You may be very familiar with the major search engine sites like Google, Yahoo! or MSN and find them a useful tool for a range of needs like researching a new purchase or finding answers with homework questions, but would you use it as a replacement for the Yellow Pages? Maybe not today, but this is something these search sites are trying to change. Both Google and Yahoo! are working on “local” versions of their search engine’s tools to help users find a local business that sells or services by matching their offerings to related search keywords. These new services are in the early stages, where Google’s local search is in test mode only and planned for release later this year.
Will search sites like Google replace the classic Yellow Pages? The key advantage they have over the “traditional” way of looking up information for a local business is their reputation as an effective utility for finding things that are highly relevant. The search function has become one of the Internet’s most commonly used and relied on tools. It’s becoming embedded in the culture of America’s youth and yet still reaches a broad range of audience acceptance. It is also one of the most profitable Internet based businesses and has become a big industry. Over time, search sites will be the most common method people will use to find local businesses. So what should you do to prepare for this change?
Begin by ensuring your business’ web site is visible by the major search sites. There is plenty of free advice about what you need to modify in your web pages to achieve good visibility. The more competitive your on-line world is, the more this will cost you in marketing investments, but if you enjoy little local competition then some simple tasks will be required. First, check out your existing status in the test site of Google’s local directory (go to http://local.google.com) and enter your business name. Does it come up at the top of the rank? If not, make sure your web site’s home page contains your business name. They are pulling the basic address and phone numbers from public listings and web sites like www.switchboard.com that have long compiled this information for their directory.
Next, search on a phrase that defines your products or services related to your business, for example “windows computer” if you are a computer reseller and enter your town and state. Does your business show up in the top position again? Try a couple of other related phrases to see if they too show up in the top rankings. One thing you will notice is the listings are returned not in alphabetical order, but in a seemingly random selection. No, this is not a mistake, but a design of the search engines to rank sites in terms of what they believe are the most relevant web sites. Having a business that starts with triple A’s will not have precedence over Z’s. With search engine sites you must earn your ranking other ways.
It is in this area of free searches that the search engines will go way beyond the capabilities of the classic Yellow Pages or even the on-line directories like Swichboard.com or Superpages.com. People can enter a wide array of search terms and land on the businesses that best fit their specific needs. This will require your web site to have some of the basic search engine optimization techniques to highlight your particular niche. If people are unfamiliar with your company’s name they will use terms like “kosher deli” or “cowboy boots repair” to find the closest business to their location and needs. From the listing they can link to your web site or competitive ones and begin the process of getting to know your business better. They start the process of becoming a qualified customer even before entering your front door.
As the search engine web sites work to develop more local relevance to users, make sure your web site is tuned for your local market. Start with simple web site check ups, like ensuring your business address information is there. Then, associate regional names to target search phrases in your web site to attract random free searches, for example, instead of the title “Welcome to our Country Inn” use the phrase “The Country Inn in Woodstock VT in the Green Mountains of Vermont” for your web page title. This will bring people to your web site and your business that didn’t know you were in the neighborhood. The search engines have been great at allowing small businesses to be seen as big players in the Internet, but don’t forget that a lot of business begins at the grass roots.
Bob Rustici is a founding partner of Internet Performance Marketing. He has extensive background in launching new software and solutions into the marketplace. Bob is author of Enhanced CU-SeeMe, a book about videoconferencing, and analyst reports for the Patricia Seybold Group.