Everyone who runs a Web site wants to climb his or her way up the results of a Google search, but that can cost no less than thousands and up to millions of dollars. So what do you do if you have little-to-no online advertising budget and can't fly banners all over the Internet to let the "right" people know you're out there?
Rest assured, the Internet remains a friendly place for small businesses even so, with many options available to boost traffic and, naturally, sales.
But first, beware: There are plenty of tricks on offer that will help get your brand out to the public cheaply, but that doesn't make them good ideas. Just as making the front page of the newspaper because you were arrested will indeed make you well-known (though for the wrong reasons), the same can be said about some types of online marketing. We've all been spammed to know that, sure, you may reach a lot of people. And yes, they may get to know your site's name - but they probably won't like it. Instead, align your brand with a thoughtful strategy and you'll win over customers.
To guide you through the available choices for saving money without blowing your reputation, here are some don'ts and do's from experts in the field. In some cases, the don'ts-and-dos of online marketing are slight variations of each other, underscoring the fact that achieving success comes with patience and hard work, not a catch-all-cure-all.
Because the Internet is such an expansive place (Google searches more than 4 billion Web pages), it seems like plastering your name everywhere would be a good way to catch all users wherever they might be. Wrong, say our experts. You want to attract people who want to be at your site and who might actually buy something. Don't trick people into coming to your site. Deception might get people to land on your home page, but it can just as easily land you on a search engine's blacklist. "Don't cheapen yourself," said David U. Simon, founder of the consulting group Revenue Engines (link) and former head of promotions for Yahoo! Here are a few ways to avoid that trap:
- Don't be a Spammer -- That's Rule No. 1, according to Rick Bruner, an Internet marketing consultant and researcher for Executive Summary . "You need to have people's permission before you email them, because they make a clear distinction between what they sign up for and what's simply sent to them," he said. Being overaggressive can damage your brand when you're trying to build it.
- Don't "link swap" for the sake of sending out more links -- Search engines like Google favor Web sites that have lots of direct links to them, so it's tempting to make "I'll list you, if you list me" deals. Associating yourself with relevant sites is great, says Bruner. But you should contact them directly and politely, not through a form letter e-mail.
- Don't run contests -- Contests and giveaways might draw a lot of traffic through search engines, but it's probably not the kind you want: freeloaders. Offering these enticements to an existing client base is one thing, but as Bruner puts it, "It's not 1999 and you aren't going to grow your traffic that fast."
Focus your efforts on reaching the places where the people you want to reach go. This will require some legwork, but it will save costs and, in many cases, will be a one-time effort.
- Do get listed on directories -- This is paramount, says Bruner. Yahoo! and DMOZ.org are good places to start. Getting listed on Yahoo! can be cumbersome, because of its time-consuming review process. This process can be expedited by paying a roughly $200 fee, which, if you are serious about doing business online, is worth it, according to Bruner. DMOZ is free and updated by volunteers. Browse the categories on both sites first to see where your business fits best.
- Do keep SEO in mind, but don't obsess over it -- SEO stands for "Search Engine Optimization" and refers to how well your site is picked up by search engines. "Everything you write on your Web site, you should be thinking about how it will be picked up by the search engines," said Bruner. That said, don't obsess over your meta tags, or the keywords in the title page that the engines pick up. "If you try to get into the Top 10 of the search in your market every time, you'll never sleep," Bruner quipped. Your Web designer should be able to help you with the tagging that works best and also check out searchenginewatch.com and webmasterworld.com.
- Do consider text advertising -- Text advertisements are simple text links, as opposed to graphic banners. Text links are cost effective because sites don't charge as much for them, and they also allow you to cut out any design fees. Based on Simon's research, text links do very well. Plus, their straightforward nature will help you avoid doing anything underhanded to gain viewers.
- Do get involved in the online community -- If you have a product or service that is going to appeal to a certain group, get on discussion boards where those people hang out, says Bruner. Don't just peddle your wares, but make sure you're adding some value to discussion. Make yourself a trusted source and expert.
- Do get your visitors to submit their e-mail addresses --"You want to convert the relationship with the visitor into one you own and that you don't need to buy," said Simon. He recommends an engaging series of questions, starting with some real "softballs" to make visitors more comfortable. Also, make it clear how you are going to communicate with them, whether it's going to be weekly, monthly or whenever you have special promotions. Bruner says the "double opt-in" technique, in which you send an email confirming the visitor's enrollment, is preferred by customers.
- Do analyze your traffic -- "You can't improve what you don't measure," said Bruner. There are places like sitemeter.com that offer packages for as little as $20 a month.
- Do your research -- If you don't have the money to get linked up with the hottest sites, find out what other sites appeal to people in your market, says Simon. "These are places that need you as much as you need them," noted Simon. "In turn, you can customize your campaign to their site." Along the same lines, you need to know what's hot in general. There are lots of free sources out there that can help you get the pulse of what's going on and where it's happening, such as the Yahoo! Buzz Index .
- Do put your Web address in your signature -- Putting your Web site's address in all of your e-mails and online posts is simple yet effective. Don't underestimate it, says Bruner.
- Do educate yourself -- "Invest in educating yourself about online marketing," said Bruner. "Make it a continuing education." He recommends buying books, subscribing to newsletters, getting involved in online discussions and attending conferences.
These tips will help save money and build your business, but keep in mind that it all starts with a good Web site that is updated frequently and offers a safe and secure environment for your visitors to do business. "The Internet is a meritocracy," said Bruner. "The cream does rise to the top."