How Can My Business Get Customers Online?A professional website is a great first step to developing an online presence for your local business, but where do you go from there? How do you go about getting customers online? Do you need to pay for advertising? What about social media? What’s search engine optimization and do you need it? These are just some of the questions business owners struggle with when getting started in online marketing. Here are some answers.

Build Your Online Presence

A website is a great first step, but it’s just that, your first step. “If you build it, they will come” doesn’t work on the Internet. In order to get good page rankings on search engines – which will, in turn, bring more traffic to your site – you need to work on search engine optimization and local search engine optimization.

Search Engine Optimization vs. Local SEO

Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is the process of making your site friendly to search engines like Google, and using various techniques to convince the search engines that your site is relevant and important.

When it comes to SEO, you can hire an SEO specialist whom you hope is up to date on the latest shortcuts to fast-track your site to the front of the line, or you can stick to tried and true techniques to earn your way to a good page ranking. The problem with SEO shortcuts is that Google and other search engines are constantly updating their algorithms to circumvent them, and what worked in the past may actually get you penalized today or tomorrow.

Local SEO is probably even more important to your business. As a local enterprise, you’re probably not so much looking to get worldwide or even nationwide traffic to your site as much as local traffic, so you’ll want to focus your efforts on SEO techniques that will get you found on local searches, like when someone types in your service or product description in conjunction with a city or county name. Local SEO depends heavily on local directories like  Google+, Facebook, Yelp as well as Yahoo Local, Bing Local, Mapquest, Yellow Pages, and Foursquare.

Research All Possible Keywords

Keywords are terms or phrases that a customer might type in to search for your business. When selecting keywords, it’s important to find ones that differentiate your product or service. Focus on what someone might type in when searching for precisely what you offer. If you own a hair salon for instance, keywords like “hair salon,” “haircuts” and “hair stylists” are way too general to do you much good. If you Google the term hair salon, for instance, you’ll get back over 9 million results.

If you specialize in discount haircuts, you’ll find the keywords “cheap hair salons” produce just under 3 million results. If you offer men’s services, you’ll find that “barber shops” produces just 1.5 million results – versus “men’s hair salons,” which yields 6.9 million.

Whether you use one of the many high-tech keyword research tools available online or simply experiment by typing various keywords into Google, the point is to research all the various keywords you could use to describe your product or service, by themselves and in conjunction with the name of your city or county, and focus your SEO efforts on the ones that yield the lowest number of returns. Those are the keywords that will help you get better ranking, in both general and local searches.

What to do with Keywords

Now that you’ve selected a half dozen keyword terms or phrases, what do you with them? These will be used throughout your website, both in page names and descriptions and all of your site’s metadata, as well as in the general content itself. The more places that your keywords occur in your site, the better your ranking when someone types those keywords into a search engine – to a point.

Don’t fall into the trap of “keyword stuffing,” over-using your keywords in your website content. If it doesn’t sound natural or it’s used too often, it will make your phrasing sound awkward and drive your customers away. Keyword stuffing is also one of the practices frowned upon by search engines, and could even get you penalized at some point. The best way to add more keywords to your site is by adding more informative, relevant content. Add more pages, add a blog, add customer comment pages, product description pages, anything that will make your site more interesting and informative. It’s a win-win.

Build Links and Citations

A link is created whenever another site mentions your site and provides a link to it, and a citation is whenever a site mentions your business name, address and phone number, or NAP. Many SEO specialists still make a practice of building links by listing a business on a wide number of online directories, many of which may not be relevant. This is another of those shortcut techniques which Google is cracking down on, and could actually get your site penalized. The best practice is to start with the best known local directories, such as Yelp, Yahoo Local, Bing Local, and Google+, and then go from there. Find reputable directories that are relevant to your business and don’t require you to provide a corresponding backlink on your website.

Another method of link-building is to submit guest blogs to other websites, if you’re an adept writer, and include a link back to your site. Just be sure the material and the blog site is relevant to your local business, and don’t overdo it. Google is rumored to be cracking down on “spammy” blog posts.

Citations can be created by hosting local events, which can be anything from a big sale or promotion to a charity athletic event or educational session. Anytime you host any kind of an event at your local business, make sure to submit the details to all of the online local calendars and news media, and each one will give you a NAP citation, which will help boost your rankings in local search engines.

What About Social Media?

The next thing after your professional website and blog –and claiming your local directory pages – should be your social media pages. Consider offering your customers a one-time discount if they provide their email address and check off which social media sites they use on a quickie questionnaire. That way you can start building an email list for newsletters and promotions, and get an idea of which sites are best for your business at the same time.

Social media is a powerful tool for interacting with your customers, but it requires frequent attention and a dedicated, long-term commitment, so choose your sites wisely to get the most reward for your time. Considering how much you could spend on advertising, it is time well spent!

Speaking of Advertising

As a local company, you likely don’t have a big advertising budget. That’s why it’s so important to leverage all of the free and inexpensive resources that are available, such as social media, local online directories, and review sites, among others. Once you have made the most of all the different possibilities, you’ll find there are many different options for your business when it comes to paid advertising, and they don’t have to cost a proverbial arm and a leg!