People are looking for you, are you being found?

It’s obvious that as technology grows, we need to either embrace it or get out of the way. In several recent conversations I’ve had with industry leaders and business owners I’ve been surprised at the amount of buzz and focus there’s been on website visibility and online social marketing. More and more people in our industry – even down to the one and two truck businesses – are becoming aware of the need for an online presence and realizing the effectiveness of online networking through social media. I wanted to take this opportunity to go through an online visibility primer and hopefully shed some light on search engine optimization (SEO), social marketing, this Twitter thing (and a few others) and how the whole ball of wax can affect your bottom line.

First things first, get a website

It’s been said more times than I care to count, “The Internet is the new phone book.” People are looking for you, are you being found? If you don’t have a website for your Michigan-based HVAC business, people searching online for “Detroit heater repair” will never know you exist. In today’s instant information age, it’s more important than ever to have an online storefront. Let’s take this scenario: It’s February and Suzy Homemaker just put the kids down for a nap. The house is starting to get a little more chilly than normal so she goes to adjust the thermostat. Twenty minutes later she’s shivering. She picks up the phone to call hubby at work to tell him how cold it is in the house. He clicks over to Google and searches for “Detroit heater repair.” Does he find you? If the answer is “No,” how can you ever expect to get that job? If he did find your site but passed over you because of a outdated looking site or lackluster information, he still may as well not have found you. Either way, you need a site and need it optimized for both search engines and humans alike.

Work with a developer who has knowledge of your industry. There are quite a few industry specific offerings available. Be sure to do a portfolio review before signing any agreements to make sure the developer has a design style that suits your needs.

Next, get listed.

The first priority with most new service-related businesses is getting an ad in the local phone book; think of the first step to your online success as getting your business listed with an online phone book. Just like with their printed counterpart, the basic business listings are free, but if you’d like to add a few bells and whistles to your listing in hopes of pumping up your reach and ROI there are a few pay services that promise more traffic and better conversions. Start with Google Business Listing (www.google.com/local/add). To do this you’ll first need to set up an account with Google, but that’s easy and free (and you’ll find you’ll be using it a great deal down the road in your online marketing campaign). With your Google Business Listing, you can also incentive customers for their business by using coupons in your business listing.

Once you’ve built your website and set up your business in Google, check the other major search engines for similar business directories, currently the top five search engines are Google, Yahoo!, Ask, MSN and (gasp) AOL. All have similar offerings for businesses but for this article, I’m going to focus on Google because, in my opinion, they have the most comprehensive options and are the most user-friendly. From there, expand your listing to smaller, more locally focused options like your local Superpages listing (www.superpages.com)

Metatags: The keys to your online success

When you’re working with this industry-knowledgeable web developer professional make sure he’s including metatags on each and every page for your site. If he’s unsure what you’re talking about, run. Metatags are the descriptions, keywords and key phrases that work behind the scenes of your website to let search engines know what your pages are about. For instance, if you wanted Google to know that your business offers plumbing and HVAC services to the Nashville, TN area, you may have a metatag description something like “Plumbing and HVAC contractors for new construction, installation and residential repair serving the Nashville Tennessee and surrounding areas. Flat rate pricing for all jobs and technician guaranteed to be on site within one hour.” The idea with your metatag description is to give a brief elevator speech about your company, but also use some of the key words you want to be targeted for (plumbing, Nashville, installation, etc.). So if your site came up in as a result you’d see a link to your site at the top of your listing followed by your description. Generally, you want to keep this description around 80-100 words. Many search engines use this description in their search results.

Keywords or Key phrases should be your next metatag project. Keywords help to further drill down the relevancy of your site to a user’s searches. Include unique keywords for each page and make sure they are relevant to the content on the page. If you want a certain page in your site to be listed when a user searches for “new construction plumbing contractors,” make sure those keywords are in your tags and on your page! Keywords are separated by a comma, key phrases are a group of keywords separated by a comma. Keywords are a good starting point identifying what the content of your page is about, but a well laid out key phrase may help bring more qualified traffic to your site. For instance, the keyword “contractor” is extremely broad and probably in use by hundreds of thousands of competing sites. However, if you drill it down a little more by including the key phrase “Atlanta Georgia flat rate plumbing contractor,” you’re likely to see much more targeted results. It’s generally a good rule of thumb to include seven to 15 keywords and key phrases per page.

Content

The Internet is content-driven, meaning that people are actively searching for specific content and they are returned the most relevant results search engines can find for their inquiries. It’s up to you to provide the most relevant content about your business as it would relate to your prospects and customers. Posting an article to your website on what you ate for lunch won’t help at all when it comes to finding prospects looking for someone who can install a water main. It may make for an interesting post and help people choose where to go for a good hoagie, but other than that – there’s no real benefit. Use a section of your site to frequently post relevant industry-related news, press releases about your company, tips for consumers, etc. This helps establish you as an industry expert, increases your keyword density (the number of times a desired search term appears on your page), and gives your current customer base a reason to come back to your site.

All the world’s a-twitter

I’ve been involved in many conversations recently that have revolved around the question “what can online social media do for my business?” Tons. As your business’ leader, the more you can use online tools like Facebook (www.facebook.com), Squidoo (www.squidoo.com), Digg (www.digg.com), Twitter (www.twitter.com), etc. the more people will know your business exists. Think of these outlets as an online version of your local “business after hours.” This is your opportunity to meet other business owners, form alliances, seek out prospects, promote your company and hopefully earn more business –all
in a casual, low pressure setting. The key to using these networking tools effectively (as Randall Hilton – www.plumb-biz.com pointed out in a recent conversation on Service Roundtable’s discussion board www.serviceroundtable.com) is to make sure you’re a “contributor” and not just a “promoter.” As Randall states:

“Social sites are driven by the users. If they find you, it’s because they’re hunting for you. If you hunt them down and pitch your services to them, don’t come crying to me because you got the door slammed in your face, accusing you of spamming. Think about it: When at the Labor Day cookout do you find yourself gravitating towards the guy who is always trying to sell you a pre-paid legal plan?”

Probably not. Instead, you’re more likely to hang out with people who share similar interests or who have helped you out somehow along the way. The same can generally be said for everyone else in your online social networks. Make sure you’re providing something valuable to the community and individuals will remember you when the time comes that they need your services.

Paid ads

So now we’ve got our business listed in the online phone books, our pages are search engine optimized, our site is packed full of current and valuable content and you have 3,492 fans on your Facebook page. We should see a new flood of incoming customers, right? Well, maybe not yet, but we’re on the right track. The next step you’ll need to take is to search out local “online phonebooks” to see what other offerings are out there for you. You can start with a simple Google search like “Dallas, TX plumber business listing” and see what pops up for you. You’ll find there are many, many online services available for businesses like www.findaplumber.com which you can register you business and for a fee, they’ll send you hot leads, usually broken down by ZIP codes that you offer your services to.

Once you’ve figured out what lead generation services you’d like to work with and you’re starting to see some real income coming in from your online presence it’s time to start considering a pay-per-click (PPC) campaign. Again, all major search engines offer some type of PPC service and it’s up to you to decide which ones you want to try. Let’s look at Google’s AdWords (www.google.com/adwords). With AdWords, you set a daily spending budget, build your ads, assign the keywords for which you want your ad to display and then bid on each keyword. The idea is that as long as you haven’t exceeded your daily spending budget for a campaign, your ads will be displayed for the keywords you’ve assigned when a user searches for that word.

Where your ads display is another story entirely. As you set your bidding for each keyword, you may notice Google giving you a notice that your bid is too low to ensure front page placement. This means that with your current bid, your ad could be buried on page 2, 3 or 500 of all the ads competing for that keyword, never to see the light of day or be clicked. While this means that your ad isn’t necessarily costing you any money, it’s also not bringing any traffic in to your site. The solution to this is to either raise your bid for that keyword, or find a better keyword or key phrase to target. This is a similar discussion to metatags. “Plumber” may be a keyword that is entirely too broad, too many competitors are using the keyword and the bid prices are out of your budget, however, “Seattle plumbing contractor” may have fewer competing ads and a lower front page bid. Using a better key phrase like this will also help ensure your ad is displayed to more targeted crowd which will in turn help improve your click-through and conversion rates.

Know your visitors

Now that you’ve improved traffic to your site, both in quantity and quality, you need to make sure you’re using some method of tracking your visitors. Google provides a great analytics tools for doing just that. Google Analytics (www.google.com/analytics) can easily be installed on your site and in a matter of a few minutes tell you worlds of information about who is using your site, what other sites out there are linking to your site, what the most popular pages of your site are, where you lose the most visitors and tons of other site metrics.

In keeping with the “You can’t manage what you don’t measure” mindset, knowing how changes to your site affect its performance is vital to effectively gauging your online marketing. Is the newsletter or press release section of your site having the biggest draw? What can you do to further beef up that section or encourage visitors there to visit other parts of your site? Do most of your visitors leave your site after they’ve reached the About Us section? How can you improve that page to keep their interest and turn that into an email or call? What other sites link back to you? In general, a site with tons of backlinks is considered more important and relevant to search engines and will be listed in search results before those without (which is why it’s important to place links back to your site in all of your online business listings and social media bios)!

Know who’s talking about you

Google has recently unveiled a new tool called Google Alerts (www.google.com/alerts – told you that free Google account would be getting plenty of use). You can sign up for email alerts for specific keywords and any time Google comes across new content that contains those keywords, they’ll send you an email and a link back to the page for your review. This is a great way to keep on top of what’s going on in your industry, what your competitors are up to or just to keep dibs on what people are saying about your business.

This rounds my primer on SEO, online social media and how it can be put to use for your business – but in no way does this do more than scrape the tip of the iceberg when it comes to increasing online visibility or how to harness the potential of the Internet for your business!

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