Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is one of the most difficult customer acquisition channels to master for numerous reasons. It is made up of two sides: search engine optimization (SEO) and pay per click management (PPC).

PPC is an extremely technical customer acquisition channel where you are bidding and buying clicks from keyword searches in real time using a platform called AdWords and AdCenter. SEO is also very technical because you must know at least basic coding and understand how backlinks work. There are also over two hundred factors in Google’s search engine so you must know how to optimize for the main ones, at the least. What other marketing channel has those features or technicalities to them?

SEM is also very difficult to understand, at times, and requires a much different way of thinking about customer acquisition. Instead of following much simpler models to evaluate ROI, you must think about the lifetime customer value. This channel provides steady streams of customers, as long as you are ranking high and can buy your keywords at the same levels.

With it being so difficult, a lot of times it doesn’t work the way we want it to. Here are the main seasons that I have found SEM campaigns don’t work—and how to fix them.

Focused on Short Tail

This might be the number-one reason that SEM campaigns fail. Marketing managers, or those running the campaign, are too focused on the short-tailed phrase and not the long-tailed phrase. When we say short-tail, we mean a keyword like “shoes,” whereas a long-tailed phrase could be something like “Nike Men’s Running Shoes.” Here is a graph showing how the long-tailed focus relates to higher return on investment.

As you can see, focusing on the long-tailed phrase provides a better chance of conversion. When working on your SEM campaigns, make sure that you are buying keyword phrases which actually convert, and that your landing pages target and rank for longer-tailed keyword phrases.

Cannot Measure Results Accurately

Another issue which I see frequently with SEM campaigns is that of inaccuracies about measuring the data and being able to see if they are successful or not. If you are running an SEM campaign for a local business, and you cannot remove their branded search engine traffic, you are not providing very relevant data to them.

Say that local business runs a TV commercial; obviously, people are going to search Google for their name because they saw the ad. These searches then get put into Google Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics data and skew the results.

To combat this, I suggest removing branded searches from Google Webmaster Tools. I also recommend using Google Analytics and working with the client or employer to see the spikes in data from branded search to get more accurate information.

If you are running an AdWords campaign, I suggest you have complete conversion tracking set up as well. Even if you are not running a local campaign or lead generation, you can input goal conversion tracking in Google AdWords. You can also add goal values here.

To put in the values, get the numerical number for each lead from your client. An easy way to do this is to use the total yearly revenue divided by the number of leads for that year. That gives you the revenue per lead. Now you can put this into Google Analytics and have a much better idea of how much leads are worth, and you can provide more accurate conversion data to measure the return on investment.

Not Staying Up to Date

In the SEM world, you absolutely must stay up to date on all of the trends and best practices or you will be left in the dust. Follow different content publishers who produce relevant content on SEM tactics and practices. I also suggest following 2-3 good thought leaders in SEM to really understand what they do to be successful.

You also need to constantly test different tactics and best practices to understand what works for you and what doesn’t. Don’t be afraid to fail—but fail on a small scale, learn from it, and become better at SEM. Only through learning will you become better at SEM. You can read all the content out there, but, until you test it out for yourself, you won’t know what works best for your situation or needs.

Strategy Is Off

You also want to visit the strategy of your SEM campaigns to make sure that you are aligned there. Strategies which are off happen a lot in lead generation, where you buy keyword phrases and expect the customer to convert from the first visit. Perhaps the searchers for the keyword phrases that you are buying are not quite ready to hand over their money. Maybe you need to send them to a landing page and offer things such as an eBook, a whitepaper, or other items in order to capture their emails and, one hopes, convert them down the line.

You also want to visit what keyword phrases you are utilizing. Going back to the water filters example, we discovered that a lot of consumers searched water filtration systems. Water Filtration Systems had three times more searches than their main keyword phrase, water filters, and it converts just as well. With this knowledge, we were able to shift some of the campaign focus to this new keyword phrase and gain more of the market share.

Website Cannot Convert

In the same regard to strategy, if the website is not converting, then you will be in a similar situation. There are many reasons why your website isn’t converting, but here are the main ones that I have come across:

  1. The website needs to be updated – This could mean that the design is outdated, it is not mobile friendly, or more. Websites with poor designs generally are not trusted as much and can make poor conversion rates.
  2. It is hard for visitors to convert – Is your contact information hidden or does your contact form submission have 1,000 options? You have to make it as easy as possible for customers to convert. They aren’t going to do more work than they have to. Make it simple and easy.

Overall, making it hard for the customer to convert and having an outdated website design are surefire ways to make your SEM campaign fail.

Focused on One Side of SEO

Another huge issue is that many digital marketers focus on just one side of SEO. There are two sides—on-page and off-page optimization. On-page consists of the technical aspects and optimizing your website correctly. Off-page optimization is how you acquire backlinks. Be sure you have a good focus on both of these. Don’t neglect either of them or, chances are, you will not like the results, get frustrated, and write off SEO.

No Retargeting Campaigns

Generally, you only convert about 1-2% of the traffic on your site. By using retargeting ads, you can try to get them back again to your site to convert. If you are not running retargeting ads, then you should, immediately. It is easier than ever with all of the tools and software available. Just be sure not to spam your visitors to death and to use new messages every once in a while.

Being Impatient

In all truthfulness, SEM can take a very long time to get results. The reason for this? It is difficult to master, and you need time to test things out and understand what works and what doesn’t. Generally, your competitors have been doing SEM for a lot longer than you, and, if you think you can just jump in and be successful very quickly, you could be in for a rude awakening.


Overall, SEM can be difficult, but, once you figure it out, it is one of the best customer acquisition tools you can possibly use. I hope you enjoyed these tips, and I hope, if your SEM campaign isn’t working, these tips will get you out of the rut.