SEM tips: how to get started easily

November 20, 2020 


The purpose of this post is to show that search engine marketing (SEM) can be started rather easily. Small businesses, like our company, may not have resources (money, knowledge, time etc) to spend on marketing and consultancy so I'm hoping that sharing this experience will help and encourage other SEM newbies!

This blog post is in no means a complete SEM tutorial. There are plenty online, paid and free (I'll list some in the next chapter). My idea instead is to focus on the main points for getting started with SEM and also to enlighten some of they key concepts and terms. I'm trying to write down things that I hope I had heard of before starting with SEM!

Our starting point and preparations

The goal of SEM in our company was basically just to test it in and see whether it would be worth the money and effort. At that point we had one product in AWS Marketplace and we wanted to try SEM on it. We also had a real goal (or wish): we wanted to get one new customer a month for our AWS product.

We assumed that it would be better for us to use Microsoft Advertising (previously known as Bing Advertising) over Google Ads: we assumed that advertising on Microsoft would be cheaper to begin with and that we would have a more suitable audience with Microsoft: we assumed that many of our potential customers more likely use Microsoft Bing and DuckDuckGo instead of Google. Also, we thought that we would have less competition in Microsoft Advertising compared to Google.

I'll be writing a separate post on the differences between Microsoft Advertising and Google Ads, so stay tuned! The services have many things in common but there are plenty of differences, too.

As we had higher hopes for Microsoft Advertising compared to Google Ads, that's where we started off! As we didn't have much knowledge in our company in setting up a SEM campaign, I started off by watching tutorials.

My first course on the subject was from Udemy, Bing Ads for Beginners by Tom Wiztek. It was quite ok but as I later discovered, not all required details were discussed there so I went through a few more shorter tutorials online tutorials (on Youtube) and later on also Google Digital Garage courses Promote business online, Become searchable online and Digital Marketing. Surprisingly, the Google courses don't only concentrate on their own products such as Google Ads but discuss the topics from a wider perspective. Courses on Udemy and Google offer certification as well which you might want to add to you LinkedIn profile, for example.

Some key terms to understand

Before you can start setting up a campaign, you'll need to understand some basic terms/concepts involved. Firstly, there are three different levels in a campaign:

  • campaign
  • ad group
  • ad

A campaign can contain several ad groups and each ad group may have several different ads. The ads in different ad groups can be different or the same ones. Ad groups consist of keywords: each ad group should ideally have different keywords than the other(s). When someone types keywords specified in an ad group in the search engine, an ad in this ad group is (potentially) shown to this person. If you have created several ads for an ad group, the advertising service picks up one (randomly or not, I'm not sure).

Why isn't one ad enough, why should you have several ads and several ad groups? The idea of having several different ads and ad groups allows you to try out different ad text and keyword options and see which are working best with different audiences and campaign settings. I'm sure someone has a better explanation for this!

There are different types of keywords:

  • broad match
  • phrase match
  • exact match

I'm not going into details for match types as there are plenty of good definitions around the web. But I'm highlighting that you can also define negative keywords for your campaign/ad group. This is something you should definitely consider as they can prevent unwanted clicks in the campaigns!

Setting up a SEM campaign

Payment and budget

The first thing to do is obviously creating a user account in the advertising portal!

After that, one of the first things you'll need to decide is the payment method and billing options. Payment methods include options such as credit card and bank transfer. As to billing options, Google Ads seems to use almost solely monthly billing but in Microsoft Advertising it's possible to use either prepay and postpay. If you select prepay, you'll need to transfer funds to your SEM account in advance. If you choose postpay, you'll be charged afterwards, usually monthly.

You'll also need to define a budget for your campaign. Both Microsoft and Google ask you to set a daily budget. If you have selected prepay as a payment option, this also limits costs. Remember to calculate the budget wisely so you won't get a heart attack when looking at your monthly bill or at your prepay balance running out! Especially if clicks aren't producing conversions. You can always edit the budgets as well later on.

Campaign settings and hints

You can create the campaigns directly in the advertising portal or do some preparatory work outside it, for example using a spreadsheet. For example, the Udemy course I took describes a possible method of doing a search for keywords and ad texts. Both Microsoft and Google have a tool for keyword research in their portal. You should definitely see which results they give you! When you enter your keyword suggestion into the tool, it gives you some data on how many monthly searches the keyword has, how much competition they have and also suggest a click price.

There are naturally rules and restrictions that apply to keywords and ad content. They need to respect copyright and trademark policies.

As to keywords, it's usually always adviceable to use phrase and exact match type over broad match type. The latter usually results in plenty of unwanted and expensive clicks. For example, in our case, broad match for "puppet windows" made us compete with puppetry related sites. Removing the match type lowered the click price and also the number of clicks.

It's better to start simple, with fewer ad groups, ads and keywords so that you can easily see which options are performing best. Once you've stated that your campaign is up and running and giving even some results, you can add variety to the ads and ad groups. You can edit campaign options any time. But I don't recommend making changes too often: you should leave at least a few days between the edits so that you can see the evolution in statistics more clearly.

Additional features

In addition to the obligatory elements for a campaign (campaign, ad group and ad level settings), there are some additional features you can use in your campaigns: conversion tracking and remarketing/retargeting. The latter terms refer to almost the same thing so I'll be using the term remarketing here.

I had hard times on trying to understand what conversion means in SEM! Luckily, I ran into a clear definition: conversion is something that happens after someone clicks on your ad. The ad campaign statistics only record data of actions that happen before the click, you need to set up conversion tracking if you want to find out what happens after. When someone signs up to your newsletter, fills out a contact form, clicks on an outbound link on your site - those can be configured to be a conversion.

Another useful feature is remarketing. This means that you can create separate campaigns for people that have already seen your ad and visited your website. Targeting this audience is known to be more efficient than those who have never heard of you or your offer.

However, you need to know that conversion tracking and remarketing collect data from website visitors and require use of cookies and thus get you to the area of privacy policy and GDPR. As we preferred not to get bogged dwn with GDPR practices, we decided not to use these features. We thus said goodbye to remarketing but we found a service called Plausible that allows us to set conversion tracking in a GDPR and privacy-friendly way. Plausible is also a simpler alternative to Google Analytics.

Is it working?

Once you've set everything in the portal - how do you know it's working?

Firstly, it takes some times (a few up to 24 hours) before your ad content gets approved. You'll see the ad status in the overview page (Google uses the term Approved and Microsoft Eligible). If your ad content is not approved, you can ask for a reapproval after you've made sure the content follows the terms.

Your ad or keywords may not be super popular and score high enough to be displayed so it may take a couple of days until you see any "movement" on the graphs in the overview page. It's best to monitor the Overview page of the campaign (or all campaigns, if you have several running).

Once you edit the campaign settings or text, it's good to keep on eye of the statistics in the coming hours/days to see how the changes affect the figures. If you notice unexpected changes, for example impressions and clicks suddenly stop, you know that you edited something wrong. For example, you may have accidentally associated an empty remarketing list on your campaign... (Wasn't me...)


So how did it go, did our campaigns work? Did we achieve the goal of one new customer a month? Yes, we did! Describing the results and steps fine-tuning the campaign deserves a separate blog post. I might do that later on, especially if someone is interested hearing about it.

So I want to encourage you again: It's fairly easy to set up a campaign and there's not a big risk for losing a lot of money, so just give it a try! You can easily make changes to the campaign (for its budget, keywords, ad text etc) if you notice that it's not performing as well as it should or if you've made a mistake somewhere. You can also pause the campaign easily if needed.

You'll of course need some time and patience for viewing tutorials and setting the campaign in the portal but that's pretty much it. However, especially in the beginning, you should monitor your campaign daily so that you'll spot eventual issues asap.

Samuli Seppänen
Henna Nykänen
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