A friend in the photography business once asked for advice on SEO for a new website he was planning to launch. I gave him suggestions for implementing search engine friendly site layout, page structure, titles, keywords, and the usual elements that can build and improve search list rankings. Later, I started wondering about how many similar businesses were implementing SEO, and how feasible it was for new websites to generate traffic and leads purely through search-based traffic. Now apart from the site structure itself, search rankings depend on a host of factors – an important one being the number of inbound links. In fact, emerging startups such as Hubspot focus specifically on growing traffic through inbound marketing using blogs and social media. This trend of rewarding established heavily linked sites makes remote the chances that a new website will be able to make its way into the coveted first page of search listings.
Last week Chris Dixon’s blog saw an interesting and heated exchange on the viability of SEO as a marketing tool for startups. Chris had a tough time defending what many perceived as a generalized conclusion in the title of his article. His basic postulation is that low quality content farms and unethical link building practices make it unviable for startups to depend on SEO as a way to build a customer base. I believe there is merit in this assertion. Companies with local limits in goods or service delivery are likely to obtain better value for their marketing dollars through local and location-based channels. These innovative platforms are helping move the cheese beyond SEO and into high value engagement opportunities.
Clearly one that has generated a ton of buzz, Groupon promotes local businesses through crowd purchasing of heavily discounted deals. This mechanism has proven to be a great vehicle for attracting new customers and generating valuable visibility. While this is an enticing platform, it may not be appropriate for everyone. Before you leap into it, make sure to evaluate the economics and long-term perceptive value to your business. Groupon’s high volume deep discount model also brings with it logistical difficulties in controlling and managing redemptions. Discussion forums are abuzz with upset customers unable to redeem their deals for several months due to capacity issues at the local business. Good reading is a great blog article for small businesses by Jay Goltz about doing the math on Groupon deals.
Yelp provides crowd-sourced reviews of local businesses. It is an easy and quick way for consumers to get the buzz on places such as restaurants, small retail stores, and real estate agents. You can increase the impact of testimonials manifold by encouraging your happy customers to go online and post a review of your business. Yelp users looking up businesses are very likely in the purchasing mode for that category of product or service and getting visibility with them could be highly valuable. Unfortunately, the anonymity of reviews brings with it credibility issues for all sides. Businesses are especially vulnerable to negative reviews by the occasional angry customer and competitors. The key issue here is “How much can we trust customer reviews?”
TrustHop is a new entrant in this space with an interesting innovation. It combines the power of social media such as Facebook with the immense benefits of crowd-sourced customer reviews a la Yelp. Local providers can create profiles, respond to customer enquiries, and submit quotes. Registered members of TrustHop can request people from their trusted associations and social networks to provide feedback about the local providers. The engagements driven through this medium provide visibility for businesses that mimics the trust factor inherent in word of mouth referrals.
It is clear that Yelp has stacked the deck in favor of customer reviews, real or manufactured, which I believe brings into question their long-term viability if businesses have no opportunity for redress. Since TrustHop functions within trusted social circles, there is reduced risk for businesses of being subject to unfair review tactics. TrustHop could thus revolutionize this marketing arena if it succeeds in establishing a balance between the value of customer reviews and the ability for businesses to manage their online reputation.
All this said, I still recommend that local businesses consider SEO as an integral part of their online strategy and ensure their web presence implements search engine friendly practices. Organic search traffic takes time to develop but not making the effort early on will make it difficult to gain traction at any point in the future. However, the key is not to obsess over search listings and rankings. Your business could experience significantly better returns by investing in services and platforms that reach and engage consumers such as blogs, social media, review sites, mobile, and location-based apps. Test and evaluate them to see what works for your particular business. Remember, everything is mutable. Tools and techniques to grow your business will keep evolving and so should your efforts at testing and leveraging them.