Search engine marketing, or as it's frequently called, SEM, is a term referring to any marketing strategy designed to increase website visibility among search engine results in order to increase traffic or sales. Keyphrase research is a vital element in SEO.

There's one big question in the world of SEM that we get all the time from clients -- "Can I get to the top of Google?"

My immediate response almost always is, "Sure, you can get to the top of Google. But for what term?"

How Google Determines Who's On Top
There are essentially two ways to get to the top of Google. The first is through search engine optimization (SEO), which affects the unpaid search engine results that make up the bulk of the search results page. The listings are often called "natural" or "organic" listings.

The other way to get to the top of Google is to simply buy your way there through paid search, or as it's often called, pay-per-click (PPC) or AdWords. These are the sponsored listings at the right side or in yellow before the natural listings.

Google's dominance in search is thanks to the level of relevance or quality provided in its search results. That's because Google's software (or "algorithm") was the first to intelligently determine the topical relevance of each page in its index to the search term being searched.

Just as positioning in marketing associates a brand or company to one idea in the mind of the prospect, Google determines search positions by associating each page within each website to one idea - one keyphrase.

Your Rise To The Top Begins With Keyphrase Research

If you can answer the positioning question, "What does my brand stand for in the mind of the prospect?" then you've got a good start in determining what terms your brand should own among search results. See Mark Vandegrift's article on positioning and SEO for more on this relationship.

This list is always large and should continue to grow with market trends. These search term possibilities, often the result of a brainstorm session, are run through tools like Google Insights that not only suggest additional search terms, but also tell us how many search users there are for each keyphrase and how competitive the search environment is for that term. Google Insights also presents historical data on keyphrase search volume providing keyphrase trends insight.

The best way to keep a competitive edge in developing your keyphrase research strategy is to focus on positioning. While I'm sure Volvo would love to rank number one on a search term "new cars," they're better off focusing their energy on terms that more tightly align with their position, like "safe cars."

The analysis of that data helps you determine what keyphrases are optimal to compete immediately and the direction your site content should head as your site grows.

It's always better to own your position first. Secure your own sandbox rather than trying to dominate the entire playground.

Keyphrase Variations Can Make A Huge Difference

Your prospects search for all sorts of things related to you and your position, and the search terms they use vary, even though sometimes they mean the same thing.

Variances can sometimes be drastic, like "H1N1" vs. "swine flu."

But even slight variances matter. Keyphrases like "best in car safety," "car safety reviews," and "safest car" may look like they mean the same thing, but in fact, they all have very different search results because they each call for content with significant differences in contextual relevance.

Most any variance will yield different search results.

They Won't All Be Free

From that big list of keyphrases, you must choose the keyphrases that are most worthwhile for you - both in terms of sales conversion and competitive edge. "New safe cars" may be competitive, but not nearly as competitive as "new cars." Better yet, keyphrase research may show it's even easier and more lucrative to go after "safest car."

You can't reach for and rank at the top of Google for every desired term naturally. That's not only because there is a lot of competition, but also because each and every keyphrase needs its own web page with content solely relevant to that one keyphrase. We will discuss how that content is written in another article, but for now remember this best practice - one keyphrase per page and one page per keyphrase.

For the terms you can't rank at the top, but want to, we turn to paid search. It's essentially a way to buy your way to the top of Google - albeit among the sponsored links. Paid search picks up where organic search leaves off.

What you must remember about keyphrase strategy is that it's not about connecting you to the prospects you desire. It's about connecting the prospects to whatever it is they desire.

Regardless, if it's through paid search or organic unpaid search, your ride to the top of Google starts with knowing your brand's position and solid keyphrase research.