If the market's seemed more volatile than usual these days, nervous investors have good reasons for their jitters. Many have begun to wonder whether the market's steady rise over the past year was nothing more than a sucker's rally. And if reality does come crashing in, no one wants to be left holding the bag.

Don't be a sucker
During the past year's run-up, shares of low-quality, underperforming companies soared as traders pursued short-term bets. I still can't understand why anyone would want to invest in ward -of-the-state AIG (NYSE: AIG) or beleaguered CIT Group (NYSE: CIT).

Let's not forget Blockbuster (NYSE: BBI), which faces intense competitive challenges, and recently had its credit downgraded to a "distressed" rating. Borders Group (NYSE: BGP) also faces massive competition, just lost its newest CEO, reported horrible holiday sales numbers, and owes a major debt payment in April. Borders is way up over the past year, while Blockbuster has plunged, but both companies' volatile performance suggests they've caught the eye of speculative investors.

Rolling the dice on shaky stocks like these makes particularly lousy sense in tough times.

Unemployment remains at a historic high; UPS (NYSE: UPS) and Humana (NYSE: HUM) both recently joined the ranks of companies announcing layoffs. Both residential and commercial real estate remain deeply troubled. And beyond our shores, doubts about the financial stability of Greece and other European countries could spread to affect the entire global economy. These troubles aren't going anywhere, which will make it more difficult for lower-quality companies to survive, much less thrive.

In this chilly, precarious climate, investors pouring their money into supposedly "cheap" stocks of weak companies might be left high and dry.

Be a real investor
Real investors don't gamble on the short-term, nonsensical gains that defined a lot of stocks' upward trajectories in 2009. Instead, they search for high-quality companies with dazzling brands, loyal customers, strong competitive moats, rock-solid balance sheets, and prudent, intelligent management teams. Those assets are the best defenses in difficult times.

Moreover, these truly promising companies stand a better chance at producing excellent returns over the long haul, even as weaker rivals fall by the wayside.

David and Tom Gardner and the Motley Fool Stock Advisor team are on a long-term quest for the best and brightest companies for real investors. Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN) is a fine example of the kind of solid business Stock Advisor seeks to recommend. The e-tail giant has a killer competitive sense, tons of loyal customers, an innovative CEO/founder, amazing growth, and a bulletproof balance sheet. Stock Advisor members who've held Amazon.com since David Gardner recommended it in August 2002 have enjoyed a 748% return.

Click here to take a 30-day free trial to Stock Advisor. You'll learn more about the newsletter's long-term investment philosophy -- a solid and defensive approach, whether we've experienced a sucker's rally or not. You also have access to the entire Stock Advisor scorecard, the newest recommendations, and recent updates on the best stocks for right now among the entirety of the service's picks.

Join the ranks of real investors by investing for the long term in the strongest companies. When economic reality hits, bringing many weaker companies' stocks back down to earth, it'll be a sad day for the suckers.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. Amazon.com is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. United Parcel Service is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. The Fool has a disclosure policy.