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SEA the ultimate guide
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Updated 29 January 2024

SEA: the ultimate guide to your startup’s online success

SEA, SEO, SEM are not the words of a tongue twister, but fundamental activities for those who want to increase the visibility of a website within search engines.

In this guide that will lead you to success with your startup we will focus in particular on SEA, an acronym that stands for Search Engine Advertising. In the next few lines you will discover the meaning of SEA, the differences with the other two acronyms SEO and SEM, the goals of this particular activity, how it works and the advantages it can offer you.


What is meant by SEA in digital marketing?

The acronym SEA, which in some cases you may also find spelled “S.E.A.,” stands for Search Engine Advertising. But what is SEA in practical terms? It represents a digital marketing technique that consists of placing paid ads within search engines (Google especially, but not only) in response to precise user search queries, with the aim of generating qualified traffic to a website.

To understand even better what SEA is, however, it is worth knowing what distinguishes it from SEO and SEM.


SEA, SEM and SEO: differences

The acronym SEO refers to Search Engine Optimization. It includes all techniques for improving a website’s ranking among the organic (i.e., non-paid) results of the SERP (Search Engine Results Page, i.e., the results page created by a search engine in response to a user request).

To understand the difference between SEO and SEA, you need to be familiar with how the SERP works: within this page, various websites are generally sorted according to how they meet precise requirements (the ranking or positioning factors). However, this is not always the case: some sites, in fact, gain privileged visibility within the first page of the SERP thanks to paid advertising campaigns. This is precisely where SEA comes into play.

To introduce the concept of SEM, however, it is necessary to clarify a misunderstanding: often, in the recent past, the discipline of paid ads on search engines has been identified with the term SEM; in reality, however, this acronym (which stands for Search Engine Marketing) refers to a more general scope, which includes all activities conducted on search engines and aimed at increasing traffic to a site.

Ultimately, then, the term SEM encompasses within it both SEO and SEA, two activities that guarantee the best results when used simultaneously.


The goals of SEA, Search Engine Advertising

The goals of SEA are to increase the website‘s search engine visibility and reachability, with the ultimate goal of increasing qualified traffic to the site and maximizing conversions.

It is essential that you understand the concept of “qualified traffic”: by these two words we mean those people who are interested in the content of the website and the products or services offered by the company. Having a particularly high number of views on the site, in fact, is not enough: it is necessary that the views translate into conversions. We will elaborate more on this last concept later; now it is time to turn your attention to how SEA works.


How does SEA work?

Having clarified the basic theoretical aspects concerning SEA, it is now necessary to delve into how it works on a practical level: like SEO, Search Engine Advertising is also based on finding the best keywords. In the former case, however, it is the site content that is built around the identified keywords, while in SEA it is the advertisements.

Determining whether an advertisement can actually be published in the SERP and in what position is an auction mechanism. At Google it works like this: when a user performs a search, Google Ads (the tool provided by Google to plan advertising campaigns on the search engine) retrieves all ads with keywords matching the search. Only those ads that are suitable and have a sufficiently high ranking can be published. You should know that the latter is the result of the combination of bid (price), ad quality, ad ranking thresholds, user search context, and expected impact of extensions and other ad formats.


5 main factors of Google ad auctions

5 main factors of Google ad auctions


Remember that even if your competitors bid higher than you, you still have a chance to get a better position at a lower price. How? By using keywords and creating particularly relevant advertisements.

But how do you create advertisements on Google Ads? First, you have to select your goal (such as, for example, to attract more visitors to your website); then you have to choose the geographic area in which to show your advertisement (you can select a short-range area but also an entire country); finally, you have to create the ad and set the maximum monthly budget limit.

You now know broadly how SEA works. Be aware, however, that what you have just learned is not enough: you need to look deeper into the matter, taking into consideration some key factors for achieving success by advertising on search engines.



As already pointed out, much of the success of a search engine advertising campaign revolves around choosing the right keywords.

In this regard, it is important for you to know that Google provides a tool, called the Keyword Planning Tool, which, not only helps you come up with new ideas for keywords related to your business around which to build your advertising campaigns, but also shows you estimates of the number of searches your keywords receive each month and the average cost.


Announcements (Search)

Each search engine has its own way of displaying SEA ads, although they all share one constant: users, before they can view organic results in the SERP, must scroll through paid ads.

On the Google search network, text ads appear above and below Google search results and consist of 3 elements: the display URL, a title text, and descriptive text. Identifying them as ads is the bold “Ad” (or “Sponsored“) text.

On the Bing search engine, on the other hand, text ads are marked with the words “Ad” placed inside a small box before the meta description of the sponsored page.


Other ad formats

You should know that there are 3 basic types of ad campaigns on Google Ads:

  • campaigns on the search network: generally advertisements are in text format and may be placed on Google Search results pages when a user searches for products or services similar to yours;
  • campaigns on the Display network: generally the advertisements are in an illustrated format and are placed on sites or apps visited by your customers;
  • video campaigns: these are 6- or 15-second video ads that are shown immediately before or during the playback of YouTube content.

Google Ads also provides for other advanced types of ad campaigns. Prominent among these are Shopping campaigns and app campaigns.


Types of advertising campaigns on Google Ads

Types of advertising campaigns on Google Ads


Ad Extensions

If you want to show extra information along with your ads, you can make use of so-called Ad Extensions: this additional information, which is crucial for the optimization of SEA ads, can contain, for example, links to specific pages on your website, information about the prices of your products or your business hours or location, or even a call button.


Budgets & Bids

As already pointed out, ad placement is based on an auction mechanism. Working with Google Ads, you have the opportunity to control your search engine ad spend yourself: before the campaign is created, Google Ads shows an estimate of the results you can achieve based on the advertising budget you have allocated (there is no minimum spend and under no circumstances will you exceed the limit you set for the monthly budget).

Remember that you can stop the ads at any time but also keep in mind the words of Henry Ford:

“Stopping advertising to save money is like stopping the clock to save time.”

There is another big advantage to Google Ads: you only pay based on results and, more specifically, if a user takes an action in response to the ad (e.g., clicks on it, visits your site or calls your business). Keep in mind that Google Ads helps you show your ads to potential customers at the moment they are ready to take action.


How Google ad rank works

How Google ad rank works



Ad targeting is another aspect that is impossible to overlook: in fact, even the perfect ad will prove ineffective if it is not shown to the right people at the right time.

On Google Ads you can choose from several targeting options, with two main macrocategories:

  • targeting by audience;
  • content-based targeting.

Audience” refers to the set of users you wish to reach with your ads. You can connect with them based on different information, such as who they are, what their interests or habits are, and what they are actively searching for. If you choose this option for your display campaigns you are telling Google that you want to appear to specific users regardless of what content they are viewing.

Conversely, if you opt for content-based targeting, you signal to Google that you want your ad to appear on websites relevant to the ad. In more practical terms, with this option you can define where you want (and where you don’t want) your ad to appear.

It is important that you also know what “Remarketing” means: with Google Ads you can also re-engage those who have previously interacted with your brand or products or services on mobile devices or desktop computers. Ads, in this case, are shown to those specific users as they browse Google or partner sites.



The ultimate goal of SEA, as noted above, is to maximize conversions. This term refers to a specific action on the part of the user deemed essential by the company and set as the goal of an advertising campaign. Often this specific action is the purchase of a product or service, but it can also consist of, for example, signing up for a newsletter or filling out a contact form (with attached consent to be contacted later for business proposals).

Remember that conversions must be measurable actions, and it is absolutely critical that you track them because they indicate to you whether the advertising campaign you initiated is succeeding or not.


SEA: Why is it important? The benefits

If you have been paying attention well, by now you already know that SEO and SEA are two solutions that perform best when integrated with each other. However, it is important to know the advantages that SEA offers over SEO. First of all, SEA guarantees results in a much shorter time, ensuring almost immediate visibility for those who decide to use it.

The goals that can be achieved with SEA, both in terms of marketing and business tout-court, are many, as are many targeting options, which offer the advantage of allowing for extremely accurate and precise targeting of the best recipients of advertisements.

The privileged position reserved for advertisements, moreover, can make a difference on mobile devices, where sometimes search engines display only a few results before navigation is interrupted. There is one final, key benefit you must consider: with SEA you can measure your results and take prompt action to correct your strategy.

Nicola Zanetti

Founder B-PlanNow® | Startup mentor | Startup consulting & marketing strategist | Leading startup to scaleup | Private angel investor | Ecommerce Manager | Professional trainer | Book writer

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