Small Business Advantages: Being Responsive

Back in March, Christine Churchill wrote a Small is Beautiful column about the ability of small businesses to be flexible and creative, to think locally and explore niche markets that larger companies wouldn’t enter because they were too large or too slow to change in Survival of the Nimble.

When your company is run by one or by just a handful of people, there are opportunities that may be presented to you that a larger business can’t take advantage of, and on the web, those advantages may be meaningful. Perhaps one of the most important is the ability to be responsive to customers, to changes in a market, and to changes in the way that people talk about the products and services that you provide, or that you could provide.

That responsiveness may show in how you respond to individuals, but it could also influence the content of the pages of your web site, your advertisements online and off, and the terms that you may optimize your pages for on the Web.

The Value of Listening Closely

The Web provides a number of ways to begin conversations with potential consumers of what you may have to offer. Whether your prefer to talk with clients by telephone, email, mail, or through interaction on your web site through things such as a forum or blog, your customers may be one of the best sources of information about changes in your industry and market. The secret in taking advantage of those conversations begins with paying attention to both what someone is saying, and how they are saying it.

The ringing of a phone, or the receipt of an email isn’t just a potential opportunity to start a relationship with a client. It’s also a chance to learn how your business and your market are perceived, how well your website answers questions, and how the terms that people use to refer to your services or goods are changing and evolving over time.

Having a message pad next to the phone is a good business practice. It allows you to collect contact information, take notes about a conversation, and collect a paper trail about your interactions with clients. Developing an intake form that provides some questions and cues on information to be collected for different types of conversations can also be helpful, whether the exchange involves customer service for an existing customer, or a dialogue with a new contact.

But there’s more information that can be collected during that conversation than a phone number, or how a caller found your site. Listen carefully to see what words those customers use to refer to your business and your services. Write down the questions that they ask. Gather that information from emails, from phone calls, from conversations on forums and comments on blogs. Listen for patterns, and new phrases that describe old services. Needs and desires and tasks that customers want to complete evolve over time, and the language used to describe them changes, too.

It can also help to find out where your customers may talk about your market, and the kinds of goods and services you offer on the Web, and get involved in the conversation on forums and blogs outside of your Web site. Don’t focus upon promoting your site or services or products. Listening to what people want, and how they ask for it can be more helpful.

How to be Responsive

If people ask the same questions over and over when contacting you after reading your web site, it’s either time to add that information to the site in a place that’s easy to find, or prepare some standard stock answers to include in your personalized responses to those queries. A combination of both may be ideal, depending upon the content of the questions, and the way you present your responses.

It may be worth investigating to see if those questions, and the words that people use to ask them are common queries on the Web through some of the keyword tools that are available online, such as the search forecasting tools built into Yahoo’s Sponsored Search system. If you’re a small business owner instead of a search marketer, that may not be something that you have explored before. It may be time to take a look. Google also provides an external keyword tool that gives a relative indication of recent search volume for phrases, which you don’t need to sign up for an adwords campaign to use. Wordtracker has a limited free keyword tool (and a more expansive paid tool) that can provide some indication of search volumes for terms.

If you perform your own search engine optimization (SEO) for the pages of your website, or you work with an SEO consultant, it could be worth exploring those terms. Keyword research accompanying an SEO campaign should ideally focus upon optimizing pages for terms that people will search for to find the services that a site has to offer. The terms you may wish to target may change, and paying attention to your customers may be a key to recognizing when to make changes.

Google has a trend analyzer tool in the Google labs section that lets you compare the frequency with which people are searching for different phrases. Unfortunately, the tool will only provide responses for terms that are fairly popular, so it may not be helpful for comparing different phrases. Another tool that lets you know what terms people are talking about within blogs is available through blogpulse. Some phrases are popular in short bursts, while others gain growing acceptance into an everyday conversation about a topic. The bursty phrases may be great terms to use in blog posts, if a business has one accompanying their site, or in paid search marketing. The terms that evolve into common usage may be ideal candidates for organic search optimization.


I referred to Christine’s article about small businesses being nimble, to start this post. Christine notes that small businesses may be able to take advantage of small windows of opportunity where risk adverse larger businesses follow rather than lead into new areas and opportunities. Another advantage of being a small business is in being closer to conversations with customers, where you can listen carefully to what they have to say, and how they say it. Keep listening, and be responsive.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Other | Small Is Beautiful


About The Author: is the Director of Search Marketing for Go Fish Digital and the editor of SEO by the Sea. He has been doing SEO and web promotion since the mid-90s, and was a legal and technical administrator in the highest level trial court in Delaware.

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  • bwb

    Great article, just wrote a short summary about how this applies to the hosting industry, great stuff! Niche marketing is huge in hosting but nobody is really using it to its fullest, they all just try to sell general cheap web hosting and copy the big players.

    thanks, Ben

  • eBizMBA

    Great advice, soon so called ‘niche’ markets will explode because of the wider distribution provided by the web, and in order to take advantage of it you have to build one customer at a time.

  • Miriam

    Such a good article, Bill, and a timely one for me. I’d like to provide a real-world example of exactly what you’re talking about here in one of your above points.

    Response time.

    Apart from running our web design/seo firm, my husband and I launched a fun little side business in April selling a homemade product as a digital download. Response has been stunningly good so far.

    However, one of the payment methods we offer is e-check as this came with the Payloadz program via which we’re running the site. Since the launch, a handful of customers have paid with e-check and have invariably written saying “I paid for my download but nothing arrived yet”.

    I immediately responded to them that e-checks take 4 days to clear and that the download couldn’t be sent out until the check cleared. I only learned this through having it happen, but the customer wasn’t being warned of this in advance, resulting in dissappointment for them.

    So, being a small business owner, I was able to take 3 minutes to write a very clear caution in a visible place on the site saying that if the customer chooses to pay via e-check, there will be this delay.

    This improves the usability of my site in that the customer can reconsider how they’d like to pay if they need the download right away. It’s also an improvement for me as I will hopefully spend less time having to answer emails of this kind.

    If I weren’t a small business owner, I’d have had to have cleared this decision to make a change to my site with my ‘boss’, my ‘manager’ or whoever else is the decision maker. Being small means I make the decisions and I can make ‘em snappy!

    Thanks for this post, Bill.

  • Bill Slawski


    Nice example, Miriam. No committee meetings, no detailed reports; just a quick response that makes it more likely that people will have a better experience with your site.

    As an inhouse SEO/Designer for a couple of small businesses in the past, I was forwarded a lot of emails (at my request) with notes attached pointing out the ways that people referred to things, or questions that they asked, and those resulted in many positive (and quick) changes to the sites involved.


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