For small businesses just beginning to build an online presence, turning to cheap - or free - Google tools can be a simple solution.
You've heard how important good online product listings, search engine optimization, and professional payment processing are to finding and serving customers online. As you build your small company's web presence, you'll want to consider some of Google's basic services that can boost your online profile for free – or at minimal cost.
For the Chicago-based online tea retailer The Simple Leaf Tea, for example, Google products have been integral to an online growth and distribution strategy. The store's founder and owner, Nikhil Roychowdhury, uses Google Checkout as a payment option, and Google Base and Google Merchant Center to create highly-indexed product listing. (The business also uses Google Analytics to monitor customer interest, and Google Apps to provide the company's e-mail, calendar and document collaboration systems.)
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Setting up a Google Storefront: Start With Your Small Business Listing
For small businesses rooted in a community – or with a presence that's not solely online – an easy first step to boosting your online search presence is adding your free map-based listing at Google Local Listings. With all of the major search engines now skewing search results toward local, this and other online listings should be part of any small business's online strategy.
It's free to publish a listing that includes all the basics: Your business name, address, e-mail and phone, as well as the precise location of your site for the purposes of Google maps (entering an address is fine; no map skills are needed to set this up). You're also able to include a 200-character description of your business and assign the listing to as many as five categories, the range of which spans from doctor's office to paintball center to agrarian services.
Once you've entered your basic information, you should avail yourself of the option to customize your listing with photos, videos, payment options, business hours, consumer reviews, and more.
As a business owner, you can add quite a bit of information – as much as you'd like, really. But keep in mind that your review material will be listed as "from the owner." Likewise, as your listing becomes supplemented by other user content, including reviews, tips, and photographs, the outside content will be clearly labeled as such. As is the case on any site that features user-generated content – think Yelp or CitySearch – you should expect that your biggest fans and most unhappy customers are likely to be the most vocal virtually. But those who stumble upon your listing benefit from knowing what guidebooks and casual critics have to say.
The good news with Google listings thus far: Even slimy dive bars appear to be benefiting from a slightly positive slant on listings. For instance, San Francisco's Edinburgh Castle is referred to as being in an "interesting" neighborhood and having a "grumpy barstaff" – which is true – but a review by spoonturtle37 generously lauds the bar for having a good beer selection and "the best fish n' chips in the city."
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Setting up a Google Storefront: Using Google Product Search
Remember Froogle? The search engine for products has morphed into Google Base, which is newly lumped into a system called Google Merchant Center. Within Google Merchant Center, online sellers can upload and manage the listings for products so they'll appear in Google AdWords and Product Search. By logging into the Merchant Center, a small business owner can post and update product listings via a data feed, direct upload, or an application programming interface.
These days, Google Base is being used for more complex sales listings, such as those for real estate, vehicles and jobs.
Roychowdhury from The Simple Leaf Tea, for example, keeps a basic description of each product he sells, plus its price, UPC code, and a URL for the product as it appears on his business site, in a simple spreadsheet. He uploads information once a month.
"There's no programming involved," he says. "If you have a small catalog and you feel comfortable putting it into a spreadsheet, it doesn't take any time at all."
For would-be customers, the technology makes it possible to search for product information (customers see it as Google Product Search), and produces results that include the names of retailers, and pricing information. Local businesses and online retailers can upload their entire catalogs to the service. Merchant Center provides metrics on the types of searches customers conduct, and how many times they click. Product Search also cooperates with Google AdWords, and other Google products.
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Setting up a Google Storefront: Using Google Checkout
The most daunting part of setting up an e-commerce platform on your company's website can be payment processing. To serve the broadest client base, a successful site needs to offer customers one or more payment gateways. Offering connections to a third-party credit card processing option such as VeriSign or PayPal is quite common. Lately, Google Checkout has been gaining ground as a trusted payment processer.
The Simple Leaf Tea was one of the first online retailers to add Google Checkout to its payment checkout options; Roychowdhury says that roughly 30 percent of his customers now choose to pay via Google Checkout.
Typically for a retailer, Google Checkout's fee structure is quite comparable to those of PayPal, and they are tied at an inverse relationship to a merchant's monthly volume of sales: The higher your monthly gross sales online, the lower your percentage rate falls.
For those companies just beginning to experiment with online retail, it is possible to forego more elaborate shopping cart software, and instead use only Google payment buttons linked to product listings on your site. It's not an ideal vehicle to selling multiple products at once, but it does simplify a company's nascent e-commerce efforts. So, if you're only listing a couple items at once or just beginning to sell online, selling exclusively through Google payment is a starting option.
Establishing and managing an online retail presence isn't a small undertaking, reminds Mary Etchison, the founder and owner of Dada Baby Boutique, an online retail store she's been running since 2005.
"It's like opening any kind of business – it takes a lot of work," she says. "You do need to prepare to learn as you go and stumble along until you realize you finally know what you're doing."