Skip main navigation

An introduction to search engine marketing – how PPC works

We take a look at search engine marketing, why it's so useful, and how you can use PPC to level up your digital marketing campaigns.

Guide Search Engine Marketing

The world of marketing has changed considerably over recent decades and continues to adapt and evolve. In an age when we’re all more connected than we’ve ever been, digital marketing has become a necessity for expanding your business in an increasingly competitive market. With millions of people surfing the web daily, capturing the attention of prospective leads has never been more important.

Search engine marketing is undoubtedly one of the best methods of getting your name out there. There are many different tools that are used in the world of search engine marketing, and one of the most effective methods for grabbing people’s attention is through the use of paid advertising. This is where the concept of pay per click, or PPC, comes in.

With recent surveys stating that 45% of small businesses use paid advertising today, PPC is rapidly gaining pace in the world of digital marketing. But how does it work? And how do you get started with it? Let’s take a look at the uses of PPC in a digital marketing strategy.

What is PPC?

So just what is PPC, and what does it mean? PPC is an acronym for pay-per-click, and it’s a great device to have in your digital marketing toolkit. It is a model of digital marketing where the person who has created the advert pays a small fee every time someone clicks on their adverts. Effectively, you’re paying to have people visit your site rather than having organic visits.

While this might sound like a way of losing money, if your PPC is working properly, then it’ll make each visit to the site worth more than what you’ve paid in advertising. It might be $3 per click, but if one click makes you $300, then you’ve made a great profit. 

Search engine advertising is probably the most popular form of PPC – effectively, it allows you to buy ad placements on a search engine or a social media sponsored link section. This means when someone searches for something, one of the first links to pop up will be the person who bought that spot.

It may sound quite straightforward – but there’s a lot more that goes into PPC, especially if you’re looking to get it right and make it profitable. Some search engines even reward people who create original and intelligently targeted campaigns by charging less for each click, so you’ll want to make sure you put in the time and effort.  

What’s the difference between SEM and PPC?

You’ll often see people use the terms search engine marketing (SEM) and PPC interchangeably, but there are, in fact, a few differences between SEM and PPC. The main reason people think they’re one and the same is that they both relate to promotion using search engines. 

SEM basically references all the activity that attempts to improve how easy it is to find a website using a search engine and encompasses both paid advertising, like PPC, and unpaid, which is often known as organic. It’s the overarching term for a form of digital marketing that encompasses PPC, along with other forms of advertising and marketing. 

There is also a tendency to confuse SEM with SEO or search engine optimisation. SEO is actually itself a type of search engine marketing which instead of using paid advertising, focuses instead on things like keywords, backlinks, technical elements, and useful content to try and obtain organic visits.

PPC terms and acronyms

As with anything to do with digital marketing, you’ll come across an abundance of acronyms relating to PPC. The main ones to be aware of are SEM (search engine marketing) and SEO (search engine optimisation), but we’ll go through some of the other acronyms that you might come across and which are worth knowing. 

Cost-per-click (CPC)

CPC relates to the cost that the advertiser ends up having to pay each time someone clicks on the ad. It’s important to differentiate CPC from PPC, though. PPC relates to the actual marketing model that involves paying for the ads, whereas CPC is the fee that is spent for every click your ad gets.

Clickthrough Rate (CTR)

The clickthrough rate is the number of clicks that you manage to get on each advert. Knowing this data can inform you about the performance of the advert, as well as the impressions of the keywords you’ve used. 

Cost-per-Mille (CPM)

This term uses the French for ‘thousand’ and denotes how much the ad will cost for every one thousand clicks impressions. If you’re looking at a large marketing campaign, then knowing the cost-per-mille can be essential. Similarly, if small businesses are looking to use SEO and PPC, then it can be useful to know how much their ad will cost per click. 

Ad group

You’ll likely end up creating different ads related to different keywords, so you’ll want to split these into groups of ads based on the most relevant keywords per ad. You can also set a maximum CPC for each of your ad groups. 

Quality score

This is generated by the search engine or any other platform you are using for your ads. It is based on the CTR of the ad, keyword relevance, the content of the link, and any previous performance data on the results page. 


Keywords are the terms you use in your ad that will inform the search engines what sort of searches you want your ad displayed alongside. The ad groups you create will usually be organised by relevant keywords. Once you determine which keywords perform best, you can set a CPC for those keywords alone. 

Tools for your PPC campaign

Now that we’ve got the necessary terms down, let’s take a look at some of the various tools and other things you’ll want to consider for your PPC campaign. Knowing about and understanding these extra bits and bobs will help you get started with your PPC advertising campaign. 


Ads are the crux of the PPC model. There are dozens of different places to advertise on the internet, but there are some platforms that are easier to use than others and can supply you with a high level of traffic. Google Ads and Microsoft Ads are two services that can enhance how your ads look – however, they’re also the biggest platforms, and so the competition can be intense. 

Facebook Ads can also be used for much more targeted advertising, which makes it more CPM rather than CPC. Things like demographics, interests, and location can all be dialled in to Facebook – plus, there is also the option for Instagram advertising via Facebook. 

Keyword research

Keyword research is a really important part of PPC. It creates the entire campaign in essence, and you’ll want to have an extensive, relevant, and exhaustive list, as well as continually updating your keywords as the campaign goes on. A combination of short- and long-tail keywords will mean that you cover both competitive and less competitive searches.  


The right keywords will mean that you get your ad in front of the right audience – but there are other methods of targeting to use to optimise your campaign. Facebook Ads is quite a good example of targeting, as it lets you narrow down the audiences who might interact with your ad. 

There are several different types of targeting to consider, including location targeting (where you advertise in desired locations), time targeting (setting ads to appear at certain times on certain days), and retargeting (advertising to people who have already visited your site).

Why is PPC important?

If you’ve had experience and used traditional advertising and marketing, you may think that if it ain’t broke, why fix it – why digital marketing, you might wonder. PPC can offer you the opportunity to really stand out from all the other ads out there, however, with 50% of visitors to a site more likely to make a purchase from PPC than organically. 

With fast results, plenty of control over budgets, and the capability of carefully targeting a relevant audience, PPC gives you the chance to take precedence with certain keywords and end up getting into the higher ranks on a search engine.  

How to get started with PPC advertising

Let’s take a look at the various steps you need to follow in order to make a good start with PPC advertising. To create an effective and lucrative campaign, you’ll want to make sure you cover all these points.

Set your parameters and goals

The first thing you should do in a PPC advertising campaign is to consider what you want to achieve from it and work backwards from there. Work out who you want to target first and foremost. This will help you decide which type of campaign would suit you best. 

Choose which type of campaign would suit you best

Not only do you need to know where you’ll advertise, but you also need to know how you’re going to advertise. There are many different types of advertising campaign, and the one you choose will depend on where you can reach your audience. Let’s take a look at some of the marketing campaigns you can build:

Search ads

These are probably the most popular and common type of PPC – they’re basically those text ads that appear on search engine results pages. 

Display ads

These are ads (usually image-based) that are placed on other sites – Google Display Network (GDN) is one of the ways you can purchase display ads. 

Social ads

Social media PPC campaigns can be really effective because you can really target the audience you want to engage with – using everything from time to device. 


Remarketing is effectively another name for retargeting, which we mentioned above, and involves targeting people who have previously engaged with your company.

Research your keywords

This is arguably the most important part of your PPC campaign. Knowing which keywords to choose will structure your entire PPC campaign, and will help you target your audiences. A general rule of thumb is to choose around 5 different keywords per ad group – these need to be really relevant to what you’re advertising to help your Quality Score.

It’s also necessary to monitor your SEO keywords throughout your campaign – monitor which ones are working and which ones aren’t. Noting negative keywords, effectively working in the opposite direction to SEO, will also remove any traffic that you don’t want. 

Create a compelling landing page and engaging copy

Once you’ve got someone to click on your advertisement, you’ll want to try and keep them on your site. This is where you can apply your digital skills and copywriting prowess will come into their own. People will be more likely to engage with your site and your product if the landing page is slick and well-designed, and the content is informative and engaging. 

Personalised copy can really boost your conversion rate as well, with consumers being four times more likely to respond to offers and advertisements that were more personalised. Carefully consider who you’ll be talking to and where you’ll be talking to them too. This will direct you towards the best and most effective copy for your ad.

Is PPC just a Google Thing?
No, Bing, Facebook… but also Amazon, EBay Walmart and Target have PPC programmes for their growing marketplaces.  Amazon PPC agencies are now expanding their services to cover these other platforms.

Track and measure your results

By accessing various marketing analytics, you can monitor how your ad is doing, as well as see which keywords are being hit, the CTR, and the conversion rate. If you’re using Google ads, then it’s worthwhile getting Google Analytics as an extension on your site. This information can be really useful to adapting and altering your PPC campaign.

Understanding the role of Google Analytics when you’re getting started with digital marketing is really important, especially in delivering an effective marketing strategy, as it can not only help your current PPC strategy, but also influence your future uses of PPC. 

Final thoughts

Paid advertising like PPC is a really effective tool to use in any digital marketing strategy, no matter how long you might have been in business or however you do your advertising. It can really boost traffic to your site, and by crafting a careful PPC campaign, you will have a much higher chance of conversion. 

Once you’ve started your PPC campaign, you’ll find that it doesn’t matter too much if you haven’t got it right the first time around. By analysing your progress and the performance of your PPC campaign, you can continue to make adjustments and alterations as you go, resulting in a modular and fluid search engine marketing strategy. 

So why not try and implement a PPC campaign into your digital marketing today? It could provide you with just the boost you need to eclipse your competitors and bring you to the top of the search engine results page.

Related stories on FutureLearn

FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now