The Internet can be an important tool for attracting customers even to a local business.
We all know that the Internet is a powerful global network that can reach remote customers, but what does this mean to a business that wants to sell something to the person down the street? Maybe not much if you believe a good sign is the best way to reach the local buyer. But a sign is very limited in providing details about your offerings or value points, so are you hoping they will stop by and pay a visit? Everybody has plenty of spare time and all of our target local buyers will stop in regularly to see what we have to offer, won’t they? Don’t count on it! People don’t want to spend all afternoon driving around asking questions. They expect instant answers, a mouse-click away.
Also, new businesses come and go, and old ones expand or change their direction so who has time to keep on top of these facts? The Yellow Pages? Not likely since the paper versions of the phone book is quickly outdated and it is not the best option to inexpensively elaborate what you have to offer. Enter a new player, the search engine web sites. They are investing in a new web service by developing local directories where an Internet user enters a search keyword and location or Zip code to find a local business instantly. Along with address and phone listing are maps, directions, links to the businesses web site and even related sites. A local search engine directory will provide a lot more then you can get from a Yellow Page listing, and information is as current as the business cares to make it.
Businesses big and small: Pay attention, for this is one development you shouldn’t ignore. Most businesses have at least some local customers and likely could use more, so if listing in the phone book made sense in the past you will like this even more. If you have a local phone listing or are listed in a Yellow Page ad, then for little investment you can expand your web site to make sure it has local search information. First, lets review how the search sites are making this a different experience.
You may be very familiar with the major search engine sites like Google, Yahoo! or MSN and find them a useful tool for a range of needs like researching a new purchase or finding answers with homework questions, but would you use it as a replacement for the Yellow Pages? Maybe not today, but this is something these search sites are trying to change. Both Google and Yahoo! are working on “local” versions of their search engine’s tools to help users find a local business that sells or services by matching their offerings to related search keywords. These new services are in the early stages, where Google’s local search is in test mode only and planned for release later this year.
Will search sites like Google replace the classic Yellow Pages? The key advantage they have over the “traditional” way of looking up information for a local business is their reputation as an effective utility for finding things that are highly relevant. The search function has become one of the Internet’s most commonly used and relied on tools. It’s becoming embedded in the culture of America’s youth and yet still reaches a broad range of audience acceptance. It is also one of the most profitable Internet based businesses and has become a big industry. Over time, search sites will be the most common method people will use to find local businesses. So what should you do to prepare for this change?
Begin by ensuring your business’ web site is visible by the major search sites. There is plenty of free advice about what you need to modify in your web pages to achieve good visibility. The more competitive your on-line world is, the more this will cost you in marketing investments, but if you enjoy little local competition then some simple tasks will be required. First, check out your existing status in the test site of Google’s local directory (go to http://local.google.com) and enter your business name. Does it come up at the top of the rank? If not, make sure your web site’s home page contains your business name. They are pulling the basic address and phone numbers from public listings and web sites like www.switchboard.com that have long compiled this information for their directory.
Next, search on a phrase that defines your products or services related to your business, for example “windows computer” if you are a computer reseller and enter your town and state. Does your business show up in the top position again? Try a couple of other related phrases to see if they too show up in the top rankings. One thing you will notice is the listings are returned not in alphabetical order, but in a seemingly random selection. No, this is not a mistake, but a design of the search engines to rank sites in terms of what they believe are the most relevant web sites. Having a business that starts with triple A’s will not have precedence over Z’s. With search engine sites you must earn your ranking other ways.
It is in this area of free searches that the search engines will go way beyond the capabilities of the classic Yellow Pages or even online directories. People can enter a wide array of search terms and land on the businesses that best fit their specific needs. This will require your web site to have some of the basic search engine optimization techniques to highlight your particular niche. If people are unfamiliar with your company’s name they will use terms like “kosher deli” or “cowboy boots repair” to find the closest business to their location and needs. From the listing they can link to your web site or competitive ones and begin the process of getting to know your business better. They start the process of becoming a qualified customer even before entering your front door.
As the search engine web sites work to develop more local relevance to users, make sure your web site is tuned for your local market. Start with simple web site check ups, like ensuring your business address information is there. Then, associate regional names to target search phrases in your web site to attract random free searches, for example, instead of the title “Welcome to our Country Inn” use the phrase “The Country Inn in Woodstock VT in the Green Mountains of Vermont” for your web page title. This will bring people to your web site and your business that didn’t know you were in the neighborhood. The search engines have been great at allowing small businesses to be seen as big players in the Internet, but don’t forget that a lot of business begins at the grass roots.
Bob Rustici is a founding partner of Internet Performance Marketing. He has extensive background in launching new software and solutions into the marketplace. Bob is author of Enhanced CU-SeeMe, a book about videoconferencing, and analyst reports for the Patricia Seybold Group.