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SEM Best Practices For 2018 and Beyond

Jun 18, 2018
by Brett Middleton
SEM Best Practices For 2018 and Beyond

We’re already halfway through 2018 and already there is an almost endless cornucopia of testing, optimization, and scaling for SEM in front of us. If you are already feeling a little behind in driving growth with your SEM campaigns, that’s nothing to be ashamed of, we’re going to cover some SEM best practices that you, or your agency, need to be aware of to take full advantage of the growth opportunity in front of you.


Search Engine Marketing or SEM is the practice of reaching users online through search engines. It’s used to refer to the paid aspect of search (otherwise known as PPC or Paid Search). Yes, it can be confusing that all of these different terms are used to refer to advertising in search engines.

Now, what do you need to be thinking about in 2018, and beyond, to craft a killer SEM strategy and drive incremental leads or sales? The following topics are likely to be essential for you to dig into in the upcoming year and should not only give you some specific tasks, but spark additional conversation around other areas of potential optimization. Whether you tackle these items in-house, or discuss them with your agency partner, here are the SEM best practices you need to know right now.

Paid and Organic Search Must Cooperate

Many people take a very hands-off approach to Organic Search, often the bare minimum of verifying your site with Search Console, formerly Webmaster Tools, and uploading a sitemap – that’s not enough. However, that’s a completely separate issue for another day! The good news is that there is a simple next step you’re probably not taking that will help you identify ways that SEM (paid) can work in tandem with your organic traffic – something that is particularly helpful if you’re campaigns are operating under a tighter budget and you need to focus on areas where organic search traffic is limited.

A helpful side note here – when referring to the more general umbrella term Search Marketing, this typically is inclusive of both SEM and organic search.  If you’ve setup Search Console, linking Search Console to Google Analytics is the next step. This will allow organic impression volumes, clicks, and position to enter into Google Analytics. Next, simply identify high volume keywords where your organic position is low (outside the Top 3-5) and focus spend on these.

The SEM and SEO takeaway:

Taking steps like this will enable you to think less about how you can find success in just organic search, or just SEM, but instead how your business can best position itself overall to capture the most searches possible within your budget. What makes search engine traffic so special is one simple thing, intent – when a user performs a search relevant to your business they are indicating at least a modicum of interest in your offerings, if you think about paid and organic together in 2018 you’re going to be in a good place.

Keyword Research – Outside of Google Keyword Planner

Beginning campaign formulation in AdWords is fine, it’s a good place to start – but it can be wildly inaccurate.

Here are the basics:

  • Google’s Keyword Planner should not be a final source of truth
  • AdWords minimizes volume for keywords with minimal commercial value & conflates the value of some similar keywords
  • Verify Keyword Planner data against other sources

Alternative tools to Google’s Keyword Planner

If you’re not familiar with Moz, Rand Fishkin knows what he is talking about! It would be hard to find a more reliable source for information around SEM and keywords. Some of the best points he makes revolve around the additional tools you can use to perform keyword research, or validate your existing research. His suggestion to use Moz’s own keyword tool is to be expected, but his recommendation to check out Google Trends is a very useful one!

Google Trends is not usable at scale and doesn’t give volumes, but it does indicate relative interest so if you know the estimated volume of a search term you can use Google Trends to see how another keyword compares. One that isn’t covered above is how useful Google can be by itself. For example, if you’ve started from Keyword Planner, verify your keyword findings by performing some of the searches you expect to be the best for your business.

When doing this, take it in two steps.

1. Type your search slowly and take note of Google’s Autofill, looking for keyword areas you hadn’t considered

2. Take note of whether competitors are advertising on this keyword and verify the competition level AND that ads are showing for the terms. Bonus tip: Screenshot your competitors ads and take note of ad extensions and copy used. Be better!

Other interesting tools to make use of – or Ubersuggest

Use Ad Variations for A/B Testing Ad Copy

This one is something you may find hard to adapt, if there is one aspect of SEM that businesses tend to neglect, it’s A/B testing. There’s really nothing sexy about A/B testing copy at first glance – but we recommend you take another look, because Google is putting out the vibe. Google recently announced Ad Variations as an exciting new feature that will enable advertisers to make small variations to ad text at scale.

If you’re operating an enterprise-level AdWords account where it takes all day to find the ad you’re looking for (insert “These are not the ads you’re looking for” joke) then conducting meaningful copy tests is daunting, an honestly hideous undertaking. Try changing the display url path, or conducting a CTA test in Headline 2 without doing it the old-fashioned way – it will make you smile.

Structure AdWords Campaigns To Match User Behavior

2018 should be the year that we make sure keywords are tightly grouped into niches that closely match the landing page content and the ad copy – start thinking about how the whole process fits together and deliver a better user experience. If your campaigns and ad groups are a confusing mix of keywords that don’t have a relationship to each other, don’t be afraid to start from scratch – it just may be the best way to set yourself up for success. For example, if your business offers email marketing software, you may have a campaign that focuses entirely on productized keywords and another that focuses on upper-funnel searches but you shouldn’t mix them together.

Product Keywords Campaign

Ad Group 1: Email Marketing Software

Ad Group 2: Email Marketing Tools

Ad Group 3: Email Marketing Services

Ad Group 4: ESPs (Email Service Providers)

Upper-Funnel Campaign

Ad Group 1: Email Best Practices

Ad Group 2: Email Deliverability

Ad Group 3: CAN-SPAM

Ad Group 4: Email Marketing Tips and Tricks

You could very easily start out by ignoring that upper-funnel campaign and allowing broad match and phrase match keywords in the first campaign to capture those searches, but the intent of a person searching for email marketing tips and tricks is different from someone searching for email marketing services and your ad/landing page should speak to them differently.

Test Ad Extensions and Use Them Intentionally

In 2017 advertisers dove head first into using Ad Extensions, seeking to use more and more ad real estate and get more clicks. There’s not really a downside here, technically speaking AdWords should be rotating these Ad Extensions and determining the best ones to use; however, doesn’t that seem to be a little too hands off?

If you’re new to Ad Extensions – the top 3 standard ad extensions are

  1. Sitelinks
  2. Callouts
  3. Structured Snippets

You should build out all three Ad Extension types above, and test them out in your campaigns. By rotating and consistently testing Ad Extensions just like any other piece of copy, you’re going to be actually taking advantage of what they have to offer. Start by testing out just sitelinks or callouts, then add in a second extension while keeping ad copy consistent to maintain just a single variable. Keep testing different combinations, keeping in mind that AdWords may only show one (or none), but this will at least give you some semblance of control.

Also, start using Promotions extensions if you’re in ecommerce! Stop updating ad copy to reflect new pricing or discounts, capture attention and show discounts in a much more effective way.

Use Bing Ads and Seek Scale

Had you noticed before how Bing was barely mentioned? That was intentional, because even though Bing continues to play a semi-strong second fiddle to AdWords, it is widely ignored in the marketing community. Even when we use Bing Ads we simply import our AdWords campaigns and lower the bids and budgets. Is this perfectly fine? Yes, it is. However, in 2018 the decision to invest further into Bing Ads and start to tailor your approach and value these searches as much as Google searches may be exactly what your business needs. Keep in mind that although there are absolutely going to be similarities in search behavior – the users in Google are different than Bing. There tends to be minimal crossover and Bing search skews slightly older in audience (with good penetration into tech and IT fields due to Bing being integrated into PC’s), so developing a strategy for both search channels is important.

Use The New AdWords Interface

It’s frustrated me from the first second I saw it – AdWords was perfectly fine by itself! Why did we need to change? I’ll even confess to plotting to build my own SEM platform that was basically just the old AdWords. What do I do know? Work exclusively in the new AdWords platform. It’s going to be mandatory soon, so it’s much better to get used to it right now – just rip the bandaid off. Maybe start your own AdWords UI emotional damage support group because the new platform was put into place for a reason.

Google is adding new features on a monthly, sometimes weekly, basis and they are clearly attempting to build a more sophisticated platform that marries some of the analysis and cleanliness of Google Analytics with the functionality of AdWords. Embrace it and stop using the old platform as a crutch and take on 2018 in style.

These SEM Best Practices are Here to Help

There will always be more ways to drive results (that’s why you need to keep coming back to this blog, take on the topics outlined above and let the momentum catapult you into the best year your business has ever had! 2018 is going to be a competitive year in search, and we can likely expect organic search to continue to be pushed further down the page as advertising takes up more space. Embrace optimization and testing in the New Year and you’ll be drinking much fancier champagne at NYE 2019.

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