There's been a renewed interest in local search for a variety of reasons, but mainly because the overall effects of the tough economy are inspiring many small to medium-sized business owners to turn to the Internet for a boost.
Businesses and organizations need to stretch their advertising dollars and are attracted by digital marketing's accountability. Entrepreneurs who had more customers than they could handle in the past are now scrambling for clients and have more time to devote to diversifying their marketing mix. Owners of even the tiniest businesses are realizing that they are being left behind as their competitors jump online.
What does a local brick-and-mortar or mobile service business really need to know and do to get going online? You probably think you need a Web site first. But depending on your niche, location, and competition, this may not be an immediate necessity. In addition, you may simply not have the money to invest in a Web site right now. One solution is to do what online marketing you can without a Web site, which can have a much bigger impact that you might expect.
Profiles = Mini Web Sites
Many local platforms, including local search powerhouses Google Maps, Bing Local, MerchantCircle, Citysearch, Superpages, and Yahoo Local, allow you to create a local business profile on a page on their sites. Many of the best ones are free, while others charge a monthly fee.
Think of each of these profile pages as a mini Web site about your business. If you create a profile on just 10 different platforms, you'll have 10 mini Web sites in places where prospects are likely to be looking for a business like yours. A collection of these local business profiles on well-ranking Web sites can be very effective in getting your business in front of potential customers.
An informative profile on Google Maps can attract traffic from searchers from both Maps and Google Universal. The same is true for both Yahoo Local and Yahoo, and Bing Local and Bing. The other Web sites mentioned, and many more, tend to rank well in the search results for queries about local goods and services.
These sites may already be showing a profile of your business, using information they've gleaned from other sources. When this is the case, claim those profiles and update and enhance them, which will greatly improve them for both users and the search engines.
Create useful and effective profile pages by providing as much information as you can regarding your hours, areas served, types of payment accepted, experience, certifications, and so on. On the best platforms, you can also upload photos and videos, provide promotions in the form of coupons, and encourage happy customers to leave reviews about your goods and services.
Many other Web sites devoted to providing information about local businesses offer free or paid directory listings without a profile page. These usually allow you to publish your name, address, and phone number within a business category. Some also allow you to post a link. Point these links at your best profile pages, especially at your Google Maps listing, to direct searchers to more detailed information about your enterprise and to help your profiles rank better in the search engines.
The more good directories your business is in, the better chance searchers have of finding you online. In fact, your business may have a better chance of being found through these types of listings than through a brand-new Web site of your own, since new Web sites can't really rank well until they get some age and good links pointing to them.
Local Search Marketing Packages
Other local directories, like Citysearch and many of the Internet yellow pages (IYPs), offer profile pages for a yearly or monthly fee. Sometimes they are packaged with other services, such as preferred placements on their own Web sites and paid advertising across a network of partners.
There are advantages to using marketing packages. They allow you to keep your budget predictable and under control by paying a set fee each month. Your business gets advertising exposure, not only in IYPs, but also in a variety of Web places where prospects may be looking for you, including Google, Yahoo, and Bing. They manage your paid ad campaigns for you so you don't have to do much other than write checks, and most provide you with simple tracking reports that permit you to see where your customers are coming from.
There are a few disadvantages of advertising packages, too. It's usually -- and understandably -- more expensive to run PPC (define) campaigns through them than if you were to manage it yourself. However, if you don't have the time or expertise to do it yourself, it's a reasonable option. Packages are typically a one-size-fits-all product that isn't tailored to any niche or location, so it may or may not work well for your particular type of business or in your geographic market. You can only determine that by trying it out, so don't get trapped into a long-term contract until you do.
By taking advantage of these opportunities, which can be done one at a time, as your time and budget permit, you can build a decent presence across the Internet without a Web site. Here's a list of places to help you get started in local search. And here are some local search resources that may help you understand it better.
If you decide to get your own Web site at a later time, the work you put into getting listed on these local platforms won't go to waste. Your listings can remain in place, becoming more powerful as the Web sites themselves become more powerful and continuing to help you to attract customers to your local business.
This column was originally published Sept. 10, 2009.
Mary Bowling has been involved in all aspects of online marketing since 2003. She has a special interest in Web site usability and in search engine optimization, including optimizing all types of media for search engines. Mary has also developed specialized expertise in promoting brick-and-mortar businesses on the Internet through local search marketing. She is currently doing independent consulting and working with seOverflow and Maia Internet Consulting in Denver, CO, optimizing and marketing a wide variety of businesses and nonprofits online.
Her accomplishments include speaking at Search Marketing Expo and Search Engine Strategies conferences on a variety of topics, conducting trainings and webinars for Search Engine Strategies and Search Engine Workshops, authoring popular white papers on local search and SEO for WordPress Blogs and speaking at SEMpx' s Searchfest.
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