How to build a paid search strategy on a small budget

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is a powerful tool for online businesses, as well as those with brick-and-mortar shops. It can help any business grow revenue by increasing visibility, web traffic and foot traffic.  

In fact, one study found more than half of all searches have local intent. Thus, having an online presence is just as significant for businesses with physical locations as it is for those with digital-only addresses.    

You may think SEM is out of reach with a typical small business marketing budget, but you’d be surprised. With the right strategy and just a little bit of knowledge, even those with a tight budget can make SEM part of their marketing plan.  

Let’s take a look at how SEM can work for you. 

Set the stage 

SEM lets your information appear at the right time, in the right place. That’s why many small businesses want to invest heavily. However, SEM always comes at a cost, so consider your small business’s marketing budget and how SEM fits into your plan. Then decide how much you’re willing to spend.  

From there, define your key performance indicator (KPI). Some KPIs could be:  

  • Traffic to website  
  • Visibility  
  • Conversions  

Be clear about what you want to accomplish and set realistic expectations based on your budget. This way, you can measure your performance against your goals. You can also adjust your budget and your expectations as needed. 

Focus your target 

To get the most for your money, it’s essential to understand your goals, your needs and your customers. Knowing your market enables you to avoid a scattershot approach and focus on what matters. Here are some considerations:  

  • Are you targeting a neighbourhood, town, city, county or region? If so, use geotargeting to narrow your marketing reach, and focus your spending in the areas that matter. 
  • To engage customers, run your ads during your hours of operation. This way, you’ll have the ability to answer calls, emails or live chat when people are open and ready to connect.  
  • Determine how broad you’d like your reach to be, then choose the keyword match type that’s right for you, your budget, your goals and your audience. 
  • As a small business, you probably don’t want to rank for every keyword available. Pay attention to your keyword list and make choices that are in line with your business.  

SEM keywords 

A keyword will be associated with every ad you bid on. And while you could try to serve ads for every phrase under the sun, you should focus on the phrases that are most relevant to your business. Then, create a campaign based on those phrases.  

If you don’t know where to start, take a look at your site’s keyword list and go from there. If those keywords come at too high a price, conducting keyword research with one of the many SEO tools can help to unveil low-cost semantic keywords.  

Once you have your new semantic low-cost keyword list, use a ranking tool to find areas your site does not organically rank on the first page of search engine results. This area of opportunity is called your SEO content gap. Building an SEM strategy around your SEO content gap is an effective way to grow brand and content visibility and improve the efficiency or your bidding strategy.   

Bidding strategies and tactics 

You have to bid on a keyword for your paid ad to appear in the search engines. When you “win” the bid, your ad will appear in one of the paid search positions on the search engine results page.  

To keep your small business marketing budget in check, you’ll need to adopt some bidding strategies and tactics that can help you optimise your campaigns and get results. Ask yourself these questions as you create and monitor your ads: 

  • Do I need calls or clicks? With the power to leverage call-only or click-only campaigns, you can encourage the kind of contact you want. 
  • Am I looking for actionable results? If so, consider using display marketing for retargeting customers instead of taking a blanket approach and simply advertising to searchers. 
  • Am I outranking my competitors? If not, then try using a portfolio bidding strategy to target your local competitors. This approach gives you the ability to manage your budget better and set a percentage of time that you would like to outrank your competitor of the same keywords. You could attempt to outrank them 100% of the time, but that would come at a higher cost than most small businesses are comfortable with. 
  •  How are my campaigns performing against defined KPIs? If you’re not getting the clicks, calls or impressions you’d like, adjust your bidding strategy and competitor targets based on your analytics data.  
  • How relevant is the content on my landing page? Does it deliver a good user experience? By optimising your landing page to align with the targeted keywords closely, you can ensure that you’re giving users the information they want. 
  •  In addition, by giving them easy navigation and simple conversion, you can encourage more meaningful interactions, which can help increase the landing page quality score. (A quality score is assigned by the search engines and serves as an estimate of the quality of your ads, keywords and landing pages. As your quality score rises, you may receive lower prices and better ad positions.) 
  • How can I provide searchers with information without them interacting with my ad? Use ad extensions to serve up information like your phone number, address, site links, callouts or structured snippets. 


As a small business owner, doing everything yourself is the norm. But tackling SEM on your own may not be the best use of your time and your marketing budget. So, before you set up your first ads and bidding strategy, take a moment to consider your options. Because while you can manage your SEM, can you afford to spend time on it?  

If you decide to go it alone, you might consider hiring a local SEM consultant who can walk you through the process. That way, you can spend less time learning SEM and more time tackling your campaigns. And if you can afford to keep the consultant on retainer, they can help keep your campaigns going if your schedule gets too busy or you need a hand. 

For true DIY-ers who want to learn the ins and outs of SEM on their own, expect to spend some quality time with each search engine’s tools, Moreover, find a good glossary – which can go a long way in helping you understand all of the jargon and campaign options available.  

Whichever path you choose, know that you can always change course. You can start by managing your paid search yourself and then hire a consultant to help as needed. Additionally, you could find someone to handle it full time.  

Don’t get intimidated by advertising on search engines because SEM is a principal opportunity for companies of all sizes. Hopefully, these tips will help you get started, whatever your budget.  

If you’d like to learn more best practices for small business digital marketing, check out The Small Business’ Guide to Email Marketing and Four Hacks for Entrepreneur’s Social Media Marketing. 

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