It's hardly a news flash. The buzz about search marketing has become a roar-and the volume keeps turning up.

But what exactly is this kind of marketing? And what does it do?

Search engine marketing (SEM) is based on the fact that nowadays everyone heads straight for a search engine whenever he or she wants to find something-whether online or off. That goes for teens looking for jeans, tourists searching for a restaurant, IT consultants checking out new servers, and on it goes.

For instance, 57 percent of nearly 2,400 U.S. online users felt that "performing searches on search engines has become more important to their use of the Internet in the last year," according to a 2007 survey of online search behavior by JupiterResearch and iProspect.

How search engine marketing works
Given this growing consumer habit, the idea behind SEM is pretty straightforward.

SEM helps you find the customers who are trying to find what you sell. One way you can do that is to use software such as adManager in Office Live Small Business to identify the keywords or phrases that prospective customers use to search for the products or services you market.

The upshot? When you get the keywords right (read on to learn how to optimize keywords on your site or pay for listings), and searchers input those words or phrases into engines such as Google and Live Search, your site will show up high on the results page.

The goal is to choose specific keywords in order to attract your best customers. The more relevant your keyword the more prominent your listing will likely appear on the results page, which helps draw traffic.

For example, if you sell only mozzarella, choosing "cheese" as a keyword is much too broad. Visitors looking for swiss cheese will click on, and then click off disappointed.

Few people bother to scroll down to the bottom of the page, which is why you want to be top-ranked. Even fewer actually click onto succeeding pages. At a minimum, you want your brand or product to outrank listings from your competitors.

By putting your wares in front of the people searching for exactly what you sell, you increase your exposure and boost sales. (Once that visitor clicks onto your site, you'll still need to motivate him or her to hang around and explore. These tips can help you do that.)

Choosing from search marketing options
Despite the different terms and jargon you might've heard, search marketing falls into just two main categories: free and paid.

Free search, also called "organic search," is just that. You invest time and effort, instead of money, to achieve the rankings you want on results pages.

How? By smart Search Engine Optimization (SEO). You "optimize" the content and product descriptions on every page of your site so that your chosen keywords are prominent and used repeatedly. Then, when the engine searches for relevant results, your site "looks" like a great match because the keywords pop up several times. (For more information on keywords, see "11 ways to optimize your search engine marketing.")

Paid search, often referred to as "sponsored listings" or "search advertising," means you pay for the privilege of getting better, higher placement on results pages. How much you pay will depend on how popular your keywords are to other marketers.

Typically, paid search listings are sold as pay per click (PPC) or cost per click (CPC). That means, after a typical $5 setup fee for such accounts, you pay only if and when a user clicks on your ad or text listing after submitting that particular keyword. Each marketer "bids" for chosen keywords or phrases. You might, for instance, agree to pay 26 cents for "mozzarella," but if someone else bids 27 cents, that listing will outrank yours. You could then agree to pay 28 cents and be back on top again. Minimum bids usually start at 10 cents, but some marketers are paying hundreds of dollars per keyword (think: an auto dealer and "Mercedes.")

Besides your PPC bid, paid rankings also depend on your click-through rate (CTR). That is, how often users actually click on your listing.

Generally, the more specific your keyword, the more cost-effective your results. For instance, you might choose "fresh buffalo mozzarella," and if you own a brick-and-mortar shop, a geographic location as well.

The big search engines typically alert users to paid listings by placing them in a special advertising section, often on the right-hand side of the page. But not always. It depends on the engine's policy and format.

Getting started
When done right, search marketing can be cheap, effective, and targeted. Plus, with a bit of education, many business owners can jump in and generate at least a mild degree of positive results from free search.

But the process of researching and experimenting to identify your best keywords-and then the intense time and effort needed to test, measure, and monitor how well those keywords are working-can turn challenging. And since search engines are continually being refined and reprogrammed to keep up with users, keywords that work this month might not pull so well after awhile. That makes the process even more labor-intensive.

Tips for beginning search marketing

  • If you're game to delve into the details yourself, check out the useful primer on SearchEngineWatch, a resource for site owners and consultants.
  • Software such as adManager can help you purchase and manage keywords as well as track your results.
  • With paid search, bidding on specific phrases can lead to more for your time and money. For example: "discount red roses" rather than "flowers."
  • Many search marketing consultants will work on a day rate or project basis to get you up and going. Check out our services, or search for a consultant in your area.

Clearly, engines are driving lots of customers and business. Maybe it's time for you to get on track.

 

Joanna L. Krotz About the author Joanna L. Krotz is the founder of Muse2Muse Productions, a custom content company for business and consumer magazines, newsletters, and digital imprints. Krotz has launched marketing Web sites and e-news portals, as well as created magazines and online marketing for a variety of companies. She is co-author of The Microsoft Small Business Kit, a 500-page guide to launching and running a small business.