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15 tips for timely, effective search engine keywords

What's attracting paying customers and boosting profits today? Here's one proven strategy: Using keywords effectively to market your business online.

"Many businesses get $3 for every $1 spend," says Jill Whalen, a veteran search consultant in Framingham, Mass., who has an optimization business.

For free or "organic" search, it begins by figuring out the keywords used by your preferred customers as they search for what you sell on engines like Bing or Google.

For pay-per-click search, where you bid for positions on result pages, it starts with figuring out the keywords used by your preferred customers.

In other words, it all starts with keywords.

Here are 10 ideas for doing that -- on the cheap.

First things first
Lets' get this straight. Targeted search marketing is not plug-and-play. It's complicated and time-consuming. Every day, it's a moving target. Plus, search is increasingly competitive, so you can quickly get pushed off the page (organic) or outbid (paid).

"Search is like golf," says Gord Hotchkiss, President and CEO of Enquiro, a search marketer based in Kelowna, British Columbia. "It's not that hard to do it halfway right and get results. But like golf, there's a whole other dimension to search that almost no one has scratched."

Given the complexities, success comes faster by harnessing expert help, such as an experienced consultant or inexpensive automated software or a search-engine submission tool.

What's the  good news?

Search engine marketing is a bargain. You know almost immediately what works and what doesn't, which lets you shift tactics and keywords on a dime. And even when dome only "halfway" right, search marketing can be amazingly effective.

Keys to keywords
While experts may be better at drilling into engine algorithms and analytics, you're the smartest bet for figuring out keywords that define your business and that will draw serious traffic.

So stay on top of the keyword process. These 15 tips will help.

1. Research, test and learn.
Industry sites like Wordtracker now make it easier to select keywords. Their free online tools give you a popularity barometer of keywords and offer suggestions about choices. "However, if you don't get the right percentage of click-throughs to impressions, it can cost you time and money," says Pedro Sostre, a Miami-based online marketing pro. You want traffic that converts into customers, not lots of visitors. Move slowly and build on what you learn.

2. Choose phrases.
"Don't just look at one keyword. Look at hundreds of phrases," advises High Ranking's Whalen. The more specific the phrases, the more likely you'll attract exactly the visitor who's looking for what you sell.

3. Mix and match.
While you're brainstorming with friends, staff and experts to come up with key phrases, make sure you run the gamut from broad keywords to specific ones, so you reel in all possible prospects.

4. Don't overlook the obvious.
The HTML title tag at the top of your browser window is a prime factor in search indexing. "Clients waste their title tag by including only their company name," says Rosemary Brisco at ToTheWeb, a search marketer in San Mateo, California. "The title should include search terms and 'call to action' messaging to entice prospects to click on your link when it is presented in the search engine results page."

5. Invest in education.
Run a pay-per-click campaign for a few weeks to learn which keywords pull. That way you don't have to spend a lot of time and effort optimizing your site pages for keywords you don't yet know will work. Armed with the pay-per-click data, you can optimize and shift to organic search.

6. Or, if you love graphics.
Search engines sometimes don't read graphics or flash animation. If you site relies on Flash or illustrations, then pay-per-click is a smart bet so you don't have to optimize your site.

7. Join the club.
Each industry has its own buzzwords and jargon. Use those to draw the insiders you want to reach.

8. Review results.
You'll waste time and money if you don't keep checking which keywords attract which customers. Then you can winnow out effective keywords and track which ones pull from which engines. You also learn which engines deliver customers who choose certain wares or services. You can easily measure how your advertising is pulling with affordable site traffic analysis software.

9. Be your own customer.
Every month or so, visit a search engine and input the keywords you're using and considering: You might be surprised at the results,. Also, call your top customers and ask them what keywords they currently use.

10. Use your keywords consistently.
An Overture study found that users gave a nearly 50% higher "likelihood to click" to listings in which the keyword was included in both the title and the description.

11. Leverage location.
As a small business, you may be dependent 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," says Jim Caruso, chief executive of MediaFirst PR in the Atlanta area.

12. Be a bad speller (or at least know how to be one).
Research the keywords that your customer might use but spell incorrectly. "You'd be amazed at how often prospects misspell common words," say ToTheWeb's Brisco.

13. Add content.
Keywords work best when there's actual content for engines to cruise and find. When you have posted relevant articles, information or reports, competitors and other sites tend to link to your site, which adds to your traffic. As broadband penetration increases and users find searching for information much easier, content is becoming ever more critical.

14. Map pages to keywords.
Rather than sending a potential customer to a landing or home page, try to link your keyword descriptions to exactly the page that offers the item or information the user wants.

15. Be honest.
Finally, you'll get better long-term results with keywords that actually represent your services or products. Be honest. Hyping your business or shading the value of what you offer via juiced-up keywords will only disappoint searching customers. And what good will that do you?

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