hours, location, reviews and contact info in a distinct section atop or second below paid ads on the search results page. Profiles can include features like Google reviews, direct call buttons (for mobile), and photos which can help a potential customer make a quick and educated decision at home or on the go.

Google My Business has built in analytics including total views, call traffic and sources of how customers found your profile which we monitor and include in our reports on SEO/SEM performance.

SEO vs SEM - Catching the Express Train

SEO VS SEM - catching the express train

SEM (Search Engine Marketing) is paid advertising online. It breaks down into two main areas - "search" and "display" advertising. We will cover both but will start with "Search". The main purpose of SEM is to accelerate the visibility of your online presence and to compete directly with your peer group on client and customer searches.

Top of the Page

For many search in Google you will see results similar to this following graphic. Please note the small "AD" block in green to the left of the top listings.

Organic results represent the following - for a given search - in this case "Non-Profit Consulting". The first result represents the most clicked-on result of that exact search since google started indexing sites. It should be noted that google will apply some other filters in the organic search algorithm - in this case they are geo-locating my specific computer's IP address to Miami so I'm preferentially seeing a South Florida bias but generally speaking for ALL searches globally on this search phrase these are the order of the top results.

In order for a company to "crack" the ceiling of organic results they have to do a number of things. First, have a website that google can index correctly. Second, populate the site with content that will match the search terms and phrases. Third, organize that content in ways that allow Google to index it logically, and fourth - give it time. A new website WILL get indexed - it can take some weeks to start becoming visible for appropriate searches. For an organization to move to the first page of Goole can be difficult and potentially impossible for very popular search terms with lots of competition. SEO firms will advertise that they can move your company "to the first page of Google" - typically their offer is focused on a single keyword or phrase and not the whole spectrum of terms that an organization typically needs to benefit from (try different searches for "constultant" vs "consulting" vs "consults" and you'll see the issues of having to appeal across many terms.) Generally speaking, there is no magic in organic SEO - just good practice, time and brand building outside of search.

Cracking the Ceiling with SEM

SEM can change the game for organizations looking to move the results more quickly to the top of the page. Here's how it works.

Google Adwords

Adwords is Google's SEM platform. With an adwords account you can establish campaigns for your organization, create lists of keywords and phrases, target your audience through demographics and location, set budgets, create ads and monitor results.

Pay Per Click - The main thing to understand about an adwords campaign is how the budget works. When you setup a campaign and choose keywords you are essentially joining in a real-time auction with other advertisers for those keywords. The auction element is handled automatically by Google - there are various ways in setting up the campaign to indicate the maximum you are willing to pay for a click on a search delivered by a certain key word or phrase. And this is the key - you only pay for clicks. Each time you do a search and you get ads served up in your results those views are called "impressions" - which cost nothing. As soon as a person clicks on the ad - you are charged.

For discussion purposes, let's assume that the average CPC (cost-per-click) is $1.00. Actual costs can vary from as little as $.05 to $15.00 and up for popular keywords. As an adwords advertiser you set a daily budget - let's say $20/day. Lets assume that 1,000 people a day do searches on your keywords in your campaign. If 2 people out of every 100 searches decide to click on your ad in a 24-hour period your budget will be exhausted (20 clicks) and your ads will stop showing. For budget planning purposes the above model is basically accurate - $1 CPC is a good planning figure and you can assume you will exhaust your budget daily - so a $20/day budget will be a $600 month campaign. That campaign will do two things - it will deliver 600 visitors to your website in a month who have pre-qualified themselves by performing a search with your keyword AND they found something in your ad appealing enough to incite them to action.

Web traffic - qualified traffic - is the purpose of any SEM campaign. There are numerous factors in our control to help focus and qualify that traffic. Let's run through a sample campaign.

Sample Campaign Setup

For this purpose our client organization is a national-class non-profit consulting company with a focus on higher education clients that needs fundraising and strategic consulting services.

Setup and Keywords: First we would setup the client account in adwords and establish basic settings like time-zone, currency, billing preferences, etc. Next, we would use the keyword-planning tools in adwords to develop a list of keywords and phrases that correspond to the client's areas of expertise and potential searches. There is art and science to this stage. For existing websites with current analytics and search traffic we can dig into what past searches have been. For all clients we can run automated tools in adwords that will show comparable searches, provide weighting and estimates for those phrases, and begin to build a list. We can build multiple, overlapping lists to segment the campaigns - for instance we would run one campaign around "fundraising" and another around "strategic planning". Here's a snapshot of the keyword planner showing search volume, suggested bid levels and other factors.

The key with building an effective keyword strategy is focusing on opportunities to be specific. As you can see from the graphic above, a keyword like "consultant" has a very high bid - $10.53 - this is because the word is so generic that you are likely bidding against some global, multi-national consulting organizations in many sectors who are willing to pay very high prices for that single word. On the other hand, "fundraising ideas" has a relatively low bid - if part of the SEM strategy for the client was around the idea of promoting that the organization was a good resource for ideas and there was a corresponding focus on website content to support that claim then this term could be a good entry point for traffic at a lower cost.

Targeting: Additional targeting parameters are available. Geo-targeting allows you to specify down to the level of zip code the specific areas you want you ads to run. This targeting relies on IP addresses for networks - it is relatively accurate. Geo-targeting can be used to qualify traffic by demographics and also reduce "garbage" clicks outside of your area. If you are a restaurant, geo-targeting means that you can keep your budget tight by only delivering ads to searches that were made within easy driving distance. For organizations that don't have that same issue geo targeting can be done to focus on certain sectors - for instance our consulting client above could focus on government clients with a campaign targeting the Washington D.C. area.

Example of radius and state targeting

There are additional elements to a campaign. These include the following:

  • Negative Keywords - we can include keywords and phrases we don't want to trigger an ad even if other words are present - for instance "cheap, fast non-profit consultants"
  • Demographic targeting - age, gender, income level. These are derived by Google through analysis of user behavior and other obscure algorithms but statistically are relevant.
  • Interest Targeting - drill-down topics like sports, arts, etc.
  • Remarketing - this is almost a completely separate element that we typically build whole campaigns around - remarketing delivers ads to customers who have visited your websites previously by tracking their IP address and delivering contextual ads. Remarketing is a powerful tool for engagement and one we generally us in display campaigns (more on that in a moment)

Budgeting and Conversion - We develop budgets based on conversations with our clients around their overall media strategy. Unlike traditional advertising, online advertising delivers reams of accurate data. We can see easily how many people saw your ads, clicked on them, what keywords they used to find you, and much more. Budget for online advertising should be a significant percentage of a comprehensive media plan and should be compared to and optimized against other forms of media buys and PR on an ongoing basis. One factor that is available in adwords is "conversion tracking" - this is where you setup a target for the web visitor - it might be a purchase or it might be using a contact or subscription form. Adwords can track visitors through to conversion and provide a dollar-value for conversion. For instance, let's say our hypothetical 20 click-throughs for the day from above visit our website at a cost of $20 - and we track how many of those 20 - say 2 - "convert" by signing up for our email list - then we can start to create an understanding of what it will take to add more people to that list over time - and the relative cost. If we had a goal of 200 sign ups we would be able to extrapolate that it will cost $2000 and take 100 days to reach that goal.

Ads and Optimization - Creating the ads that people will see in their search results is fairly simple in adwords - you can have as many ads as you wish to create assigned to a given campaign. Typically we develop ads in a variety of voices and calls to action - from corporate to enthusiastic for instance - and launch them into the ether. One of the really great aspects of Google is that it will optimize the delivery of the ads over time - in other words, if you create 10 different ads for a client, Google will weight the ad that gets the most clicks and deliver that ad with more frequency. This feature allows one to use Google as a test-marketing platform for different tag-lines and brand statements. For our hypothetical campaign, we would design ads like this and see what gets the most play in clicks and conversions - and connections.

Launching - Adwords campaigns can be started, paused and ended easily and instantly. In practice, adwords is not an ideal platform for short-term campaigns - a week of less for instance - as it takes time for the campaign to join the "queue" of campaigns that may be overlapping on your keywords and targeting. We generally see ads start to run in about 24 hours and most campaigns hit their stride in about a week.

Tracking in adwords - like all analytics - can happen on a lot of levels. In the adwords dashboard itself there are many immediate statistics. Once you set the date range for reporting you can see all the main traffic metrics - impressions, clicks, CTR (click through rate - how "appealing" the ad was to the target audience), CPC (cost per click) and more. It's also important to review and compare traffic with the Google analytics report for the target site - this also tends to be the place where you can see conversion funnels and performance.

Display Ads - Making Impressions

Display Advertising

Making Impressions - Google made its billions on the power of its search engine. A lesser known but very powerful dimension of the google adwords system is display advertising. Display ads are graphic, image-driven ads that are served up by google to websites, blogs, mobile apps and email systems through a variety of targeting dimensions that overlap with search targeting as discussed above.

Display ads are shown on millions of websites daily. These are the graphic ads that show in the header, side columns, or inline on many sites you visit every day. In the image below the Citibank ad and Casper ad are being served up to the CNN home page.

Impressions Matter - Unlike search ads, display ads are passive. You initiate a search and are served corresponding ads that are contextual to that search. Display is more passive - akin to traditional magazine or billboard advertising - BUT - and this is the key - unlike a magazine ad you can take action with a display ad by clicking on it and being directed to the advertiser's website or landing page. With display advertising you get the benefits of running an attractive, visually-driven ad - a chance to put your brand front and center - with the additional benefit of clicks, tracking, conversion and remarketing (more on that in a moment). In google's adwords system you don't pay for impressions - only clicks - so potentially you can get your brand message in front of millions of consumers for very, very little money daily.

Remarketing - with display ads we can activate "remarketing" (it can be done with search ads as well but is less pertinent). Remarketing is the phenomenon we are all familiar with - you visit the L.L. Bean site to look at some sweaters and for the rest of the day everywhere you go on the web it seems that there is an L.L.Bean ad showing. This is by intention. Remarketing uses cookies in your browser - when you visit a site that has the remarketing tag activated, it records the IP address of your computer and can then - for a period of time (usually a day) - deliver ads that are specific to your previous web visits.

Remarketing is virtually instant - I generated the above screen shot less than 5 seconds after visiting the L.L. Bean site - my next visit to the weather channel and I am presented with an ad that not only is from L.L Bean but includes the item I clicked on - the orange jacket. The power of remarketing is that it can put your brand in front of a visitor to your website in a persistent way - reminding them to take action and providing them with an easy way back to your product or page. Remarketing seems obvious for product driven sites like a clothing catalog but it applies also to service organizations and B2B organizations. If someone took the time to visit your website they have already qualified themselves as potential customers so why not stay in front of them, if you can?

Cost and Quality - Typically, display ads run at much lower CPC. This is due to a number of factors. Generally speaking there is less competition in display than search. The traffic patterns in display are considered lower-quality in terms of the conversion opportunities - a casual web browser has much less intention than someone doing a focused search. Generally speaking, display ads can run CPC's as low as $0.10 to $0.25. In the above report the CPC for the display ad is a mere $0.07. For less than a dime we are able to generate traffic to that client website.

Blended Campaigns - Generally speaking we advise running a blended strategy - both search and display campaigns - for our clients. Search can provide high-quality, focused traffic but at a significant cost. Display can supplement search for organizations by reaching potential customers who may have no awareness of your brand or services. Because impressions have no cost, a strategy of focusing on putting a basic brand message out into the market with appropriate targeting is a very low-cost way to reach otherwise unreachable markets. For instance we can use display ads to reach into crowded urban markets for a few dollars a day that would otherwise require major investment in traditional media.


Creating and Measuring Success with SEM

Ultimately, the goal of SEO and SEM practices is to build audience and traffic to your website and online properties. For many organizations, a well-crafted SEM campaign can become among the most important sources of traffic to their site. We live in a "pay for play" world now - in the early days of the internet once could reliably put up a website and get traffic simply for showing up. Today, with trillions of sites that is no longer the case. SEM - paid advertising - is the game changer.

In this example above "display" and "paid search" have combined to create 721 site visitors - the majority of whom are new users that we likely otherwise would not have reached through organic SEO alone.

Reporting and optimizing - One of the great things about SEM is that you get really good data that is very deep. Regular review of campaign performance will reveal opportunities to optimize the campaigns - and google itself offers a variety of tools and technologies to assist in the process. The opportunity to deploy segmented campaigns can be used as a research tool to determine what messaging, targeting and demographics are the most responsive.


SEM - well executed - should be considered among the most important tools in an organization's marketing and media plan. Although there are times when traditional marketing is the best strategy for an organization it cannot be ignored that the majority of users who are interacting with businesses, brands and products are turning to the web to do their research and inquiry. SEM allows us to catch them at the point of origin and sustain the engagement towards conversion into a paying customer.


Prepared by Kevin Sprague, Studio Two. All rights reserved. Contact

Created By
Kevin Sprague


Created with images by D-Stanley - "King Penguin Colony" • Peggy_Marco - "group of people railway station stop" • tookapic - "nevada las vegas las vegas sign" • FirmBee - "office tax business" • Fencreative - "Open palms"

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