Wednesday, August 6, 2008


At some point, every small business must set up shop online.

A website can serve as another sales channel, a place to feature products, or just a resource for more information about your business. But above all, it serves as a communications channel with your customer. Establishing an online presence doesn't have to break the bank or eat up your time.

Here's a guide to help get you on your way.

Register a domain name.
Dozens of online registry sites allow you to secure a domain name. Some of the most popular include,, and They're all fairly similar, and which one you choose won't really affect anything else about your site, so the main difference is price. In general you can expect to pay an annual fee of about $15, but if you're inclined to comparison shop you can pay as little as $8 a year. Try to pick a domain name that's as simple and intuitive as possible - complicated URLs just make it harder for customers to find you. Most companies simply drop their name into the middle of www and com, as in:

Set up an e-mail account to receive customer feedback.
One of the keys to your Web success is making sure your customers can always reach you. Once you have your domain set up, be sure to create an active e-mail address and post it on your site right away. As your site grows, this will become a key contact point for your customers, and it will allow you to get feedback on your business.

Hire a temp.
You probably have better things to do than spend all day entering data for every item you intend to sell online. As you start assembling your site in earnest, hire someone else to help with the setup work.

Sources to turn to for easy solutions
Numerous Internet service providers (ISPs) offer e-commerce solutions that require little work on your part. Some of the most basic handle your Web hosting needs and provide standardized storefront templates. Many are capable of growing with your business, offering additional services and customizable options should you need them down the road. These companies can provide basic design templates and technology to process transactions, too.

Telecommunications company offers an assortment of off-the-shelf set-up packages for individual merchants. Some key components to look for in such packages are shopping-cart software (allowing your customers to drop in items as they go through your site) and assistance with Web design. This last part is extremely important, as deciding how customers will flow your site is the same as directing them to merchandise. You have to get this part right.

You may have to go through your bank or through services like Verisign to set up a secure system to accept online payment for orders. For smaller operations, you can also explore services like PayPal, which make it easy to accept customer payments with an easily downloadable software package.

Think about affiliating with another site
Is it better to go it alone or join an existing online community? If you really need to differentiate your product or brand, particularly through site design, you may be better off building your own site. But if your needs are more basic and you want to keep costs down, it's probably to your benefit to pitch your tent in an existing online marketplace, which can provide more traffic than if you just open a shop and wait for customers to blow by. Sites like Ebay, Yahoo, and Amazon offer prepackaged storefront services with variety of options for individual merchants, often including free registration of your domain name.

Ebay offers your customers the chance to bid on items or buy them outright at a set price. The Ebay package also includes flexible listing options, limited customization tools, monthly sales reports, inventory search options, and the ability to cross-promote other items with ones you are selling. A mid-level Ebay store costs $49.95 per month, but options rage from $9.95 a month for a bare-bones storefront to $499.95 for a full-service store complete with marketing support.

Yahoo offers three basic levels of service, ranging from $39.95 a month to $299.95 a month, plus a $50 setup fee (sometimes the setup fee is waived during promotions) and transaction fees that range from 0.75 percent to 1.5 percent. It, too, offers a selection of services as well as simple step-by-step methods for listing your products online and software for accepting payment.

Depending on what kind of products you're selling, Amazon also offers several online options for third-party sellers. Amazon's Marketplace program charges a 15 percent commission, on top of a $39.99 monthly subscription cost (or $0.99 per item if you prefer), but leaves shipping and customer service to you. As another alternative, you can partner with Amazon and sell its goods on your own site for a commission.

The bottom line:
Always focus on the benefits to your business
Be sure to keep your customers and your business goals in mind as you set up your site. Getting online is the easy part. Creating an online presence that adds value to your core business is what really matters.

Sunday, August 3, 2008


Imagine trying to hit a pin-sized target in a pitch-black auditorium. Or looking for a quarter-carat diamond hidden someplace in the forest. Or locating a single novel in a giant library that shelves books randomly.

Or trying to find a particular website--for instance, your company's--in a world without search engines.

With precise directions--or, for the website, a URL--searchers in all those scenarios would have a pretty good chance of finding what they sought. Without them, they'd be out of luck.

Fortunately, in your case, the Web is rich with resources for helping people find what they want. Your challenge is making the best possible use of those tools.

The Big Picture
As the Web has grown to millions of sites and billions of pages, demand for ever-more sophisticated search capability skyrocketed right along with it. By most estimates, users worldwide now conduct at least 550 million searches daily--and, of course, that number will keep rising.

Meanwhile, as any Web user knows, individual queries often yield hundreds or thousands of links. Research indicates that few searchers venture beyond the first 30. So with users most likely to click on the highest-ranked results, it's critical to make sure your site rises to the top.

Complicating matters is the sheer variety of available search engines and Web directories. The roll call reads like a Who's Who of the high-tech industry. At this writing, Google, the category's undisputed Goliath, is gearing up for an initial public offering (IPO) of stock that's likely to set new records. Microsoft Corp. is massively upgrading its MSN Search program. Yahoo! has acquired several top competitors; Amazon is quietly developing its own offering. And hundreds of smaller players, including some highly specialized ones, remain in the game as well.

First Obvious Question
So if you're serious about competing, do you have to list your site on all those directories and search engines? Absolutely not, experts say.

"There are only a few worth worrying about," says Web consultant Peter Kent, president of Denver-based iChannel Services and author of Search Engine Optimization for Dummies (John Wiley & Sons, April 2004). Kent's must-have list includes Google, Yahoo!, AlltheWeb, AltaVista, Ask Jeeves, Inktomi, and the lesser-known Open Directory Project. "They're the only ones who matter because they feed everyone else who counts," he says. Directly or indirectly, he adds, those few sites provide data for 99% of all searches. For instance, Inktomi provides data to Microsoft's MSN Search and Yahoo's Overture, while the Open Directory Project feeds at least 300 others, including many specialized ones catering to particular industries or interests.

What about all those companies dangling tempting offers to list your site with 400--or even 4,000--search engines in exchange for what sounds like a reasonable fee? Rarely worth the cost, Kent says: "Sometimes what they're doing is submitting you to just a few sites, knowing that then those sites are feeding hundreds more." Worse, those helpful companies may list your site with bogus "search engines" that do nothing more than compile e-mail addresses for use by spammers, says Chris Sherman, associate editor of the industry information site and newsletter Search Engine Watch. "I would say they're not only not a good deal, they're the best way quadruple e-mail spam you get," Sherman says. A better strategy: Focus on getting listed with a few key search engines and forget about the rest.

Second Obvious Question
When, if ever, should you pay to play?

That is, should you concentrate on getting your site to surface in free--or, as Sherman calls them, organic -- search-engine listings? Or should you invest one of the many pay-for-placement (PFP) options?

"Either will work," says Sherman, who also heads the Searchwise consulting firm in Boulder, Colo. "Organic placement will take more time [to show up on search engines] and last longer." A PFP listing--a small text ad that appears in or near relevant search results--will go online almost immediately, but its longevity is tied to the bottom line: "The minute you stop paying for it, it's gone," Sherman says.

Under the PFP system, marketers bid to have their ads listed in the results for specific searches, with high bidders' ads show up first. Search-engine companies collect fees--anywhere from a few cents to upwards of $10--whenever users click through to marketers' websites.

The decision about whether to stick with free listings, enter the PFP universe, or combine the approaches depends on your budget, your competitors' strategies, and a sense for how your target audience will respond (many users dislike paid placements, especially those that look too much like free search results).

"It's like buying or leasing a car," Sherman says. "It's up to you to decide which option works best."

The Keys to Search-Engine Success
Actually, there are two major ways to "optimize" your site so it's most likely to show up in a potential customer's search.

First, carefully identify the words and phrases your best prospects are most likely to use in searching for whatever you provide. "Each page should contain two or three keywords that you want people to use in finding you," Sherman says. (But don't list those words dozens or hundreds of times in attempt to show up first in search results; that's called "keyword stuffing" and it's considered cheating.) Choose keywords that are simple, coherent, and consistent with your other marketing campaigns, and be sure to list them in meta tags as well.

In addition, get specific. Phrases like "home mortgage" and "low rates" won't set you apart from the pack. But adding your city and state, for instance, might help land your site higher in the results for searchers using those terms. In addition, keywords--not just your company name--should appear in the title bar atop your site's pages, Kent recommends. "Sanders & Son Ltd" doesn't indicate what the company does; "Sanders & Sons Graphic Design and Printing Services" tells users at a glance whether they've found the right site.

Secondly, keep in mind that search engines love links. The more sites linked to yours, the higher it's likely to rank in search results. "Links are essentially the same thing as votes," Sherman says. From a search engine's point of view, he says, " the more votes you have, the greater the indication that there's high-quality content at your site." So keep building your network of relevant links.

Finally, remember that while getting your category's number-one search-engine ranking is dandy--but you certainly haven't failed if a clear, well-targeted message appears a few notches down the page. "Keep your eyes on the result," Kent advises. "The goal is to increase qualified traffic to your Web site, and you can do that without having the very top position."

Sidebar: Glossary
Keyword: Words and phrases included in a Web page matching those users are likely to employ in searching.

Keyword stuffing: Discouraged practice of overloading Web pages with keywords in an effort to obtain higher placement in search results. Also known as "spamdexing."

Local search: Evolving capability to limit search results to particular geographical areas.

Meta search: Search using multiple search engines and directories.

Meta tag: HTML tag that stores information about a Web page, including keywords for search-engine and directory use.

Optimization: See "SEO."

PFI (pay for inclusion): Advertising option in which marketers pay to be included in search results.

PFP (pay for placement): Advertising option in which marketers bid to place short text ads in or near search results, with highest bids appearing first.

Query: Synonym for "search."

Search engine: Program such as Google that searches its indices or databases in response to a user's query, retrieving lists of documents containing specific keywords. See also "Web directory."

Spiders: Software robots that automatically scour the Internet, reporting Web page contents back to a search engine's index or database. Also called "crawlers."

SEM: Search-engine marketing; using search techniques to build brand awareness or generate business.

SEO: Search-engine optimization, or retooling a site so that it's more likely to appear high in search results.

Web directory: Searchable indices such as Yahoo that are compiled by human editors rather than by automation. See also "Search engine."

Sidebar: Major search engines, directories, and related research tools:

All the Web (subsidiary of Overture/Yahoo!)

AltaVista (subsidiary of Yahoo!)

Ask Jeeves


Inktomi (subsidiary of Yahoo!)

MSN Search

Overture (subsidiary of Yahoo!)
Conducts searches via several other major search engines


Yahoo! Directories


All Search Engines
Useful index of search engines

The Open Directory Project
Human-edited directory of the Web, edited by volunteers.

Search Engine Bulletin
Companion site to Search Engine Optimization for Dummies, by Peter Kent (John Wiley & Sons, April 2004).

Search Engine Optimization Tips
MSN's printable list of SEO do's and don'ts.

Search Engine Strategies
Resource site with articles and links.

Search Engine Watch
News, advice, reviews, links, information about Search Engine Strategies conferences and free Search Engine Report monthly newsletters.