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SEM for small businesses is a giant piece of the digital marketing arena. The reason it’s so popular is because it’s one of the quickest ways to the top of the search results. Even if a company website is not optimized for organic search results, the possibility of driving targeted traffic exists by implementing an SEM campaign. We’ve done it hundreds of times for our clients who need a PPC management team to generate a high ROI on their investment.

What is SEM?

SEM stands for search engine marketing. It refers to placing ads on a search engine. The ads are usually placed ahead of the organic results but can be either at the top or bottom of the page. Google and Bing also have local search ads that appear within their local finder search box.

SEM for small businesses serving local areas

SEM campaigns are paid placements

Google Ads happens to be Google’s largest source of revenue (along with other search engines) because advertisers must pay for every click made to their website. It’s a bidding system that fluctuates in cost based on demand for specific keywords.

For example, the cost of a PPC campaign for a law firm would look very different than one for a dog groomer. The price of one click for “DUI lawyer” could be as high as $100/click whereas the cost of a click for the keyword “dog groomer” in a suburb would be somewhere around a $1.00

SEO is a different animal

An SEM campaign is vastly different than an SEO campaign. Although the two work together, they are completely different digital marketing strategies. Paid ads vs SEO has sometimes triggered the thought that someone should be choosing one over the other, but really when combined they are extremely effective in generating traffic, leads, new clients, and sales.

Without going too deep into the details of search engine optimization it can easily be explained as the organic results or non-paid results that populate the search engine result page (SERP). Here’s a nifty little image from Ahrefs that depicts the different segments on a SERP.

paid results on top and organic results on bottom

Where can I run an SEM campaign?

SEM is not limited to Google. SEM can be done on any platform that has a search engine result page. Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and most social media platforms all have paid ad options. SEM is a great way to get instant, targeted traffic to your website. Even if you don’t have a website, you can set your ads up for people to call your phone directly!

Successful SEM campaigns start with an effective landing page

Before you even set up your ads campaign, make sure you have a landing page that’s made specifically for users ready to buy. When you’re paying for a user to come to your website you need to match their intent to your offer. Your landing page should be an extension of the ad you create so there’s continuity in your offer and in their buyer journey.

DO NOT send them to your homepage. You will lose out on conversions. Your homepage has too many options and you’re leaving it up to them to decide on where to go.

3 non-negotiable items on your landing page

  • Create a conversion goal for the page (click to call, fill out a form, send an email, download a PDF, etc.)
  • Make sure your page is set up with the information the user needs to make a purchase decision (or give you their information).
  • Place plenty of calls to action on the page

Here’s an excellent breakdown of the different parts of a landing page by Strong Automotive Merchandising:

search engine marketing requires strong landing pages

How do I set up my first campaign?

If you’ve never set up a campaign before it can be a little confusing when you see all the options in front of you. A good visual from a high level is the image below from Wordstream. It shows the hierarchy of the setup which can give you the basic concept of how your campaign functions:

ads account hierarchy structure

For example, if you’re a waste management company, you would have three separate streams of income:

  1. Municipal trash pickups (contracted by the city)
  2. Commercial pickups (hired by businesses or residents outside city limits)
  3. Dumpster rentals

You could run a PPC campaign for each of these but in this case, we’re going to focus on the ad group for “dumpster rentals” Our campaign would be specifically about generating sales for dumpster rentals.

Set up your ad groups

Most businesses have multiple products or services that they want to sell. The keywords you choose will play one of the largest parts in the success of your campaign. Keeping your ad groups focused and organized can save you headaches in the future. You want to be able to look at the performance of a particular segment, service, location, or product individually so you can optimize your campaign based on the results.

Identifying the most effective keywords

Choosing keywords may seem like common sense, but not everything, in reality, translates directly online. For example, the waste industry refers to larger dumpster rentals (15-40 yard temporary rentals) as roll-off containers. So when building an ad group they may choose to invest in “roll off containers” rather than “dumpster rentals.” Look at the difference in search volume! It’s 183K vs 1.2K.

keyword comparison to warn against not researching keywords in a PPC campaign SEM

For this reason, it is vital to use a keyword tool. Google offers the keyword planner but it’s better to get a paid tool to see what the last 12 months of searches have been. There are a ton of keyword tools that work great but we hate Moz and love SEMrush and Ahrefs.

If you’re going to do SEM for small businesses in local service areas you might as well invest in the first month of a paid tool. Maybe you’ll get a free trial, but setting up your campaign without knowing the keyword metrics is like going in blind. You’ll lose money and worse, not know why or how to fix it.

Create keyword buckets

Every keyword you choose will represent a bucket. Choose the [exact match] of the keyword or phrase of your choice (you picked it for a reason) so you can measure its performance as a stand-alone phrase. You ALSO want to select the “phrase match” version of your keyword because there are probably other variations of your keyword that people are using to search for your service or product. 


[dumpster rental Plano] = Exact match

“Dumpster rental Plano” = Phrase match

After some data collection, we’ll know how the exact match performs AND we’ll also have the keyword variations that include those words show up in our reports.

That’s all you need to create your first ad group!

You can add more keywords as you go along. For simplicity’s sake, this is how you can measure what is happening with each keyword without getting overwhelmed with too many phrases.

  • [Exact match]: This is the EXACT keyword as you spelled it, in that order.
  • “Phrase match”: Is any phrase that incorporates the keyword you have selected.
  • Broad match: Is any keyword that’s related to the keyword you’ve selected.

PRO TIP: NEVER choose “broad match” in a local PPC campaign. It’s like letting a fox in the henhouse. Remember that Google makes its money from every click that goes to your website. They will find connections to your keyword that are so far from what you need. Some will be what you’ve never thought of and may work and the others will be a waste of money.

Broad match keywords require heavy monitoring

If you’re going to use broad match you need to be prepared to monitor every click and highlight negative keywords as they come up. What are negative keywords? Those are the ones that have no impact on making sales or generating leads for your campaign.

So yes, you can find new keywords you might not have come up with before but you may also spend on words that don’t help you. What’s more is that even if you list a keyword as negative, Google sends it back in another variation. You have to mark THAT variation too-even though it’s the same word or meaning as the one you marked before! There are ways to block them out using phrase match but if you’re reading this you’re probably at a level where it’s better to maintain more control over where the budget goes.

Create inviting headlines and convincing descriptions for your ads

After you’ve selected your keywords, you’ll be prompted to create headlines for your ad. Incorporate the keywords in your headlines. You can have up to 15 of them. If you know what converting and what you want your ad to read you don’t have to use all 15 spaces. It’s good to try though because Google will eventually use the ones that get the highest click-through percentage.

PRO TIP: Make sure you’re offering something better than the top ads

Have an offer that’s better than the other advertisers out there. If you do a search for your keywords, you can see what the other ads look like, what they say, and what they’re offering. Sometimes the offer is so ridiculous that you’ll need to click on it to see how the landing page backs it up. If you can match or beat what they offer-do it!

Take advantage of add-ons and extensions

If you’re a local business, you should make your address appear on your ad. If you want phone calls, you can add a click-to-call number. There are additional sitelinks you can add to take users to different pages on your website. You can even upload images for higher conversions. All of these options drive more engagement and conversions.

Set up your conversion goal(s) and get familiar with KPIs

It is critical to the success of your campaign to have an objective for the users you’re paying to be on your website. You need to know what they’re doing on your website. Analytics is a must on your website but Google Ads tracking is more detailed and should be set up correctly.

This leads you to isolate important KPIs (key performance indicators), such as “CPA” or the Cost Per Acquisition (the price you pay to acquire a client/sale). You will also need to know the cost per conversion (what you pay for a user to accomplish a conversion goal).

The threshold will be different based on the margins you make for every sale. If the conversion goal is sending a form, you have to account for the fact that not every form results in a sale. If you’re tracking the leads that come from PPC you should be able to get to a conversion ratio of sales. This way you can assign a value to every form sent.

Become familiar with these metrics. You can adjust the bid amount you’re willing to pay if some keywords convert very well for you (our campaigns are set up for max conversions with a target CPA.

Select “Tools and settings” from the icon in the nav bar to set up your conversion goals.

conversion set up for local SEM for small business

Optimize your results

  1. If after a week of data collection, a keyword shows its cost per conversion way too high you may want to delete the keyword or try reducing the amount you’re willing to bid for each click.
  2. If a keyword is converting like crazy and the cost per conversion is in line with your goals and the CPA looks good-raise the amount you’ll bid for that keyword. It’s obviously doing well for you so you can afford to pay for more traffic from that specific phrase.

Additional tips for setting up your campaign

Not all campaigns will be set up the exact same way as we are suggesting. There are many different approaches but choosing your way depends on your goals and skill level. We like control. Here are a few other tips that will help you along the way.

Choose your target locations

This goes without saying, but if you operate in specific cities or areas, make sure you’ve found the location settings. From there you can choose where to include and exclude your ads from being displayed.

The display network is garbage for most local businesses

Yeah, I said it. Again, maybe if you’re selling fidgets or are looking to gain more brand awareness it may work for you. For us, we’ve seen the lowest number of conversions from the display network (for local small businesses). The display network goes on apps, games, and places where we don’t believe our target audience is ready to jump out of what they’re doing to read an ad. You’ll get more out of Google search.

NEVER, EVER, EVER keep “auto-apply” on

Make sure you know how to find this button. This can be a very serious thing if it’s left on. Auto-apply means if you don’t respond to the suggestions Google makes in your ads account-they make the changes for you.

SEM for small business should never have auto apply on

We mentioned earlier on, Google makes the most money from ads. They are ALWAYS suggesting broad-match keywords. Why do you think that is? Do you think they want to help you make more money? Actually, yes they do. But ONLY after they gouge you for your money.

We have seen clients come in with auto-apply stories of their $1000/month budget soaring to over $6000 in one month because Google changed their settings. MAKE SURE AUTO-APPLY IS OFF!

Not all Google Ads account reps will give you good advice

Every Google Ads account is assigned an account rep every quarter. Some of them will advise you correctly. Some of them will not. Many of them will tell you to turn on AUTO APPLY! Need I say more? How can you trust someone to tell you the right thing when they could possibly be leading you into a pit of debt? Tread carefully.

Get an excellent ROI with Austin Bryant Consulting

Sometimes you need a professional in your corner to get you on the right track. When in doubt about your ads campaign, reach out to us. We’ll get you sorted out in a heartbeat. We can do that for you. Avoid wasted ad spend and let’s get right to the point and start making you some money!