Searching for Customers

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted September 01, 2001
by John Frederick Moore

For a small business, perhaps the most difficult aspect of setting up a site is getting potential customers to realize that you exist. Ichiro Kawasaki certainly knows this. As director of marketing and business development for Mr. Green Tea, a Washington Township, N.J.-based distributor of food seasonings, Kawasaki's budget doesn't allow him to advertise. Instead, the company spends about $300 a month to make sure its site maintains a prime spot on the Internet's top search engines.

Last year, Mr. Green Tea retained the services of Coastal Sites Inc., an Emerald City, N.C.-based company that builds sites with the goal of assuring top placement on the major search engines. Before switching to a monthly fee, Mr. Green Tea paid Coastal Sites a flat fee of $1,000 for the first six months.

That's quite a chunk of change, especially for a business whose year 2000 revenue totaled about $8,000. But Kawasaki says it has been worth the expense. Traffic to Mr. Green Tea's site has increased 50 percent since Kawasaki paid for placement, while the site's revenue has increased 60 percent. "In my mind, it's a critical store location in a virtual world," Kawasaki says. "You have to pay for prime real estate."

Web sites don't just magically appear on search results from search engines such as Yahoo, Lycos, or AltaVista. To get your site listed with the major search engines, you must take the initiative. Depending on how you choose to proceed, this can be an expensive process, but the potential boost in business it can provide may be worth the cost.

THE BASICS

Web sites have three options: Do it themselves, register with pay-per-click services, or outsource to a company that does all the dirty work. Depending on which route a site takes, it can cost anywhere from virtually nothing to a few thousand dollars a month.

Before deciding how -- or if -- you'd like to place your site on a search engine, it helps to understand how search engines work. First, there are those that use Web crawler (also called "robot") programs that automatically scan through databases of HTML documents on the Web. Such sites include Google, MetaCrawler, and HotBot. If you make any changes to your Web site, the Web crawlers will eventually track those changes, which can affect how your site is listed.

Google, widely regarded as the best Web crawler, allows you to submit URLs for free, though the company doesn't guarantee a listing. You can also pay for "AdWords," meaning your site will appear in a special location on search-result pages for the keywords you purchase.

Keith Voigt, vice president of marketing for Branders.com, a Foster City, Calif., company that distributes promotional items and clothing for marketing and sales professionals, has had plenty of experience with the various methods of listing sites on search engines. Branders.com had been using the do-it-yourself method before outsourcing at the end of 2000.

"[The do-it-yourself method] is a simple way for people to test whether search engines make sense," Voigt says. "If you do a few sites and see what kind of leads come through, you can determine if the Internet is going to be a good source of prospective customers for you."

Other sites, like Yahoo, Excite, and MSN, are actually directories that depend on reviewers to compile their listings. To add your site to these lists, you must submit a short description of your site. Directories tend to increase the relevancy rating of the sites they have reviewed, meaning your placement is at the whim of the people responsible for compiling the lists.

PAY UP, BUDDY

Then there's the pay-per-click method, made popular (or infamous, depending on your point of view) by GoTo.com. With GoTo, you bid on how much you want to pay for the top position. GoTo features three options with the do-it-yourself package. You create your own listings and choose your titles, descriptions, and bids. There is no service fee, though you must pay a $50 non-refundable deposit that will be applied to clickthroughs. Under the Full Serve package, which costs $99 (on top of the $50 deposit), GoTo provides up to 20 search listings. With the $199 Full Serve Advantage plan, you get up to 100 search listings and your site will automatically be submitted to 12 additional search engines.

"The advantage [of GoTo] is that it's immediate and confirmed: You know you're being placed at the top of the list," says Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of SearchEngine Watch.com, a site devoted to analyzing the search engine industry. "The disadvantage is you're paying for that, and may be paying quite a bit." The pay-per-click method can easily cost up to $5 a click, and while you may find that traffic to your site has increased, it may not be worth the price.

The final choice and usually the most expensive is outsourcing. Branders.com began outsourcing its placement duties to MarketNet Consulting at the end of 2000. Like Coastal Sites, MarketNet optimizes sites to improve search-engine placement. The company evaluates a site's structure, design, and content, finds popular keywords that people use to find similar sites, and identifies top competitors. The site-optimization process can also include making any necessary HTML changes, ensuring that the site's pages adhere to search-engine criteria, and providing monthly search-engine placement reports.

Given all the choices at your disposal, it can be difficult to figure out where to begin and whether to try another method. "You have to do the math," Branders.com's Voigt says. "When you're on Google and you put in three keywords, it'll tell you the approximate number of searches done on those keywords every month. Google or GoTo are good tests."

Some small businesses, however, don't believe paying for placement with a top search engine is worth the cash. Bonnie Russell, co-founder of 1st-pick.com, a source for locating top-notch attorneys, surgeons, and real-estate professionals, says there are other options available that won't cost businesses a cent.

"The best thing to do is pick the right name," Russell says. In the case of 1st-pick, choosing an Arabic numeral to start its name was a masterstroke, because numerals trump letters when it comes to alphabetical listings. It also helps that the company purchased more than 300 domain names, including "Established Attorneys," so when users search for an established attorney, the first or second site they see is 1st-pick.com. "I hate to think of the small businessman hiring somebody when he doesn't need to," Russell says.

HOW BADLY DO YOU NEED IT?

For companies that are looking to boost their presence with a mass audience, there is something to be said for not relying too heavily on search engines. "If you're getting 50 percent of your traffic through search engines, then you're not successful in getting traffic other ways," SearchEngine Watch.com's Sullivan says. "People may not be looking for your product or service on the Web because you're serving a particular niche. The competition can be too high. You need to fall back on word of mouth, local advertising, and mailing lists."

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