The Web reaches out to embrace businesses online, even if the owners of those businesses hesitate at the attempt. There are many that haven’t taken the step of placing themselves on the internet, and yet they are there, even without a Web site.
They may appear in business directories, with name and address and phone number taken from telephone service provider informaton. A customer may have shared their thoughts and impressions about the company in a review site. A forum discussion may focus on the goods or services offered by the business.
For those of us working on the Web everyday, it may be hard to recall the days when we sent our first email, or created our earliest forum profile, or typed our first query into a search engine search box. Yet there are many business owners who haven’t perceived a need to have a homepage, or contemplated the notion of looking up their business name in Google or Yahoo.
This post is for those business owners who haven’t created a site for their business.
Don’t be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
It’s unlikely that you would start a business at a physical location that you haven’t seen. Before you even consider building a Web site, try out some of the following tasks:
The next time that you want to find a business or a service, put down the phone book, and take a look at Google Maps, Yahoo Local, Live Search, or Ask Local. Chances are that this is how many people might be looking for your business. If you have a mobile phone that can connect to the Web, try it out with your phone too, especially if you are traveling to some place that you haven’t visited before.
Create an email address. Many sites offer free email, and if you have internet service at home, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) may have provided you with one. Even if they did, take a look at the email offered by Google and Yahoo. It may offer more than the email package that your ISP provides.
Join a forum related to one of your interests and participate. You may want to read the postings at the forum for a week or two before signing up, and posting yourself, once you find a forum that you like. Take a look at more than one forum while you are at it – each has their own personalities and rules. Learning about the etiquette of online interactions will help you if you find yourself joining a forum because the topic of discussion is your business.
Visit some business review sites such as Yelp or Ciao UK or City Search. Sign up, and write some reviews of your own about nearby restaurants or stores. Consider what people might write about your business. (bonus points for seeing if your business is listed.)
The next time you want to buy a new TV or appliance or camera, or some other purchase, search for reviews of products online – try typing the product type, and the word “review” or “reviews” in a search box at Google or Yahoo or Live.com or Ask. Look at how different sites that offer reviews allow people to interact. Write a few reviews yourself.
Visit a number of online shops, and think critically about what they have to offer. Consider what it might be that may make you feel comfortable about making a purchase with them, and what you like and dislike about their sites. What makes a site appear more credible, more trustworthy, more likeable, and easier to use? Make some purchases at some of those stores, and consider what you like and dislike about the experiences. If you owned the sites, what would you change about them? Think about colors, fonts, layouts, how easy it is to get from one page to another, how easy it is to find something, to learn about shipping or privacy or security. The more sites you review and critique, the better.
Read and study the guidelines published by the search engines, including Google’s Webmaster Help Center, Live.com’s Site Owner Help, Yahoo! Search Resources for Webmasters, and Ask’s Help Center for Site Owners. If you’re just starting out online, you may not know what a lot of their advice means. But, making an effort to learn what they are talking about may be very beneficial to your business – a search engine can deliver a lot of traffic to your site if you build a site with search engines in mind.
Check out the news online through Google News or Yahoo News or Topix or some other news aggregator. Google and Yahoo allow you to create alerts about different topics of your choice, including your business name, and the kinds of goods and services that you might offer through your business. Try creating some Yahoo Alerts or Google Alerts about things that interest you. Alerts can be helpful in finding out when your business, or the market that your business is within appears within the news.
Try out some blog searches at Technorati or Google Blog Search or Bloglines for things that interest you. Find some blogs that you like, and subscribe to their feeds using a blog reader like Bloglines or Google Reader.
Explore some different services online, like searching for information or editing at the Wikipedia, posting some pictures on Flickr, creating and uploading some videos at You Tube. Try out a number of the Web 2.0 services listed at Go2web20.net.
Consider starting a blog of your own about something that interests you. Check out Blogger or WordPress or Movable Type. Many businesses are starting blogs to help them communicate with clients and potential customers. Learning how to use a personal blog before deciding upon a business blog gives you a chance to experiment in a climate where you can make mistakes or try new things out, and not impact the critical nature of your business.
Developing a Web literacy is going to increase your chance of success in starting an online business or bringing an exisiting business online. The steps above are some that will help you become more comfortable with the Web, but there are many others that will futher prepare you to conduct business online.
Bill Slawski is Director of Search Marketing at Commerce360, Inc., President of SEO by the Sea, Inc., and has been one of the Business and Marketing Forum moderators at Cre8asite Forums for the last five years. The Small Is Beautiful column appears on Thursdays at Search Engine Land.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.