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Search Engine Advertising

Search Engine Advertising: Brief Summary

Search engine advertising (SEA), also referred to as search advertising or online search advertising, is a form of online marketing, based around paid advertisements, which are primarily displayed on search engine results pages (SERPs). It falls under the umbrella of search engine marketing (SEM), but differs from the concept of search engine optimisation (SEO), because search engine advertising is paid for, rather than organic.

Essentially, search engine advertising involves the advertiser paying the search engine to place ads on their SERPs, with the ads being matched to certain keywords. The primary advantage of this is that the adverts are more likely to be displayed to users with an active interest in the topic, resulting in greater relevance and user intent. Search engine adverts are displayed as sponsored results, rather than within the main organic results.

Search Engine Advertising: Detailed Summary

Search engine advertising is a form of search engine marketing, where the advertiser pays a search engine to place their advert on the results pages for a specified keyword. As a concept, it is now primarily associated with Google and its Google AdWords platform. However, the origins of search engine advertising can be traced back to 1998, with being the first search engine to successfully implement paid-for sponsored results.

For marketing businesses, one of the main benefits of search advertising is the ability to target people based on the search criteria they use. Theoretically, this then improves the effectiveness of the advertising campaign, and the results generated, because the advert is seen by people who have searched for a specific keyword, meaning they have already indicated an interest in the topic, or something closely associated with it.

Users also often prefer search engine advertising to many more traditional forms of advertising, because it feels less intrusive. For example, a user searching on Google for a particular type of product and then seeing an advert for a brand selling that type of product may seem far less jarring than if the same user is bombarded with adverts on the radio, television or on web pages, at times when they are less useful or relevant.

Search engine advertising works through a series of networks, with the most famous of these networks being the aforementioned Google AdWords platform. Marketers then join these networks and bid for their advert to be linked to a specific keyword, or search term, which is of high value to them. However, in most cases, this is not a simple money-only auction and the networks instead have preferences based on things like relevance and website quality.

Generally, different keywords will have different levels of competition, with high competition driving the price up and low competition leading to lower prices. For marketers, the aim is to try to find keywords or search terms that are sufficiently popular with search engine users – making them valuable – and which are relevant for their brand, but with low enough competition on the search engine advertising network to make them affordable.

Although the exact display varies depending on the search engine, most SERPs clearly distinguish between organic search results and paid-for adverts. Rather than appearing within the main list of results, paid-for ads are usually labelled as a ‘sponsored result’, so that users are not misled. They are also usually placed above the main list of search results, in order to provide the advertising business with maximum visibility.

Aside from keywords entered by the user, the algorithms of most search engine advertising networks also consider several other factors when deciding on adverts to display within search results. These may include, for example, the physical location of the user, or the primary language of the user. In some cases, marketers can also set their own targeting factors, meaning users may see their adverts on specific days, or at specific times of the day.

Finally, one other advantage of search engine advertising other many other forms of search engine marketing is the fact that the majority of networks, including Google AdWords, come with built-in analytics. As a result, marketers can easily gain access to real-time information about the effectiveness of their advertising campaign and metrics like conversion rates, money spent vs. value generated, or the total number of impressions.

Search Engine Advertising Costs

Unlike with search engine optimisation, there are direct costs involved with search engine advertising, because the advertiser must pay the SEA network in order to have their advertisement displayed. However, the way that advertisers are actually charged for their content being shown on search engine results pages can vary. Generally, network users will have a number of different bidding options to choose from, including:

  • Cost Per Click (CPC) – Also known as pay per click (PPC). The advertiser pays a fixed amount to the publishing network every time a user clicks on their advertisement. One issue with this method is that it can potentially be manipulated through ‘click fraud’, although networks like Google AdWords have developed robust methods for identifying this and ensuring the advertiser is not unfairly penalised.
  • Cost Per Mille (CPM) – Sometimes referred to as cost per thousand (CPT), or cost per thousand views. The advertiser pays an agreed amount for every 1,000 people who see the advert. This is sometimes expressed as the cost per 1,000 impressions. It is one of the oldest methods for paying for online advertising and is more commonly associated with display or banner ads, but is also used within search engine advertising.
  • Cost Per Action (CPA) – Otherwise known as cost per acquisition, or cost per conversion. The advertiser pays a fixed amount every time a user performs a specific action, such as making a purchase, filling out a form, or downloading a file. This tends to involve things like cookie tracking and the main advantage is that the advertiser pays when their advert is effective, rather than paying for every view or click, regardless of outcome.


Ultimately, search engine advertising can be viewed as a paid-for alternative to other search engine marketing methods, such as SEO. Rather than generating visibility on search engine results pages through the careful construction of page content and high organic placement, marketers instead pay the search engine for maximum visibility. While this potentially makes SEA more expensive than SEO, it also means results are more guaranteed.

Other advantages associated with search engine advertising include the ability to more effectively target internet users, based on what they are searching for, and the ability to track the performance of advertising campaigns. It is also less intrusive than many other forms of advertising, which is sometimes appreciated by users. The main disadvantage is the cost, especially if the adverts are not directly leading to more revenue coming in.

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