As a small business owner, you’ve always had to know a bit about everything.
It’s time to add online marketing.
The goal of this article is that when you finish reading, you’ll have enough knowledge to read more in-depth guides (or talk to a salesperson) without ending up lost.
There’s a lot of information here, so grab a coffee or a sandwich, and dive in.
The guide will eventually include more advanced discussions of each topic. I’ll be adding links within it as more in-depth articles are posted. You might want to bookmark this page, or keep up via RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or email.
Table of Contents
- The Business Website
- Directories/Yellow Pages/Maps/Review Sites
- Organic Search
- Paid Advertising
- Social Media
- Daily Deal Sites
- Analytics + Testing
The Business Website
Hopefully you have a website already. If not, it’s the second thing I would do (after claiming my Google, Yahoo, and Bing local listings). Creating a website does not have to be hard or expensive.
Things to Keep in Mind
- Think clean, professional, easy to use
- Make it easy to get in touch – contact form, phone number, physical address, map
- Make it real – real pictures, a good “about” page, employee profiles perhaps?
- The text matters. Make sure it is written or edited by someone that understands your business.
Who and How?
Since this was written, I started providing business websites through Small Business Shift. The goal is to provide a balance between do-it-yourself website builders and hiring a web designer. I provide a business website builder, along with help setting the site up, for a price that’s competitive with DIY services. Check it out my service here, or continue reading for the rest of my advice on websites:
If you’re a very small business, and fairly web-savvy, you can consider doing it yourself. A couple places I would recommend checking out include Yola and Page.ly. Both of these provide online website builders that allow you to build a site.
For larger companies, the DIY route will reflect poorly, unless you have some very talented employees. My experience is that businesses get the best service by working with a company that is local to them. You may also be able to find a place that will provide marketing services in addition to website setup. One place to start looking is the Sortfolio.
If you choose to hire someone, check out their portfolio. Tell them it’s important that you show up in the search engines, and discuss your goals (looking to drive leads? convince people to try your restaurant?) You care about business results – not technology, or design for it’s own sake – and your web designer should as well.
Be sure to get quotes for the initial setup, and find out what ongoing charges there will be. Finally, consider how updates will be made. Both of my recommendations for building your own site make updates easy, via an email-like interface. Can your designer provide a similar system? (some will even just setup a site on Page.ly for you). Or what will it cost when changes need to be made? Consider your technical abilities. Perhaps you need the designer to make all updates.
A business blog is something recommended by many people online. This is a regularly updated section of your site, which might contain company news (some businesses even call it “news” instead of “blog”), your thoughts on the industry, suggestions for customers, or whatever else you would like.
The main arguments for blogging include:
- Provides regular content for the search engines
- Allows potential customers to get a better feel for you company’s personality
- Allows you to brand yourself as an industry thought leader
- Provides an avenue for gaining links and popularity on social sites
- Keeps your website from becoming too stale
The biggest problem with a blog is that it requires regular content. I would discourage a blog if you cannot post at least monthly, and gaining maximum value will require significantly higher frequency. You will also need an easy way to update your site (most website management platforms will include a blogging tool). It can, however, be very worthwhile – so if you’ve got something to say, or can at least regularly post company news, give it some thought. One great suggestion is to create a list of 20-50 possible topics, to assure yourself that ideas will not be a problem.
Directories/Yellow Pages/Maps/Review Sites
Google Places, Bing Local, and Yahoo Local
All three of the major search engines have local/mapping services that allow you to create a free business listing. These can provide significant exposure, and should be an absolute priority for any business. You can sign up for them at:
A few things to keep in mind:
- They will let you fill out your information, and then will confirm this either with a phone call or postcard (both with a code that you must type into the website). It is not hard, you can do it yourself.
- Include as much information as you can. This includes pictures, operating hours, etc.
- Categories are important! Look through the labels and use all of those that best fit your business.
- Use keywords, but do not be spammy. For instance, if your business name is Golden Dragon, you can probably get away with Golden Dragon Chinese, knowing that many consumers will simply search for “chinese.” Similar rules apply to the description – but if you go to wild, your listing can be penalized.
Online Yellow Pages, Directories, and Review Sites
I’m lumping online yellow pages together with local directories and review sites, such as Yelp, because they increasingly mirror each other’s functionality. All of these websites seek to provide contact information for local businesses, and most of them also look to gather customer reviews. These reviews can show up on their own sites, and are also syndicated out to other places, such as the search engines’ local listings.
Large volumes of reviews, and consistent information in all these directories play a part in helping your company show up in the search engines. Additionally good/bad reviews on prominent sites can play a big role in customer purchase decisions. This leads to two important conclusions: you need to get listed everywhere you can, and should manage reviews as well as possible.
Many of the listings are similar to signing up for the search engines’ local sites. Some places I would suggest registering include:
- Best of the Web Local
- Merchant Circle
- Angie’s List
- Judy’s Book
I know it’s a lot – either block out a few hours or plan on a couple a day. For even more sites, read my article on getting your business listed. Most of these have free listings, which you should definitely get. Many offer paid upgrades – the value of these will depend on your industry and location, among other factors – which we’ll discuss under online yellow pages.
The term “managing” reviews could be a bit dangerous, because all of these review site are very sensitive to concerns regarding manipulation of reviews. Some ideas that should be permissible include:
- If something is abusive or slanderous you may be able to get it removed, contact the site.
- In general, you will just have to offer your side of the story. Do not argue. Polite, levelheaded responses sound best.
- If you have mostly good reviews, don’t get too worried. A few bad reviews help people believe that they are not fake. As long as they are mostly positive, it will be clear that you are satisfying most customers (so long as the complaints are not egregious – bedbugs at a hotel are a good example where a single report can be pretty bad).
- Encourage happy customers to review you. When someone calls to express gratitude regarding great service, consider something along the lines of, “Thanks so much for the kind words. If at all possible, we particularly appreciate public reviews at Google Maps (or whatever site you prefer).” One of the top ways to increase review numbers is to automatically follow up via email.
- Be careful with incentives and fraud. Providing discounts or prizes to reviewers is highly frowned upon by the review sites, and these may be removed. Fake reviews fall afoul too, and are probably illegal to boot. Despite these facts, the reality is that fake reviews exist.
For a more thorough look at reviews, read my article on getting customers to review your business.
Types of Results
In recent years the search results pages have become more complicated. On a typical search for a local service, Google’s will look something like this (search is for denver, co moving company):
I have added the colored boxes. On your computer, you would not see 3 maps on the right-side – this is just because the map scrolls with your screen.
- Red = Sponsored results. These companies have directly paid Google to appear. The will usually appear on the right hand side, and will sometimes appear a the top (generally on very commercially oriented searches, such as this one)
- Green = Local results. When these types of results appear, the map will also show up on the top-right side. They appear in a variety of formats. Here there are larger listings – you can also get more compact listings, or local results scattered/blended with the next section. Google continues to experiment, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this area continue to change.
- Blue = Google’s normal organic results. This is the traditional, non-paid section. They continue on for many pages, although the vast majority of searches will choose a result on the first page. As I mentioned above, they are increasingly combined with the local results on searches that may be location-oriented.
In addition to the areas highlighted here, Google may also return a variety of special sections, such as video results, or Twitter updates. It’s something Google (and the other search engines) are continually experimenting with.
A quick note: I’m talking more about Google than Bing or Yahoo. In general, Google receives well over 50% of all search queries. There are differences between the search engines, but for this basic guide, getting an understanding of how Google works will provide a rough idea as to how the others operate.
Search Engine Optimization
Search engine optimization, or SEO, is the practice of working to make a website show up higher in the search engine results pages. This is a complicated subject, so I’m just going to list some of the basic ideas you should be aware of.
- Search engines determine what to show largely by looking for relevant pages. They then adjust these rankings based on the perceived importance of each page.
- Relevant pages are found by looking at factors such as the text on the page, the headlines and titles, and the text used when linking to the page.
- Importance is also determined by a variety of factors, with the traditional key being the number of links to the page, and the quality of websites that choose to link.
Based on these facts, SEO for smaller websites can be roughly be divided into four areas:
- Keyword Research – What do people looking to buy your service type into the search engines? This is a surprisingly complex question, as people search in many different ways.
- Technical Issues – A variety of technical mistakes can make it hard for the search engines to read your website. A good web designer should be able to avoid these problems, but that’s not always the case. Ask them about SEO to see if it’s something they pay attention to.
- On-Page Optimization – Once technical issues are covered, this will be primarily concerned with creating content that effectively targets the keywords you are looking at.
- Off-Page Optimization – This is looking at factors, primarily links, that do not reside on your site, but affect your rankings.
As the search engines have increasingly placed their local listings at prominent places in the search results (and more people use their mapping sites), local rankings have become more important. The local rankings are similar to the main results, in that the search engines are looking to find relevant sites and then adjust the rankings based on importance. The factors they look at include:
- Consistency of Information – Does your website text, and the address/phone number listed, match the category and location information listed on their local listing, and on any directories in which they find your business? This is where all those local directories, and having the same information in each, becomes important.
- Number of Citations – Every time your business name is listed somewhere on the web, along with its physical address, this counts as a citation. It functions similar to a link in the normal results, as more citations should indicate you run a more prominent business (in their theory, at least).
- Number of Reviews – Reviews also indicate the prominence of your business. The positivity of the reviews probably plays a role as well, but volume is important.
- Location of Business – The nearness of your business to the location being searched is important. This can be an issue for companies that serve a large metro and are out in the suburbs, although it appears that search engines are beginning to adjust for this if you are in an industry that tends to serve a large radius. Google Places lets you specify a “service area” in addition to your location – definitely fill this out if you serve a significant radius.
Much like in the physical world, there are plenty of places to spend money advertising online. In general, these opportunities will make sense for you if you have a significant offline marketing budget.
Online Yellow Pages
In our earlier discussion about online yellow pages/directories, I mentioned that many of those sites have paid options (and if you registered for them you probably noticed that many almost try to trick you into paying). Paid listings generally make your business appear higher on the page, and possibly more prominently through bolding, highlighting, etc. They also may provide a link back to your website, which could be useful for SEO.
One way to help decide if these services are worthwhile is to look at the number of visitors a given directory is sending to your site (I’ll discuss how to do this in the analytics section). If one of the sites sends some traffic, despite your listing being placed far down on the page, this may be a good indication that the site’s paid option would be worthwhile.
Paid Search Marketing
Paid search marketing gives your website the opportunity to show up in the red boxes highlighted in my earlier image. This generally works by allowing you to choose keywords for which your site should appear. You then write ads, and set a bid. Your ad is triggered when someone searches for the keyword you picked, and the ads are ranked based on a quality score combined with the bid amount.
Search marketing is definitely something you can learn, but takes some education and is also a good choice for finding an experienced agency (although you will most likely need a somewhat substantial budget to make this worthwhile). Whoever is running the campaign, a few things to think about include:
- If you do it yourself, be careful! Set a maximum daily spend at a low amount in case you make a mistake when getting started.
- Geographic targeting is available. It’s not 100% accurate, but does allow local businesses to use paid search.
- You have to track what is working. Some keywords work dramatically better than others.
- When starting out, be careful with broad match – it can make your ads show when they really shouldn’t.
- Always be improving your ads. The systems make it easy to test them, and this will lower your costs.
- If someone else is running your campaign, have a policy for your brand. You probably rank first organically for your company name. It can still be worthwhile bidding on this, but if you’re paying on a per-lead or call basis, the rate should be much lower.
- Google in particular has special features for local businesses, such as allowing your address to appear. These can help your campaign substantially.
As you can see, this is another complicated area. To get some information direct from the source, visit Google Adwords or Microsoft AdCenter (Bing). I’m leaving Yahoo out here, because its search marketing platform is being closed down in favor of Bing.
In addition to regular paid search advertising, Google is now offering an easier option for local businesses. It is called Google Boost, and is accessed through the Google Places control panel. For companies with a smaller budget, it can be a good option. Read my guide to Google Boost for more.
Display advertising is a broad term, referring to placing advertisements on pretty much any website that accepts ads. I’m going to write specifically about four ways in which small businesses can more easily approach this.
Just like search marketing, please don’t forget to set a daily budget before you start.
- Direct – If there is a website that reaches a local audience with which your business would like to connect, consider contacting them directly. A local newspaper is a good example of a site such as this. If you’re dealing with a savvy site this is usually a fairly expensive way to go, but comfortably similar to advertising in the physical newspaper.
- Facebook Advertising – This site has a tremendous reach (not just kids). You can target by geography, and then refine by a wide variety of demographic/psychographic criteria. A bonus is that the ads use just a small picture along with text, so there’s not much graphic design required. You can read my popular small business guide to Facebook Ads for more details.
- LinkedIn DirectAds – Primarily useful for those targeting a professional audience, LinkedIn offers a platform similar to Facebook’s.
- Google Content Network – This is part of the same platform used for Google search marketing ads. It allows you to place ads on a massive number of sites, and target by geographic location. The whole thing is much more complicated than Facebook or LinkedIn, but can greatly expand your reach. Sites are targeted either by picking them individually or via keywords. Additionally, you can target users which have previously visited your website (remarketing).
Social media gets a lot of buzz, but is often poorly understood. These websites can be very powerful when businesses use them to connect with clients and potential customers, strengthening that relationship and breaking down some of the barriers between a company and the world. They can also spread negative experiences and news like wildfire.
The key with all of these is going to be to engage and be real. No one wants to hear a bunch of corporate-speak from a company they liked on Facebook. We’ve already discussed the some paid advertising available on the social networks – this section is going to be all about the ways you can participate without charge.
The giant of social media today, Facebook has substantially more than 100 million unique people in the US visit it every month. That’s over 1/3 of the total population. The ad platform suggests you can reach about 50 million Americans over the age of 35.
The primary option for businesses on Facebook is to create a “page.” These pages can have a wide variety of content including pictures, information, places for discussion, listings of events and reviews, and more. People can “like” your page, which will then cause them to show up as liking your company, and will allow company updates to appear on their homepage. In addition to pages, Facebook now offers local companies to participate in “places.” You can check out my article on this newer option.
Facebook can be a good choice for businesses. It’s a great way to keep people interested in your company informed as to what is going on. If a potential customer runs across your page, seeing that one of their friends “likes” your company is quite the sales pitch. Also, the complete “page” is almost like a full website, and can rank in the search engines, helping increase your visibility.
The downsides to Facebook pages include that you really need to update it regularly or the page will begin to feel deserted. Also, it can be hard for some types of companies to get fans. This can get a kick start by publicizing your page to employees, but may require some creative thinking to make everyone else want to join.
Twitter in some ways is much simpler to get started on than Facebook. Just create a username, and off you go. The service allows you to send 140 character messages, which are visible for anyone to see. People who are interested in you become “followers.”
Twitter is another good way to connect with customers. Much like a blog, Twitter can be effective for showcasing your company’s personality or displaying your expertise. There has been so much buzz around Twitter, all you need to do is search for something like business uses of Twitter and you’ll find an overwhelming number of articles.
Despite its uses, Twitter is not a perfect business tool. It’s easy to languish without any followers, and Twitter needs updates even more than a Facebook account. Additionally, the service has substantially fewer users than Facebook, so there will be a smaller pool to connect with. Whether this is a good service will be largely dependent on your customer base, the type of business you run, and your ability to make time for the account.
LinkedIn is different from Twitter and Facebook, in that much of the business use will occur through your personal page. You can setup a company on LinkedIn, but it mostly just serves as a group to aggregate employees and show company information.
The real use for LinkedIn is professional networking, and if you provide professional services, or need to connect with executives in an organization, this could be a valuable place to participate. With LinkedIn, you build connections with people that you know. It then allows you to search their connections, giving you an opportunity to request an introduction to someone you would like to meet.
LinkedIn will not be extremely valuable for consumer-oriented companies. Also, you need to be careful that you do not abuse the system – if you wouldn’t ask for an introduction in the physical world, it’s probably a good idea to avoid it on the site as well. Despite this, it can be a valuable resource, particularly for those in referral-based businesses.
There are a host of other social media sites. One of note is YouTube, which will provide free hosting and exposure for your company videos. Others provide ways to share news stories, interesting websites, pictures, or connect with people interested in a particular niche. Some of these can have value for business, but they’re too numerous to cover here.
I’ve placed email under the social media category, as I think that the best approach to email resembles that of social networks, and it shares some of the characteristics (people subscribing, and being able to share your content) common to the social sites.
Email is consistently referred to as a very high ROI marketing venue. This isn’t surprising, as it is very inexpensive, and you are marketing directly to people interested in your business. Some thoughts on email:
- Don’t spam. Follow the anti-spam rules, but go much farther, by only emailing those who have truly expressed interest, and attempting to always send emails they will want to read.
- If you have a list with any reasonable number of subscribers, use a service provider to send the emails. Mailchimp is a favorite of mine (it looks silly, but is a serious tool).
- Almost any business can benefit from building an email list. Do you have excited customers that would like company news? Regular customers that would love a sale/coupon? Clients that would appreciate your insights?
- Email can also serve to tie together social media and your website. Include links to your social profiles, and back to your website, so that your best customers can engage in other venues.
Many companies dislike the idea of email because they hate spam. Creative thinking, however, can usually find an email marketing strategy that provides value to your customers, keeping your business in the front of their mind.
Daily Deal Sites
Daily deals have been very quickly made popular by Groupon and its competitors. They involve providing some form of one-day discount or special. This promotion is distributed to a group of local consumers, and they are encouraged to share the deal – usually by only making the deal active after a certain number of people have bought in. These deals can bring in a tremendous amount of customers, although companies seem to have mixed feelings about the results.
I have a couple articles about using daily deals. You can read my detailed look at how to make a Groupon deal successful, and a comparison of Groupon, Living Social, Facebook Deals, and Google Offers.
Analytics & Testing
Almost everything that happens on your website can be tracked. This means you can gauge how effective your website is, along with the effectiveness of advertising that sends visitors to your site. We’re getting into more advanced topics, but this is really important if you’re spending serious money online (and can be fun/useful to look at even if you’re not).
There are two tracking solutions I highly recommend.
Google Analytics is a free, robust tool used by many very large companies. You share all your data with Google, but for most small companies this shouldn’t be a large downside.
Clicky is another analytics program, costing just a few dollars a month. It updates in real-time, so you can see the actions your site visitors are taking as it happens (while Google’s service takes a few hours), and it provides more detailed individual user data (Google aggregates all information you see). It’s hard to compete with free, but Clicky is also a good choice.
There are also many much more expensive analytics services. In general, these programs are hard to justify for small businesses when such good low-cost options are available, unless you have a special need they cannot satisfy.
Once you collecting analytics data, you’ll soon see the real work is in the analysis. Wait a few weeks or months, and allow the data to accumulate. There are thousands of ways to slice and dice this, but a few things you might want to look at include:
- Where do my site visitors come from? And what do those visitors do on my site? – This can be invaluable for determining which advertising venues are paying off, and which just send a bunch of visitors that quickly “bounce” (immediately leave) from your website.
- Are there any problems on my site? – Sometimes a particular page just really turns people off, or they get lost. Look to see if certain pages have too many exits, or a particularly high bounce rate, and consider making changes.
- What’s the trend? Are there sudden changes? – You can look to see if you are gaining visitors, and watch to see if anything suddenly changes. Maybe you dropped out of a search engine, or your website is going down during the day? Periodically checking the stats can help inform you if anything has changed.
If you have a significant quantity of visitors coming to your site, you can begin to run tests, pitting one version of a page against another and determining which works best. Once again, Google provides a free tool, Google Website Optimizer. Using this might require a bit of technical help, but it can pay off many times over. It’s not unusual for companies to see tremendous increases in conversion rates as they test new versions of their key pages.
Split-testing you website is going to be easiest when you have a clear conversion on your site – ie, the visitor submits a lead form, or makes a purchase. This allows you to track automatically through to the conversion, and the system can tell you which version of your page is working the best. Once again, this is a complex topic, but it is something to keep in mind as your online efforts grow.
Thanks for reading. I hope you feel more informed, and better able to discuss online marketing with people in your company or salespeople on the outside. If you need additional help, please browse this blog. I also provide help in the forum, and offer consulting services.
If you have questions, comments, or suggestions, please leave them below.
And I’d love it if you’d share this with your colleagues.