Local business owners harness online power

by Daniel Crivello – Correspondent Daily Herald
Published Sunday, August 21, 2011

HIGHLIGHTS

Studies show 80 percent of consumers search online before making a purchase within a 10- to 20-mile radius.

If Google is the new Yellow Pages, then Gaede finds himself among a growing number of local business owners who have to wrangle with tech-savvy competition to achieve virtual visibility. Companies that can wield the largest resources to game the Google system — perfecting the art of search engine optimization, or SEO — earn the Internet’s most valuable real estate, Google’s first page. They can eclipse even those that are more locally relevant to customers.

It’s not a certain formula, but a using combination of techniques definitely helps one’s Google prominence. And maintaining that effort regularly costs money.

In the pre-digital age, naming your company with a letter combination like AA1 was all that was necessary to guarantee the top spot in local print listings.

Today, when few people even click beyond the first page online, small businesses that have not optimized their websites for Google have a much smaller chance to be found. In a recent study that included 8.9 million queries sampled over nine months, business sites received 95 percent of search traffic from page-one results, a sign that consumers favor websites with high ranking.

Rod Martin, an American Fork auto repair shop owner with nine employees, says he spends more than $6,000 a year on SEO and online marketing, illustrating the pressures today’s small companies face to stay relevant.

He stopped advertising in the Yellow Pages. “Yellow Pages is pretty much dead,” he said. Half his customers find him via Google.

“To be No. 1, your website needs word tags, blogs, keywords, changing content, having relevant content, linking to other sites and other sites linking back to you,” Martin said. “Having your bother-in-law do your website … I’m sorry, it isn’t effective. It’s time for the pros to step in.”

Martin’s company, World Class Auto Repair, ranks first out of seven competitors on Google under the keywords “auto repair American Fork” in both map and website results. He recently hired a computer firm to develop an attractive Facebook page for the company.

“Word of mouth used to mean that Fred told his neighbor Brian about an auto mechanic,” Martin said. “Now it’s Fred and Sally and Suzy and Tom on Facebook sharing my business with their friends. Word of mouth is now social media.”

“One of the most important things is to be proactive,” said Anais Moody, the company’s marketing and communication specialist. “It’s hard to stay on top. Google is constantly changing its algorithm.”

NorthStar Alarm’s new computer programmer will also be tasked with developing a mobile phone application, the new megaphone for marketing.

According to Web publication TechCrunch, local search by mobile phones has grown 50 percent year over year and become the No. 1 access method for local information.

Industry experts predict business search will not only be done on the phone but through friends’ recommendations on social media websites like Facebook. Even Google itself, feeling the pressure to include social circles in its search, recently unveiled a website called Google Plus.

The website, which quickly grabbed the public’s attention, uses circles of families, friends and interests, potentially assigning trust to people by topic.

The data on online recommendations are stark: More than 70 percent of respondents in a Harris Interactive study claim family members’ or friends’ reviews exert a “great deal” or “fair amount” of influence on a decision to use or not use a particular company, brand or product.

So if Google is today’s Yellow Pages, will social media be the Yellow Pages of tomorrow?

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