Paid search marketing: Everything you need to know

Hi, I’m Polina! Formerly, I worked as a senior digital marketing manager and now I am the marketing mentor at Pathrise. I help job-seekers prepare for their future in digital marketing through technical workshops and 1-on-1s. Check out my article to learn everything you need to know about paid search marketing.

Paid search marketing is paying to drive web traffic. Paid search marketers pay to be included in the “sponsored” section at the top of a search engine’s results, which gets them more clicks. Everyone from top tech companies like IBM to smaller marketing bootcamps like General Assembly use paid search marketing. Paid search marketing is practically universal.

Since so many different companies use paid search marketing with myriad strategies, it can be difficult to identify how paid search marketing can help your company or career. Will paid ads connect with your target audience? How can paying for traffic ever be profitable? To help you better understand paid search marketing, we’ve broken down the benefits of paid search marketing as well as the most common paid search marketing strategy to acquire customers. 

Paid search marketing with search engine ads

This is the classic and most common paid search strategy. When you look up a keyword on a search engine like Google or Yahoo, paid search ads appear first. These ads look just like organic results, except with a tiny “Ad” icon. Almost everyone can remember a time when they were fooled by a less than relevant paid search result. However, we don’t think about how often our searches have been guided by paid search ads without even realizing it.

Google AdWords dominates the search engine ad market. Although the Adwords system is fairly simple, they offer free courses to learn the ropes and optimize their ads. To launch an Adwords campaign, paid search marketers first find a search term that their target audience is Googling. Then they write the Ad’s “copy”, or text, to appeal to their target audience. 

Extensive data and control are a major advantage of Adwords. Marketers can target highly specific demographics (age, location, interests) with a set budget. While it may take some time to identify the perfect keyword and niche, search engine ads can be one of the most effective methods to drive traffic.

Like so many online ads, Google Adwords is pay-per-click (PPC). Adwords runs on a “bid” system, meaning the more you pay the higher your ad is likely to appear. Keywords with fewer searches are cheaper. More popular keywords are pricey. 

How do you use pay-per-click (PPC)?

With pay-per-click (PPC) ads, paid search marketers only pay when the ad is clicked. When someone sees the ad (an impression) but does not click, the marketer pays nothing. This often makes PPC more affordable and easier to optimize with data than simple banner or billboard ads. But how do marketers use PPC?

The first step is to identify a keyword and budget. With an ad subject in my mind, paid search marketers calculate the “cost per click” or how much they pay if someone clicks their ad. This cost is usually based on the popularity of the keyword. Popular keywords that lots of people search will be expensive, especially if you want your ad to appear high on the search engine results page (SERP). Less popular keywords will be cheaper per click but may not be so effective. Many paid search marketers seek medium traffic keywords with fairly high search traffic but less competition.

When people start clicking and ad traffic trickles in, paid search marketers can calculate the cost per conversion (CPC). This is how much it costs to use the ad to get a potential customer to buy a product. For example, if 1 out of 20 people click your ad and sign up for your service, your cost per conversion is 20 times your CPC and you deserve a pat on the back. This CPC informs a marketer of the success of their campaign and if anything needs to change to remain profitable.

Paid search marketers will also want to examine the “click through rate”, which is the number of people who click on the ad versus the number of impressions (the amount of time the ad is seen). A 10% CTR means that 1 out of every 10 people that see the ad will click it. More striking ads with more relevant copy are likely to have higher CTRs.


Paid search engine marketing (SEM) is usually used in conjunction with organic search engine optimization (SEO). So what’s the difference between SEO vs SEM in a marketing campaign? Having strong SEO-ranked keywords in a landing page or any of your content will help it rank higher organically. Adding backlinks to paid content may help it rank organically as well.

Small businesses often don’t have the budget to rely solely on PPC ads to get clicks. Focusing on SEO is not only the more affordable option, but it can help a promoted content rank higher in the SERP as well. For example, a helpful blog post with its own Adwords campaign should still contain SEO keywords to maximize its ranking. Paid SEM may get a company’s content off the ground, but proper SEO will help it continue to rank highly longer term.

Why do so many companies use paid search marketing?

Paid search marketing gets attention. While it can be somewhat costly, so long as the ad’s CPC wins a company more profit than the cost of the campaign, the campaign is a success. Companies may even choose to go into the red in order to launch larger-scale paid search campaigns. Some level of attention or impressions is required to get off the ground and grow the business. Paid search marketing optimizes the growth process with plenty of data, making it one of the best methods to drive traffic.

What types of roles use paid search marketing? 

While paid search marketing is nearly universal, some marketing roles focus on paid search marketing intensely. If you are looking for paid search roles, keep an eye out for postings with the following titles: 

  • Paid Search Specialist
  • Paid Search Marketing Manager
  • SEM/PPC Specialist
  • Paid Search Activation Manager
  • Growth Marketing Specialist
  • Paid Search Strategist
  • SEO Specialist
  • Growth Manager
  • Business Developer

With the above information, you should be able to identify who uses paid search marketing and how to apply it to your business or marketing career. For more help launching a marketing career, Pathrise is a career accelerator that works with students and professionals 1-on-1 to help them land their dream job. If you are interested in optimizing your digital marketing job search by working 1-on-1 with a mentor, become a Pathrise fellow. 

Apply today.

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