As fast as digital marketing changes, one thing stays the same — top-of-funnel customers start with search engines. Data from BrightEdge shows that 68% of all website traffic comes from an organic or paid search. Search engine marketing, commonly called SEM, uses paid and organic strategies to optimize your position in search results. SEM tools allow you to make the most of your search engine marketing campaigns.
Types of Search Engine Marketing
There are three basic types of SEM:
Pay-per-click (PPC) Advertising
PPC advertising is the process of advertisers bidding on certain keywords and phrases. When placing the advertiser's article will appear at the top or bottom of the search engine results page (SERP). Each time someone clicks on the ad, they pay a fee. Some paid platforms include:
- Google Ads: The most popular SEM platform, since Google has 86% of the search engine market share)
- Microsoft Advertising, formerly Bing Ads
- Yahoo Gemini, which lets you place search and display ads on Yahoo properties
Paid search ads are the first thing someone sees when using a search engine. It's a great way for marketers to find what the most effective keywords are for their business. However, high-competition keywords can be costly and may outweigh the cost of the campaign
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
SEO is the process of gaining organic traffic through search engines by having a high ranking in search results. Ranking in the first few positions for your ideal keywords often leads to a significant increase in traffic. A well-optimized site can rank for hundreds or even thousands of keywords.
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Local SEO is not about appearing on search results but ranking with a Google Map's result. This displays towards the middle of the SERPs. While there are optimization strategies for this, it is mostly attributed to local, brick-and-mortar businesses.
Even on one platform, managing SEM takes careful tracking of your budget, keyword selection, and more. It's a complex process, but there are many search engine marketing tools that make it manageable.
What Are SEM Tools?
SEM tools are software programs and apps that let you manage your paid search ads. Some are extremely complex with multiple feature sets. Others are simpler, handling a single SEM task like keyword choice or budget strategy.
Possible features in an SEM tool include:
- Keyword research: Finding relevant keywords to target
- Campaign analysis: Tracking the success of paid ads (yours or competitors')
- Targeting assistance: Placing your ad in front of the correct audience based on location, demographics, device type, etc.
- Ad building: Structuring your paid ad
Many tools offer multiple features in the same package, often including SEO functionality as well as paid ad management. These are usually software-as-a-service offerings with price tiers for different business sizes. Some even have free tiers for the smallest businesses.
You'll also find a broad selection of stand-alone and smaller tools on the market. These meet specific SEM needs, often filling gaps that the bigger tools can't.
Finding the right search marketing tool is one of the best things you can do for your business's SEM efforts. Here are some of the best options available today, paid and free.
Top SEM Tools in 2022
Finding success with SEM takes the right keywords, a smart budget, and great ad design. These tools can help you generate new keyword ideas and improve your marketing strategy.
SEMRush is the household name in SEM tools, and for good reason. Its features include:
- PPC campaign development and tracking
- In-depth keyword analysis, including volume and competition level
- Detailed competitive analysis
- Advertising spending analysis
- Google Shopping campaign analysis
- Campaign targeting based on geography, demographics, and other filters
SEMRush also offers robust SEO, market research, social media, and content marketing functionality. With this one tool, you can manage everything about your search marketing.
SEMRush has three subscription levels:
- Pro: $119.95/month, appropriate for small teams and new marketers
- Guru: $229.95/month, suitable for small to medium-sized enterprises, agencies, and consultants
- Business: $449.95/month, for large enterprises and agencies
Annual billing can save you up to 17% on the above prices. There's also a seven-day free trial available for the Pro and Guru plans.
Ratings and Reviews
- 1,000+ five-star ratings
- 300+ four-star ratings
WordStream helps you manage your paid digital advertising across multiple platforms — Google Ads, Microsoft, and Facebook. According to its website, it increases user click-through rates by 44% and conversions by 30%.
WordStream is web-based software for small business leaders, marketing managers, and agencies. Its most impressive feature is the 20-Minute Work Week, a cross-platform workflow manager that helps you prioritize your SEM strategy.
Other key features include:
- Ad development
- Bid optimization
- Audience targeting
- Budgeting and bid support
- Campaign success reports
- Conversion tracking
Plus, you can buy a la carte conversion tools and call tracking to connect SEM with other digital marketing efforts. You can even use WordStream's free keyword tool to help with content creation and blog post ideas.
WordStream's software costs $49 per month and is available in two formats: Advisor and Advisor for Agencies. The conversion toolkit is available for another $20 per month.
WordStream also offers a managed service model with custom pricing, in partnership with digital marketing agency LocalIQ. For a custom price, WordStream and LocalIQ's consultants will help you combine SEM with other kinds of digital advertising to maximize revenue.
Ratings and Reviews
WordStream has four out of five stars on Trustpilot, where 94% of its ratings are four stars or higher. It earned the Fall 2021 Leader award from G2, where 869 of its 923 reviews are four or five stars.
Optmyzr is a PPC management tool that lets you run SEM campaigns in less time. It features:
- Detailed search term breakdowns
- Marketing campaign monitoring and reporting
- Performance analysis
- Bid management
- Spend projection
- One-click optimization for keywords, ad text, and more
Optmyzer also offers express and custom PPC workflows to help you advertise more efficiently.
The tool supports every major PPC platform and can incorporate data from multiple sources, including Google Sheets and Google Analytics.
The best part about Optmyzer is its exclusive focus on PPC. There are no wasted features here. You can choose the whole package or a stand-alone tool, depending on what resources you need.
Optmyzer's full-package pricing starts at $249 a month and is based on ad spend. There's also custom and enterprise pricing for companies with monthly spending above $500,000. Monthly billing can save you up to two months' worth of service.
Optmyzer also has stand-alone tools, including:
- A campaign automator, starting at $249 per month
- A custom-built or upgraded Google Ads solution
- Custom data integration from third-party sources
Custom solutions are custom priced.
Ratings and Reviews
Optmyzer is a two-time Global Search Awards recipient and a winner of the UK, Canadian, and US Search Awards. It has 4.7 out of five stars on G2 and 4.6 out of five stars on Capterra, where it's a 2021 Noteworthy Product.
If you're looking for a tool with an SEO focus, Ahrefs is a top-notch resource. In addition to SEO tracking and monitoring, you also get access to its industry-leading keyword tool to power your SEM efforts.
Ahrefs's Keywords Explorer has more than 7 billion terms in its database. It can:
- Estimate keyword search volume for multiple platforms including Google, YouTube, and Amazon
- Calculate ranking difficulty for keyword options
- Estimate click numbers for each keyword
Ahrefs also gives you keyword suggestions in multiple formats, from exact match to newly added options. You can even have your keywords phrased as a question.
Ahrefs has four pricing tiers:
- Lite: $99 per month, 500 tracked keywords
- Standard: $179 per month, 1,500 tracked keywords
- Advanced: $399 per month, 5,000 tracked keywords
- Agency: $999 per month, 10,000 tracked keywords
For $7, you can try the Lite or Standard plan for seven days before signing up.
Ratings and Reviews
Some reviewers say the cost is too high. Its primary focus is SEO, but if you need a handy tool to cover both and you have the budget, there's value here.
As an SEM product, SpyFu focuses on competitor research. It tells you:
- The number of keywords a competitor site ranks for, both organically and for paid ads
- Their keyword purchase history
- Their biggest competitors
SpyFu can also monitor your search engine rankings, both organic and paid, and give you recommendations for improving your ad performance. The interface is intuitive, and all suggestions are actionable, so you're never dealing with raw data you don't know how to use. If you do any kind of competitor research, or if you want to start, this tool is a must-have.
SpyFu has three pricing options:
- Basic: $39 per month or $33 per month with annual billing
- Lifetime: $9 per month forever
- Professional: $79 per month or $58 per month with annual billing
All plans include unlimited access to data. The professional plan includes unlimited results per search, unlimited data experts, and keyword rank tracking for more search terms.
Ratings and Reviews
According to its website, SpyFu is a PC Magazine Editor's Choice product and one of G2's Top 50 Products for Marketing. It has 4.5 out of five stars on G2 and 4.4 out of five stars on Capterra.
A solid SEM strategy uses data. SuperMetrics collects that data from multiple sources and ports it to your go-to analytics tool. It also helps with reporting, forecasting, and analytics.
SuperMetrics is one of the simpler tools on this list, but it makes your customer information easier to use. And, in today's data-driven market, that's a major asset.
SuperMetrics pricing depends on two things:
- Where you want your data to go
- Where it comes from
Each source has multiple pricing tiers. Higher tiers let you pull data from more places. For example, sending your data to Google Sheets costs $119 per month for the Essential plan, which includes Facebook and Google Ads. The next tier up also draws from Microsoft Advertising, Twitter Ads, and more.
Ratings and Reviews
Top Free SEM Tools
Not every marketer has the advertising budget or scope for a larger-scale paid tool. If you're not ready to subscribe to something like SEMRush or WordPress, consider one of these a la carte paid tools to boost your search engine marketing.
7. Google Ads Keyword Planner
This is a must-have free tool for your SEM. Google Ads' native Keyword Planner can:
- Find the most relevant, high-intent keywords and phrases for your business
- Show how often people search for various keywords
- Provide bid estimates for each keyword
- Show competition levels for keywords
Most importantly, because the Keyword Planner is a native Google tool, you can be sure its advice is up to date.
8. Google Performance Planner
Also a native Google Ads tool, the Performance Planner uses current data and trends to optimize your SEM strategy. It lets you preview how changing parts of your strategy, like budget and bid settings, could impact your performance.
This tool helps you get the most from your Google Ads spend. It won't cover your presence on other platforms, but Google does have a broad reach on its own.
9. HubSpot Ad Manager
HubSpot is best known for its digital marketing and customer relationship management resources, but its SEM tool is equally buzz-worthy.
HubSpot's ad manager covers multiple paid ad platforms, including Google, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn. It features:
- In-depth audience segmentation
- Advanced ad targeting
- Reporting on lead and ROI generation
- Automated lead follow-up
- Performance analysis at multiple stages of the buyer journey
The tool uses data from the HubSpot customer relationship manager (CRM), so it's most efficient if you're already a HubSpot user. But if you're in the market for a free CRM, this one is worth checking out. There are paid versions for marketers who need more advanced features.
10. WordStream Graders
Alongside its paid software, WordStream offers SEM tools free, so you can evaluate your SEM success. They include:
- Google Ads performance grader: A detailed breakdown of 17 critical statistics including click-through rate, ad spend, and overall ad quality
- Landing Page grader: An audit of the landing pages connected to your Google Ads search campaigns, designed to optimize your ad quality score
WordPress also offers a Facebook Ads grader for your social media marketing and a Google My Business grader to help your SEO.
Choosing the Right SEM Tools for Your Business
The right SEM tools for your business will depend on your budget and tech needs. If you're a smaller company or department, start with a free stand-alone tool to help with identifying long-tail keywords and ranking for them. Organizations and agencies with a larger budget might need a packaged service like WordStream or Ahrefs. These tools are particularly useful when making and adjusting your search engine marketing plans.
Try out what looks right. Stick with monthly subscriptions until you're ready to commit to annuals. You may need to experiment a bit, but in time, you'll find the setup that makes paid advertising a breeze.
Stick with monthly subscriptions before committing to annual ones. Experiment, track your conversion rates and perform traffic analysis to ensure you're getting the most out of these third-party tools.