In my work with small, local businesses, I often run into entrepreneurs who feel that the web can't be much benefit to them. They advertise in the newspaper, they rely on word-of-mouth, they don't intend to sell online, or sometimes they're uncomfortable with computers generally. These folks are among the 47% of small business owners who do not have a website — a surprising statistic that nevertheless rings true, in my experience.
But the era of getting by without a web presence is now officially over. In the fall of 2007, Nielsen/Netratings conducted a study on behalf of search marketing firm WebVisible that uncovered a sea change in consumer shopping habits: 73% of respondents stated that search engines are their top resource for finding local businesses, while 85% of 18-24 year olds placed search engines in the top spot. The Yellow Pages came in at 65%, and fewer than half look to such stand-bys as newspapers, radio, and direct mail.
These findings indicate that if search engines can't find your business, neither can many consumers, and that means lost sales every single day — potentially lots of lost sales.
Fortunately, gaining access to search engine placement is not difficult and can be done in a very cost-effective manner, even for free. For many businesses, the return on investment for marketing through search engines is so high that other marketing tactics become occasional expenditures or even unnecessary.
If you don't have a website...
If you don't have a website you really need to get one. There are many services that will let you set up your own site for free or for minimal cost. Yahoo! offers a complete website package that you can customize yourself for only $12/mo; Go Daddy offers a similar package for $155.50/yr; and of course, Microsoft Office Live offers a whole suite of tools for free — the trade-off being that you have to see ads on the website's back end while you are setting it up and maintaining it, but who cares? It's free!
If for some reason you just can't bring yourself to set up a website, all is not entirely lost. There are still several good ways to get your business noticed by search engines.
MerchantCircle is a directory designed specifically for local businesses to promote themselves on the internet. The basic listing is free and comes with a dedicated web page and a slew of internet marketing tools.
MerchantCircle's real magic, however, is in its ability to place paid, locally-focused advertising for you on the major search engines and even guarantees clickthrough rates back to your MerchantCircle page. When people in your community search online for what you offer, your business will be at the top of their search results. It is simply the most comprehensive and straightforward web marketing solution available to local businesses, at a fraction the cost and time you might otherwise spend.
The three big search engines — Google, Yahoo!, and Live — all have local search directories, in which business listings are broken down by geographic location and category, and are associated with a mapping function. You can add your business listing to all of these for free.
The great advantage of these local directories is that even if you don't have a website, people can still find you when they conduct a local search. You won't get the same results you would with a properly optimized website, but you won't be completely left in the dust, either.
- Google Local Business Center — FAQ page describing how to add your business to Google Maps so it will show up in the Local Business Center listings
- Live.com — FAQ page with instructions for adding your listing
- Yahoo! Local — FAQ page describing Yahoo! Local, including how to add a listing
Local.com is similar to the local directories of the big search engines, but is dedicated solely to local business listings. You do not need to have a website to list your business at local.com, but again, if you have a properly optimized site you will almost certainly rank higher in the directory. Like MerchantCircle, Local.com listings have their own dedicated pages, and will also place paid listings on its own site as well as in major search engines for you.