If you build it, will they come? Last year, Internet sales reached $79 billion, according to Forrester Research, or 3% of all retail sales. Can your business get a piece of that ever-growing Internet market?

I started my first Internet business in 1994 and still sell products on the Web today. I'm an Internet veteran. And here's the most important lesson I can share with you -- it's hard to make money on the Internet.

That isn't designed to discourage you from getting a Web site; in fact, I think every business must have one. It's more of a caution to remember that you're going to have to find most of your customers in the real world, not the virtual one.

The small businesses that are best able to make money from the Internet are those that have a niche market or unique product. If customers are highly motivated to find you, you've got a better chance of being found.

That being said, how can you increase the number of visitors to your Web site regardless of the business you're in?

1. Improve your search engine ranking. Most people use search engines to find Web sites. By using software that crawls through millions of Web sites, search engines create lists based on key words and phrases. The primary search engines are Google (www.google.com) and Overture (www.Overture.com).

Trying to improve your search engine ranking can easily be a full-time job. Don't spend a lot of time on this, and don't spend money on the search engine placement services that spam your e-mail.

The important thing to remember is that search engines find you by looking through your site, so by doing a few simple things, you can improve your rankings:

Use phrases that searchers are likely to type in. If you're a mortgage broker, make sure you use the phrase "mortgage broker" in addition to using sentences such as, "I'll help you find the best mortgage rate."

Refer to your geographic location. Many searchers will add a location to their search terms (e.g., "mortgage broker in Phoenix"), so be certain to mention your city, county, state, and country if you do business internationally.

List your products or services individually. The more specific you are, the more likely your Web site will show up in relevant searches. The mortgage broker's Web site might list "30-year fixed rate," "15-year fixed rate," "adjustable rate mortgages" and so on. Add extra pages to list lots of products or services.

2. Get listed in directories. Directories list Web sites by topic area, and are compiled by humans, not software. You can submit your site for inclusion. At the best known directory, Yahoo, (www.yahoo.com), go to the homepage and scroll down to "Suggest a Site."

3. Buy search engine placement. Search engines sell premium listings for keywords. This can be very affordable, since you typically only pay for "click throughs" to your site. Prices are based on demand by advertisers for that term. In other words, "dining room furniture" is likely to be more expensive than "Windsor Chair." To see the prices for keywords on Overture, go to www.overture.com/d/USm/adcenter/tools/index.jhtml and click on "View Bid Tools."

4. Get links from related sites and sources. Make it easy for potential customers to click to you from other sites they're visiting. To help local residents and visitors find you, get listed on local directory Web sites, often run by local newspapers, Chambers of Commerce, or tourist bureaus. Ask the businesses you do business with to link to you: the mortgage broker might ask to be listed by real estate agents she works with and offer to list them on her Web site in return.

5. Buy ads. Just as in the real world, you can pay for ads to get your name known on the Internet. These work best on sites that are closely related to your product or service, such as those listed above.

6. Include your Web site address on everything. Remember, most customers will find you from the real world. So include your Web address on every piece of printed material, advertisement, invoice, etc. And add it as a tagline to all of your e-mails.

Copyright Rhonda Abrams, 2003

Rhonda Abrams writes the nation's most widely-read small business column and is the author of The Successful Business Plan and The Successful Business Organizer . To receive Rhonda's free business tips newsletter, register at www.RhondaOnline.com.

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