If you want your business to thrive online, it's time to learn all you can about search engine marketing (SEM).

The goal of SEM is to have preferred prospects and customers find you quickly by inputting keywords or phrases into popular search engines. Preferably, your listing will show up high on the search engine's results page.

For free or "organic" search, the process begins by figuring out the keywords your preferred customers use as they search for what you sell on the engines.

For pay-per-click (PPC) search advertising, where you bid for positions on results pages, it also starts with determining the keywords your customers use.

In other words, keywords are the key.

So here are lessons in how to "optimize" or boost your search marketing by focusing on keywords. (For more on the basics of SEM, see "Making sense of search engine marketing.")

Think quality, not quantity. The name of this game is the kind of visitors you draw, not the volume of traffic. For example, if you sell ski trips to Utah, and your keywords are "ski" or "ski package," you may attract hundreds of disappointed travelers who were looking for vacations elsewhere, from Vermont to Chile.

  1. When selecting search phrases, you're not just trying to make the right submissions or get top rankings, you're trying to improve the odds of how your site is "seen" by the engines so the right customers can find you.

  2. Be specific. Don't consider only single keywords. Use several phrases. The more precise the phrases, the more likely you'll attract exactly the visitors looking for what you sell. For instance, instead of "security and network consulting services," consider: "security, disaster recovery, and network technology consulting for small businesses in Northern California."
  3. Leverage the obvious. The HTML title tag at the top of your browser window is a prime factor in search indexing. Don't waste that title tag on your company name. The page's title should include search terms and a call-to-action message to attract prospects to click on your listing on the results page.
  4. Add content. Keywords work best when there's actual content for search engines to cruise and find. When you post relevant articles, information, or reports, competitors and other sites tend to link to your site, which will increase your traffic.
  5. Emphasize the positive. Once you've figured out the best keywords, optimize the pages of your site by using those keywords and phrases several times, so the engines will "see" them. The more matches, the more the engine considers the site relevant.

    Even better, instead of sending a potential customer to a landing or home page, link your keyword descriptions to exactly the page that offers the item or information the user wants.

  6. Automate your efforts. Avoid registering with multiple search engines. Instead, consolidate your efforts by signing up for a service such as adManager, which provides registration to both MSN and Live Search, and as well, the Ask Sponsored Listings network. This service also analyzes and monitors your progress.
  7. Test results. Every month or so, visit a search engine and input keywords you've been using and considering. You might be surprised at the results. Also, call your top customers and ask them what keywords they currently use.
  8. Pay for play. Pay-for-placement search engines usually rely on an auction model where the top rankings displayed on the results page go to the highest bidder.

    If you run a pay-per-click campaign for a few weeks, you can more quickly learn which keywords pull the best results. Then, armed with the pay-per-click data, you can optimize your pages with proven keywords and shift to free or organic search.

  9. Consider location. As a small business, you may depend on regional or local business. So use word combinations that include your city's name and surrounding suburbs or towns from which you draw customers.
  10. Spell like your searchers. Research the keywords that your customers might use but spell incorrectly. Searchers often misspell or mistype common words.
  11. Be honest. You'll get better long-term results with keywords that actually represent your services or products. Attracting visitors via inflated keywords will only disappoint searching customers.

Remember that this is an ongoing process. To keep attracting the right traffic, you must continually update and refine your keywords.

But in this competitive climate, search engines can add up to a terrific bang for your marketing buck.

Joanna L. Krotz About the author Joanna L. Krotz is the founder of Muse2MuseProductions, 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.