(This post originally appeared on Philly.com)
Small businesses looking to get themselves noticed online face an enormous challenge: Google.
The search engine giant, according to Moz, a research and consulting firm that offers tools and information for the search industry, says that over 90 percent of online searches are done on a Google property, which includes Gmail, YouTube and any device running the Android operating system. So to succeed in getting your business found online, you must deal with Google. Unfortunately, that takes money and time which are things that most small businesses lack, particularly when competing against larger brands.
“Things have gotten really vast,” Will Reynolds, the CEO of Philadelphia-based Seer Interactive, a search engine consultant told me. “What I mean by that is, there’s two billion websites. It’s really hard to have to mine and understand the nuance of an industry when there’s a hundred thousand different search terms people type in to find that business.”
For myself and many of my small business clients who have limited budgets, Reynolds’ observations are pretty bleak. The chances of succeeding on Google is clearly daunting. But there is one tool that the search giant provides that has proven to be very helpful: it’s Google My Business. It’s free and growing in popularity. Every small business should have a listing on Google My Business and for one very important reason: localization.
Google My Business heavily relies on local search – or localization – to help businesses get found. Its features are designed to help businesses get noticed first by those looking nearby, and its impact can be enormous, particularly for a small business. Its algorithms are so hypersensitive to a company’s location that even – according to Moz – the position that a small business or brand occupies in someone’s search listings will fluctuate with relatively minute changes in latitude and longitude.
That means that a potential customer for your company will get a different result based on whether they’re one mile or ten miles away from your location, even when using the same keyword. This allows for a more level playing field for local merchants and their big-brand competitors.
To give small businesses a boost, Google My Business has added features to help them better engage and market their products and services to those that find them. “For a small business with a small budget Google My Business helps me stand out in the areas that I provide service,” says Bobby Leon, the owner of Akita Pest Control. Leon’s company serves customers in Harrisburg, York and Reading, PA and relies heavily on Google My Business for leads. “It’s big help for any business owner as long as they learn to do things the right way,”
But like anything else, the “right way” means investing some time. It means experimenting with its features, including the right products and services, completely filling out profile information, testing out keywords, launching ads, monitoring visits and setting up accurate locations to maximize search results.
Most importantly, it means making regular posts where you can add images, content and links to your profile (be careful though – posts expire after a while).
Another important part of getting found is getting reviews. Smart business owners who use Google My Business the right way pay close attention to the reviews that their customers are leaving. “Reviews are a key component of any Google My Business listing, and your star rating can be the deciding factor in whether a person chooses your business or your competition.,” says Brandon Schmidt, a director of strategy at digital marketing firm YDOP in Lancaster, PA. “Have a plan for asking for reviews and responding to new reviews.”
Schmidt feels strongly that every business should have a listing on Google My Business and should be careful to setup the appropriate service area to maximize its ability to be found by local customers. He advises his clients to closely monitor and update their profiles and – most importantly – to follow the rules.
“It’s in your best long-term interest to follow Google’s guidelines,” he says. “Google has specific rules about the types of businesses and locations that are eligible and ineligible for Google My Business listings. If you try to game the system and add additional locations or add keywords to your name, you may see a temporary boost in rankings but open yourself up for suspension or penalties.”
For many companies, getting found online is a critical way to attract new business and engage with current customers. Hiring a search engine consultant is an option but it can be an expensive one. Google My Business – if used the right way – can be a cost-effective answer.