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Searching For Small Businesses, Coming Up Frustrated
Having written about search for years, it’s often easy for me to mistakenly assume that everyone gets it. Search is where the customers are. Surely every business owner, large or small, understands by now the importance of appearing before these customers in search. Surely. But as I’ve looked for local businesses to help with my needs after a recent move, I’ve had a personal reminder of just how far behind some companies remain.
I spent the past 12 years living in a small English village, where there was little need to turn to search engines if I needed help with my home. Everyone in the village knew who the plumber was, the two people who painted homes or that if you wanted a meal delivered, only one little Chinese food place would make the trip out. Domino’s Pizza? Forget it.
Now I’ve just moved back to where I’m originally from, suburban Southern California. Getting my new house in order has sent me to search engines again and again, leaving me almost in shock at the mess I find out there.
Let’s take my local pizza place. There’s a good one in Newport that I always order from, but I can never remember their number. So like many people, I search for it. But recently when I did this, I had a terrible experience. When I clicked through to the site, there was nothing about pizza. Instead, a pop-up window appeared telling me I had a Windows virus. That’s hard to get, given I use a Mac. Someone, somehow, managed to get control of the pizza place’s web site, the same domain that’s listed on all their boxes.
What’s going on here? How does a local pizza place not realize this is happening? Does anyone from the company ever go to their own site? Trying to help, I even called and explained that something really bad was happening with the site. I was told the owner would call back. I didn’t think he would, nor did he.
Is this really a lost business opportunity? Sure. Newport is a big tourist town during the summer and vacation periods. It gets flooded with people visiting for the first time, renting houses and wanting food. If they search for “newport beach pizza,” this company has an excellent chance of getting that new business, as they rank well for the term. But if someone tries to visit their site and gets malware, I expect the business will instead go to Domino’s.
Another thing I needed recently was new locks for the house. That sent me to Google to try a search for “locksmith 92663,” my ZIP code. I could quickly tell that the local locksmiths obviously never search like this in a way that their customers might. That’s because the results I got back were loaded with “mapspam,” where a single company appears to have registered many fake addresses in order to crowd out competitors. Worse, the company doesn’t even serve my area.
This is something other local businesses should have noticed and complained about, but they aren’t savvy enough to do that. To be fair, maybe they did notice but then had no idea what to do next. Even I had to struggle through Google’s help pages to eventually find the correct instructions, and then those weren’t readily clear. Click on the business’s listing. Then click on “Edit” to find the “Flag as inappropriate” link, which brings up a form. If I’m a small business owner seeing a fake business, I want a prominent link somewhere that says “Report Fake Business!”
It gets worse. I found a locksmith I liked, someone that seemed small and carried what I was looking for. A few days later, I wanted to double-check the address before actually going into the shop. Oops. Their web site was gone. A holding page from an online yellow pages company told me that the web site was now closed and listed a phone number to call to reopen the site without “losing any information.” Clearly this company had outsourced their web site to a yellow pages firm and then for whatever reason was no longer paying for it, leaving potential customers stranded.
After some searching, I found a second web site for the company and then went in. After getting my quote, I asked them what was going on with the two sites. Were they aware of the problem? Yes. They expected to get the original site back from the yellow pages company but that was taking time. So they put up a second site as a holding measure.
The things I wanted to ask. Why did you ever build your business around a domain you didn’t control? Why isn’t your developer doing everything possible right now to get that domain back? Can you get the hosting company to do a temporary redirect for a fee over to your holding site? How are you going to handle the aftermath of building up two different sites for your business? Will you redirect the temporary one back to the main one after you get control of that?
Sigh. I held it all back and just left my email address, saying I’d be happy to talk to their developer for free if he wanted some suggestions on dealing with the problem. Like the pizza shop owner, no one got in touch. After all, the phones are still ringing at these businesses, right? It’s not like their web woes are slowing them down.
Perhaps not. Or perhaps not yet. Especially with a worsening economy, ensuring you are in front of potential customers in every way possible is more important than ever. Search is one of the best ways to do this, and the problems I’ve described all involved free listings. Free traffic, free opportunities that were allowed to go to waste. It shouldn’t be like that. In 2008, I shouldn’t see local businesses still acting as if the web and search are as far away from them as they thought in 1998.