In last week’s Small Is Beautiful column, Hanan Lifshitz posed the question “Do SMBs Still Need the Middleman to Advertise?”
It’s an especially timely question, given the recent Borrell report about the number of small businesses who cancel their contracts with online advertising providers within a year. The short version of my reaction to the study is that there are simple explanations for this churn:
- a sales mentality rather than a service mentality on the part of the providers, and
- an exclusive focus on scalable Pay-Per-Click offerings as opposed to organic SEO, which requires a more individualized approach.
Many SMBs, however, simply have a “Do-It-Yourself’ mindset. It’s that mindset that encouraged many owners to go into business for themselves, and there are plenty of examples of business owners who simply have a knack for marketing themselves online.
With that in mind (and this might amount to heresy in the SEO industry) – I’m going to disagree with Hanan that a middleman is “a critical component” of the online ecosystem. Caveat: hiring a top-notch search consultant will almost always bring a positive ROI.
Depending on the size of your business (for instance, if you’re a mom-and-pop with one location), your level of commitment to online marketing, and your company lifestage, there are plenty of low-cost baby steps you can take for yourself, without any help from a third-party provider.
I. Take a few hours to learn the basics of search marketing
I’ll admit, one of the problems with a DIY mentality in SEO is that it’s hard to know whom to trust. There are a lot of shysters out there. So let me simplify things for you by pointing you to a couple of fantastic free resources (besides Search Engine Land of course!) where you can learn the ropes.
SEOmoz’s Beginner’s Guide to SEO and companion Beginner’s Checklist are excellent places to start. So are Matt McGee’s “How to Promote a New Small Business Website” and Lisa Barone’s “How to Launch that SMB Website.”
At the very least, reading these resources will raise your knowledge to a level where you can make an informed decision about what third-party companies are trying to sell you.
II. Learn what your customers are searching for
Most small business owners and prospective clients come to me with a “money” keyphrase they want to rank for. This is a good starting point, but sometimes owners describe their business, or what they sell, differently than consumers do.
Luckily Google has an external keyword research tool that is simple to use. Just punch in a few (or a lot of) phrases you think customers would use to describe your business, and Google will return related phrases and show you how many times people search for them. In general, you want to think about using terms on your website where Google shows a lot of volume, but not a lot of advertiser competition.
If you already have a Twitter account, Twitter can be a great research tool also. Depending on your business, you might be able to see hot trends on search.twitter.com that are worth pursuing. You could also ask your followers “what keywords would you use to search for my business?” and get a few responses.
And don’t forget about offline possibilities. Asking your walk-in customers what keywords they would use in searching for a business like yours via a comment card or business card raffle could reveal some interesting findings.
III. Create a web presence
Notice I said “web presence” and not “website“. Don’t even want to deal with setting up or revising your website right now? No problem? You can rank in plenty of Local search results without one. Think about using your profile on a powerful website like Yelp or Yahoo as your initial web presence-for more on this strategy, see Will Scott‘s article on “Barnacle SEO.” Use some of the keywords from Step II in describing your business.
But if you are ready to take the plunge on an actual site, or revise your current one, I highly recommend building it on WordPress. Buy a domain name and a sign up for a hosting account (approximately $10 and $50-$100 per year, respectively) and install this free publishing platform. There are literally thousands of high-quality free or cheap themes for WordPress on places like Smashing Magazine, Premium Themes, ThemeForest, DIY Themes, Design Disease, and Brian Gardner.
IV. Submit your business to the local search engines
While you can’t really submit a website to a search engine anymore, did you know that you can submit your business information to them? Tell Google’s Local Business Center, Yahoo Local, and Bing Local about your business at a minimum (shameless plug: you can submit to all of them from one place at GetListed.org). Use some of the keywords from Step II in describing your business, and make sure you place yourself in the proper categories.
The “Big Three” are not as dominant in Local Search as you might think, though, so don’t stop there. Sign up for listing syndication services Localeze and Universal Business Listing as well. Be consistent with your information and sign up on as many additional directories as you have time to do.
V. Track and analyze your results
Even without a website, Google’s Local Business Center can show you how many people view your business profile on Google, and the top keywords they are using to find you. I suspect Yahoo and Bing will be following suit shortly, let alone portals like Yelp, Superpages, and Yellowpages.com. Keep track of this data & see which keywords you’re not showing up for but should be.
If you decide to start or revise website, install Google Analytics‘ free tracking code. You’ll find out what pages people are landing on & the ones that are catching their attention the most (hint: look at the time on page statistic).
Yes, this might all be confusing and require the help of a professional SEO eventually, but you may learn one or two things about your customers that you didn’t know before.
VI. Get social
At this stage, if you haven’t joined Twitter yet, now is the time. Make friends in your community (you can use search.twitter.com to find them) and let your customers know your Twitter handle in your offline and online marketing materials.
If you’ve done a good job with Step IV and submitted to the major Local Search engines, suggesting that your customers review you periodically on their favorite one will help round out your web presence.
VI. Stay informed about best practices in small business and local SEO
Read bloggers like Mike Blumenthal, Matt McGee, Miriam Ellis, Andrew Shotland, Local Search News, and this column on a regular basis! And if you’re into the whole Twitter thing, follow the experts there, too.
Total financial cost of all of this: $30 – $200 per year
As you can see, it’s easy to get started on a pretty reasonable budget, if you’ve got the time and interest in doing your internet marketing “in-house.” Here’s just one example of the success that an actual small business owner had by following these steps. Note that Local SEO Don Campbell advised the SMB on this process, but did not require a long-term consulting contract up-front.
And if you’re an Internet Yellow Pages company, or other service provider reading this column, I’d recommend–as I’ve said for the last two years or so–that you develop some basic expertise in search engine marketing (beyond just Pay-Per-Click) among your salespeople. Transition your primary business model from selling a product to selling a service.
Your reps don’t need to be SEOs or SEMs per se; rather, they should help SMB’s find the right mix of search and internet advertising products to fit their budget and time comfort zones. Help them get their feet wet with some of the strategies above, and they’ll turn to you for more advanced (read: expensive) expertise later on. Demonstrate the power of the Internet to transform their business, rather than simply overselling them on empty click packages.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.