If you're a massage therapist in Brooklyn and have a Web site, you need potential clients to find you on the Internet, specifically the ones who live in New York City.
Such was the dilemma of a client who called on Chris Winfield, president of 10e20 Web Design, who specializes in search engine optimization (SEO). He solved the problem by configuring the site so that it would come up when appropriate key words were entered in Google, Yahoo and MSN search engines. Sounds easy right? Ah, there in lies the rub.
SEO simply means that your Web site is "optimized" for search engine results, meaning that, ideally, your Web site will come up as one of the first 10 sites when people search for keywords pertinent to your business. It's easy to overlook in the day-to-day flurry of running a company, but done right, SEO will significantly drive sales.
If They Come, Will They Buy?
After all, it's common sense that if people see your site when searching for a service or product, they're more likely to buy from you. And, unlike print and radio spots, you can pay less for longer exposure.
But SEO is one of those things better left to experts, unless you know a lot about meta-tags, coding and "spiders," the automated programs that crawl through Web sites reading their information and creating a search engine index entry.
"If you have a million people come to your site, but you don't get one sale, it doesn't matter," says Winfield, who has offices in New York and Florida. "We'd rather have you get 100 people come in a month, but get 10 sales. We work with businesses to find the right keywords, depending on whether they are local or not and what type of product they're selling."
Consider this: SEO expert C. J. Newton says, "We had one company a leading test preparation business and they never, ever once mentioned the phrase "test prep" on their site. It was absurd."
Newton is president of Chicago-based Mir Marketing, author of Search Engine Expert Course: Search Engines 101 and contributing editor to SeoPros.org, an organization for search engine optimization professionals.
He says the key to optimizing a site is making sure the keywords are appropriate and, that each page has one unique URL so spiders can easily locate matching pages. "If you have those two things taken care of, you have a good shot," says Newton. "Ninety-nine percent of the problems are due to spiders not being able to transverse the site."
Developing a Web site so that it attracts visitors by gaining top ranking on the engines for selected keywords, however, involves six components. Newton outlines these quite well at his site, where he further explains the importance of:
- Site title since some directories, including Yahoo, only search titles
- Site quality
- Content its usefulness/comprehensiveness
- Site description
- Matching meta tags with the right keywords
- Site popularity as determined by the number, quality and type of linked pages
- Tweaking the code to help win specific searches
What small business owners need to know is that, basically, any reputable SEO firm will help you see the relationship between keyword and sales conversions.
It Pays (and Costs) to Optimize
Winfield says pricing varies depending on the individual business, whether it's local, and the type of industry travel agents are more competitive than, say, a local massage therapist. His company offers free consultations for small business owners who want to get an outline of what needs to be done and how much it will cost. The entire process can be done online without meeting face-to-face. "It comes down to a combination of coding and good copy writing," says Winfield. "We practice what we preach, we don't advertise, we get our business through search engines."
But of course Google, Yahoo and MSN will take your money should you want to pay for ads called pay-per-click on search engines. Google is also launching a local service (the beta-version is up now) that acts as a sort of free online Yellow Pages, which could serve small businesses who want to advertise on the Web.) In pay-per-click you pay only if someone actually clicks on your ad, which shows up next to the search results. You buy keywords through online auctions, and they range in price from a few dollars to up to $50.
If you go the pay-per-click route, Newton says it's wise to create ads for specific products, since online shoppers who are ready to buy have a specific product in mind. "If you sell Lego toys, you should have an ad for each one, because people want to know you have the actual one they're looking for. They'll click on that before a general listing that they then have to search through."
Winfield warns about bidding, too. "A lot of people waste money bidding on keywords that won't do anything for them. For instance, we have a client that sells a perfume called 212. Most people searching for that want a phone number, so we make sure there are negative modifiers so you get people looking for the product, not the area code."
A No-Web-Site-Necessary Option
Meanwhile, FindWhat just introduced pay-per-call, a new way to advertise online even if you don't have a Web site and 65 percent of businesses don't, according to Internet marketing firm Colizer Inc. Instead of enticing viewers to click to a Web site, these ads are designed to make them pick up the phone, with advertisers paying only if a potential customer calls.
Business owners can focus on a single zip code or the whole country. "It's the perfect way to merge the online and offline worlds," says Michael Kerans, senior vice president at FindWhat.com, adding, "Twenty-five percent of all online commercial searches are local in nature."
Here's how it works: advertisers bid for ad position and pay only if someone calls. Rates start at two dollars a call; advertisers choose relevant categories for placement of the ads, which display toll-free 800 numbers, and are distributed across the FindWhat network. Technology automatically redirects the call to the actual phone number where it is announced by a tone or message, so owners know it was generated by the pay-per-call. The ads also link to a "details page" hosted by FindWhat that lists the name, address, phone number and brief description of products and services.
Flexible Advertising with a Personal Touch
Seb Bishop, chief marketing officer of FindWhat, points out that the program's flexibility serves small businesses with small budgets. "They can place ads for a day, for weeks or even an afternoon, rather than commit to a print or radio campaign," says Bishop. "There's no creative staff needed for this type of advertising, there is no barrier to entry."
It also suits companies that may require more human interaction to close the deal. "If you're planning a complicated vacation, or want a local plumber and you want to explain your problem before booking a service call, you're going to pick up the phone rather than do it all online."
Industry watchers are abuzz about the nascent pay-per-call model, but the jury is still out on whether it will gain traction because it's only weeks old. Though the rates are higher than that of pay-per-click, the sales conversion rates are also higher some say more than double.
In the end, small business owners may be overwhelmed by the options: pay-per-click, pay-per-call, SEO or a combination of all three? You'll find a good discussion of how to integrate your marketing at www.searchengineguide.com/cook/003455.html.
Meanwhile don't expect Internet marketing to cool down anytime soon. Jupiter Research (which is owned by the same parent as this Web site) forecasts local search will grow 15 percent a year through 2008, to $824 million. And, since the leading players Google, MSN, AOL and Yahoo are focusing on local small business advertising as the sweet spot for revenue growth, you can be sure they'll be devising more ways to help you get the word out.
When Michelle Megna began covering technology for computer magazines, the CD-ROM and AOL didn't yet exist. Since then, she's been on the byte beat for FamilyPC, Time Inc. and the New York Daily News. She's still waiting to see a pair of 3-D goggles that actually work.
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