As a small business competing for customers in your local market area, you may still think an ad in the yellow pages or local newspaper will be enough to attract new customers, but these days - especially in this economy - it is absolutely essential to be found online. In fact, most potential customers will look online before they look anywhere else. Just having a web site is not enough. You will also need to market your site in such a way that lets customers find your business first.
According to a study by the Kelsey Group, 97% of consumers use the Internet to search for products and services within their local area. Which tools do they typically use? 90 percent use general search engines; 42 percent use comparison shopping web sites; 48 percent use online yellow pages services; and 24 percent use vertical search engines.
The growing fragmentation of the Internet means businesses need a strategic approach to being found online on various channels, including directories, industry-specific blogs and social networking sites. A diverse online presence can make a big difference to your bottom line.
Pay-per-click advertising, also known as paid search, allows you to target your advertising messages to a local audience as they search for products and services like yours. While this type of advertising can help drive immediate and targeted traffic to your web site, that traffic only comes as long as you are willing to pay for each click. Search engine optimization (SEO) may take a little longer to get your site listed on page one of the Google results, but you will continue to get high rankings long after your SEO efforts are done. Google research shows that up to 80 percent of their users will click on organic listings before a sponsored message, but the best results come when a site appears in both places. In order to truly succeed with search engine marketing, it makes sense to use both pay-per-click and SEO.
Major search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo all understand the power of localized search, delivering dramatically accurate results for users. Thanks to their ability to track a computer's IP address, search engines like Google usually know where your customers live, and will provide search results that are based on that specific location. For example, if a customer types "plumber" into a search engine, they are likely to see a list of local plumbers' web sites come up as the first result, along with their locations plotted on a local map. Just think of the impact a listing like this could have on your local business!
As you read this, you may be asking yourself, "If online marketing is so important, then why are most of my sales coming in ‘offline'?" If you are like most brick and mortar businesses, only about 5 percent of your sales will occur online; but that doesn't mean that your customer's buying decision was not made on the Internet. Most people start their research online, and they expect to get the information they need from your web site. When your business has a professionally designed web site, it levels the playing field in your industry, allowing you to compete against much larger enterprises in your area.
With more cell phone companies offering smart phones with Internet access, customers are able to find local businesses instantly through voice-activated Google searches that return relevant results based on their GPS location. This recent surge in mobile search volume has been a real windfall for local business owners who are positioned well on the search engines.
All of these developments point to one thing: the Internet has changed the way we do almost everything, including the way we conduct business. Today's customers have the tools to find out if they are making the right buying decision before they ever pick up the phone or stop by your place of business. At one time, it was easy to differentiate between an online business and brick-and-mortar store, but now it's becoming more and more difficult to draw that line.