Some of you may know that around this time every year, I come down with a serious case of NCAA Tournament fever. During the month of March, when people ask for my phone number, I respond “65-32-16-8-4-2-1.” Assuming clients are able to get a hold of me somehow, all of my doodles during phone calls somehow turn into brackets. I find myself buying lottery tickets with the numbers 8-9, 7-10, 6-11. An unseen force compels me to blurt out “5-12 upset!” every so often on the street, drawing stares from my fellow Portlanders.
So please indulge me this month as I feebly try to draw a comparison between small businesses and the so-called “mid-majors” like Cleveland State, Western Kentucky, and Siena that so often play the role of Cinderella in March.
Successful mid-majors share a number of common characteristics and strategies to “upset” their larger, better-funded opponents in the search engine ranking.
Characteristic: Superior scouting. Cinderellas often play in obscurity, with only one or two televised games a year. Major-conference teams are on TV a dozen or more times. There’s plenty of information about them. Even casual fans know their strengths and weaknesses. It’s comparatively much harder for a power-conference team to understand and prepare for the little guy.
Strategy: Do your research. Mine your analytics. Use competitive intelligence. Start with the basics: there are plenty of free tools to perform keyword research, including Google’s External Adwords Tool. Learn what your customers are searching for and create content that will not only rank well, but will satisfy those search desires. Close monitoring of your analytics will often reveal opportunities in long tail and geo-targeted search phrases that your larger-scale competition will rarely be able to discover. And in regards to Local search: check out the ‘Web Pages’ tabs of your competitors. Add your business to the same kinds of directory sites that they’re on-most of them will be free, and will help put your business on a more or less equal footing with the big boys.
Characteristic: Experience. Although less talented, the guys from mid-major schools tend to stick around for four years. The result is frequently a team of juniors and seniors playing against a team of freshmen and sophomores. The mid-majors have seen and lived NCAA pressure; the bigger teams haven’t always done so.
Strategy: Answer the questions your customers are asking in person online. As a small business owner, you’ve probably got more experience relevant to your actual business than do many corporate types. You’re “on the ground” and know the kinds of questions your customers have asked over the years. Answer them on your blog, Yahoo Answers, or even Craigslist. Show your customers you can solve their problems (or problems like theirs) and you’ll be rewarded with their business.
Characteristic: Superior communication. Because they’ve been together for four years, players on mid-major teams often know one another well. They call out screens, halfcourt sets, and defensive switches. Some mid-major coaches like Stew Morrill of Utah State even hold up clipboards with play numbers and names that their players can read even on the opposite end of the court.
Strategy: Overwhelm your competition with superior Twitter, email, and customer service communications. As a small business owner, you don’t have all the corporate red tape to cut through in order to break news about your industry, announce discounts, or respond to crises. Use this to your advantage-get the word out there first, update your customers frequently on Twitter, and do a better job of responding to their questions and concerns than your opponents.
Characteristic: Three-point assault. Perhaps the most common characteristic of mid-major upsets is a three-point shooting barrage. Smaller, quicker backcourts like Vermont and Davidson, and Western Kentucky and Siena in this year’s tournament, find ways to get open and are not shy about shooting right over the top of stronger, taller defenses.
Strategy: Be daring and dramatic with social media plays. Again, because you don’t have the red tape of a larger company, you can take more risks than your competitors. It’s rare that a company like Kenmore or Cuisinart will make the front page of Digg. But content from a smaller player like BlendTec can (and did) become a social media craze. The result? Blendtec now ranks #3 organically for “blenders”, right behind Amazon.com, and ahead of Target and Wal-mart.
Characteristic: Get the most out of your lineup. Cinderellas often play the games of their lives to upset powerhouse teams, squeezing every ounce of skill out of the players on the floor. Bigger schools are more talented, but even in the first rounds of the NCAA tournament, rarely do their players play with the urgency that this could be their last tournament game.
Strategy: Mine your existing links for better anchor text. Your competition may have more incoming links, but you can still outrank them with better keyword targeting. SEOmoz’s Linkscape tool has a phenomenal filtering feature to let you see the anchor text of your links at a glance, but even if you don’t have the budget for that, you can still go through the results from Yahoo Site Explorer manually. It never hurts to email a blogger or other small business that has already linked to you and ask them to include a keyword or two in the link. And don’t forget about the INTERNAL anchor text on your own website, which can be surprisingly powerful.
Characteristic: Get the crowd behind you. The funny thing about mid-majors is that even when they screw up your bracket, you still can’t help pulling for them. People LOVE to root for the underdog. Especially at the first- and second-round regional sites, an underdog from across the country can turn it into an ‘away’ game for the team playing closer to home.
Strategy: Ask your customers for reviews. The “underdog” role holds true for small businesses going up against the Walmarts and Home Depots of the world. Most small businesses have suggestion cards & boxes. Be sure to include a line for “email address” on there. When someone turns in a positive review, send them an email thanking them for the feedback, give them a little coupon for their next visit and ask if they wouldn’t mind leaving a similar review on their favorite search engine and list all of your local business profiles right in the email. If their email address is “@gmail.com” or “@yahoo.com” send them a direct link to your Google Maps or Yahoo Local listing.
Your reward: Mindshare and market dominance
A number of small schools have become legendary through their performances in March. Names like “Coppin State” and “Valpo” still reverberate across the college basketball landscape thanks to singular upsets they pulled YEARS ago. Though more recent, George Mason’s Final Four run will never be forgotten.
Perhaps the most extreme example: the only people outside of Spokane who had heard of Gonzaga prior to 1999 were fans of John Stockton (the school’s most famous alumnus). Now, Gonzaga is a household name and considered a national power thanks to their consistent performance in the NCAA’s since 1999.
Your small business can succeed in much the same way. Nationally, all it takes is the right social media sensation to get picked up in the New York Times, CNN, or another major media outlet as the jumpstart you need for your business to explode. But even if you don’t make that big social media splash like BlendTec did, the other strategies in this article should give you a stronger foothold, and a fighting chance against the big boys, in longer-tail or geo-targeted search engine results.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.