One of the most frequent questions we get from our customers is “What is SEM and why should I be allocating so much of my budget to it?” We’ve asked our SEM Team to provide some insights on this topic as SEM continues to become increasingly important.

Today, any good web marketing professional will tell you that SEM, or Search Engine Marketing, has become the most important type of marketing that car dealerships should be doing. Here are the facts:

  • 80% of drivers seeking to purchase a new vehicle are using some form of digital technology to research their buying preferences. 
  • 62% are initiating the car-buying process online, including consulting social media channels, before entering a dealership.
  • 75% said they would consider making the entire car-buying process online, including financing, paperwork and home delivery.

Essentially, we know that research that is conducted online is driving offline sales. Cars are still bought at dealerships, but customers are researching and making their decisions online. If dealerships want to be successful, they need to meet the customers where they are, no matter what the platform or medium might be.  Engaging them during their online research influences their purchase decisions.

Here’s an eye-opening fact for you. According to a study done by Google Think Auto, 66 percent of car buyers use the internet as a resource to buy their next car. This is the largest percentage of resources, with 13 percent using television, 9 percent using newspaper and 4 percent using radio.

But the largest percentage of dealership spend goes to newspaper – which is currently 85 percent. Only 9 percent of potential buyers are using newspaper to find their next vehicle.

So now more than ever,  your website is an important marketing tool – and it’s clear that what you communicate influences a car buyer’s perception of your dealership, determining whether or not they will become your customer. But how does SEM fit into the picture?

Definition of SEM

To further explain Google’s definition of SEM, let’s take a look at an example of exactly what paid search engine results look like

Automotive SEM Example

Now let’s talk about doing SEM the right way. We see way too many dealerships wasting their budgets on the wrong keywords or driving traffic to their home pages. There are six critical components to setting up the account:

  • Campaign Type (Search, Display, Retargeting, etc.)
  • Budget & Bid Strategies
  • Ad Targeting (Location, Demographic, etc.)
  • Keywords & Negative Keywords
  • Ad Text & Creative
  • Landing Pages

In most cases, your Account Structure should mirror the structure of your website, i.e. “New Car” ad campaign, would have Ad Groups by car model:

Car Dealership SEM Account


Effective SEM Management


Your targeting is how you decide who your audience is and where they exist online. From location settings to the keywords you choose – know your audience and what they’re searching for.

Successful Ad Creation

Whether you are creating text search ads, or image-based display ads, ask yourself: What is your message? What are you promising to deliver to customers? Ensuring that your message is clear drives more qualified leads to your website.

Landing Pages Must Be Effective

Your landing page is how you deliver your ad’s promise to your customers. Linking the ad to your home page instead of bringing customers to a detailed landing page that includes the information that persuaded them to click on the ad in the first place is a waste of your money and raises your bounce rate.

Your landing page should clearly state your purpose, so that the visitor knows what they should expect from it. They will be asking:

Does this dealership have what I need?

Has interacting with this website enhanced my car buying experience?

Does this dealership appear to be smart and trustworthy?

If the visitor does not find what they were expecting to within the first minute of browsing, he or she will most definitely leave and likely not return to the website.

SEM Landing Page Example


Campaign Testing Terms

Ad Preview and Diagnostics Tool – Adwords testing tool that allows you to test search terms, see how your ads are triggered and what they look like.

Test Landing Pages by Device –  Likely you will be receiving traffic to your landing pages via mobile and tablet.

Search Query Analysis – analyzing the search query data to see what actual search queries have triggered your ads. Place terms of irrelevant searches as negative keywords for your campaigns

SEO Enhances Your SEM Efforts

Focus on building long-term equity with search engines and customers by using SEO, or search engine optimization. Optimizing your website content to make it more searchable and you will gain a larger share of search results and visibility.

Analyzing Your Campaign Performance

Analyzing the data of your Adwords campaign and making goals to improve KPI’s over time will promote success and minimize wasted spend.

Find out how often your ads are shown in comparison to the click through rates. If your click through rate is under 1% you may be casting too wide of a net and should consider tightening up your targeting settings.

Know where your money is going and make sure its going to your top performers. Look at your keywords. Which keywords are producing the most conversions? Which use the most budget?

What are users doing on your website once they click on an ad? Watch out for high bounce rates and low conversions.

Look at the whole picture. Clicks, impressions, prospect engagement, and leads are all useful valuable campaign results.

Hiring the Right SEM Company

Think you’d rather leave SEM to the experts? If you hire a marketing company to provide you with these services, make sure you understand their policies on client transparency and reporting:

  • Insist on having direct access to Google Analytics and reporting to be based on metrics in both Adwords and Google Analytics.
  • Be highly active with campaign messaging and overall direction- you know your company better than anyone.
  • The best managed campaigns are dependent on a collaboration between the expert with these marketing skills and the expert of the business.

For more information on the suite of GSC SEM Services, contact Bryant Galligan at