Local Commerce: Moving Beyond SEO

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.Groupon Image 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 coulYelp Imaged 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.

TrustHop Image

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.

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  1. #1 by Prashant Jeloka on April 1, 2011 - 7:01 am

    Iqbal,
    Great post. Good content is surely a prerequisite for anything. As a case in point, I started a personal blog 5 months ago that’s seeing a lot of relevant 1st page ranking on Google. No hanky panky, just good wordpress plugins and SEO best practices. Sadly, a million people are not linking and elevating the ranking.

    I did get some great advice from the CEO of TechMagnate on SEO best practices. Beyond these one time best practices though, I can’t realistically imagine small business going out there and manually increasing inbound links (its a lot of mind numbing work and takes months to bear fruit). Outsourced companies like TechMagnate are better at that if someone needs it done.

    Prashant.

    No, I dn’t have any business interests in TechMagnate. I believe they are fairly established as the top 3 SEO company in India.

    • #2 by Iqbal Mutabanna on April 4, 2011 - 1:08 am

      Prashant, thanks for your comment. Nice blog about settling in Delhi. I will pass it on to friends who are considering it.

      Regarding hiring SEO consulting services, I feel it only makes sense for businesses that have enough marketing budget in their cash outlay to stay the course for an extended period. Otherwise, as I mentioned to Zaid earlier, it is better to focus on creating quality content that provides value to customers. Good quality always gets found even if it takes time and without the cost or aggravation of pursuing search result rankings.

      Iqbal

  2. #3 by Zaid Rasid on March 22, 2011 - 4:28 pm

    Great post. I think there are two sides of this which you make clear.

    For a small business to focus on SEO and building links and optimizing pages and ranking better is difficult. For one, they are extremely busy and limited with resources and for another, they have no clue how to do this. It would mean a small business would either have to learn SEO or hire a consultant.

    On the other hand, a better approach would be to use tools like blogging, social media and twitter and develop SEO results naturally and organically. Go figure that’s how it was intended:) So I think you and I both agree that your focus should be on creating amazing content and getting it out there. If you need an SEO expert to help you with that, then that’s fine. So to me, it’s a change of focus really.

    • #4 by Iqbal Mutabanna on March 23, 2011 - 11:01 am

      Zaid, what you say makes a lot of sense. SMBs need to forget the hype and put effort into making their web presence useful for their customers. Go back to the basics. Deliver a superior product and the people will come. Same thing here – provide content or offers that actually help and engage and potential customers will find you, through search results or other channels.

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