Porter Novelli
(Note: This post originally appeared on the PNConnect blog)
Following up on our recent introduction to paid media, this month we’re taking a closer look at paid search promotion, also known as search engine marketing (SEM). Paid search programs make it simple to surface text ads alongside organic results for specific search terms, giving brands a unique way to reach and engage audience segments based on their specific needs and interests. This can be a powerful tool for meeting a range of marketing challenges.


There are a few varieties of paid search available, but the starting point for most brands is the Google AdWords pay-per-click (PPC) program, which dominates the market. Microsoft’s Bing Ads, which is integrated into Yahoo! search as well as Bing, follows the same basic model.

In a pay-per-click program, the advertiser only pays when someone clicks on the link in the ad, rather than paying for ad impressions (each time someone sees the ad). There are five basic steps for setting up a PPC ad:

  1. Choose keywords to target. (“Keywords” refers to keyword phrases with multiple words, in addition to single word searches.)
  2. Write the text for the ad, which includes a headline (25 characters max), a site URL, and two descriptor lines (35 characters max each).
  3. Create the landing page the ad will link to.
  4. Set your bid for the targeted keyword or keyword group — the maximum you’re willing to pay per each click on your ad.
  5. Set the maximum amount you are willing to spend each day.


Google offers several free tools to help you investigate common search terms related to certain topics and outcomes:

  • Google Trends shows the popularity of certain search keywords over time, compares the popularity of multiple keywords, and notes variances across geographic regions.
  • Google AdWords Keyword Planner suggests keywords related to your initial term and provides popularity data for those options.
  • Google Webmaster Toolsprovides verified site owners with information on what factors are affecting a site’s search ranking and which keywords are currently driving visitors to the site via search.


Search engine result pages include multiple positions for paid results, and in most cases, there will be multiple advertisers vying for the best placement, the position at the top of the page. Google determines ad position based on the Ad Rank of each competing advertiser. Your Ad Rank score is based on your bid, the quality of your ad, the quality of your landing page, and the inclusion of anyad extensions (features that show additional business information, like a phone number). The ad with the highest Ad Rank gets top placement.

“Quality,” in this case, primarily means how relevant your ad text and landing page are to the keyword you’re bidding on. Google’s goal is to ensure that paid ads are actually useful and interesting to search users. For optimum placement, it’s best to create a separate ad tailored to each set of closely related keywords, rather than use a single ad for a larger campaign with many keywords. For example, if you sold vintage 80s action figures, you would want to create a “Star Wars Action Figures” ad for keywords like “star wars action figures,” “star wars figures,” and “star wars toys,” and a separate “He-Man Action Figures” ad for “he-man action figures,” “he-man figures,” and “he-man toys,” rather than lumping all keywords under an ad for “Classic Action Figures.”

Ad position determines your actual cost per click as well. You don’t pay your maximum bid amount: You pay just enough to beat the maximum bid of the advertiser in the ad position below yours.


Paid search is well suited to driving a specific conversion, such as making a sale or filling out a lead generation form. A standard approach is to link to a landing page that offers valuable content in exchange for filling out a form.

However, it’s also a great fit for crisis communications, competitive positioning, and new media opportunities. For example:

  • You can target search terms related to negative news coverage with links to material clarifying the facts and your brand’s position.
  • You can target search terms related to a competitor to make sure a user who searches for those terms also learns about your own product or service.
  • You can target search terms related to a recent major media hit to help surface the story to a larger audience, especially if the news will interest users outside your typical audience.

With AdWords, you can target ads for an exact keyword phrase, simple variations on a phrase (a target phrase plus additional words), or a broad grouping of similar phrases. One common strategy is to start with a broad match, monitor how different keywords perform, and then narrow the target to the best-performing phrases.

The secret of paid search success is a cycle of testing and refinement. By trying out variations on ad text, landing page experience, and targeted keywords, and by tracking impressions and clicks, you can figure out what approach yields the best click-through rate (percentage of total impressions that result in a click on your ad) and conversion rate (percentage of impressions that result in a conversion, like a sale, form submission, or content download).