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Internet and eCommerce

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Digital_Tools_Checkout_body.jpgby Iris Dorbian.

Before Pure Fix Cycles, which sells bicycles online and via wholesalers, began using Lettuce, an app that streamlines the order fulfillment process in 2012, the checkout process for ecommerce customers was arduous.

"We were spending too much time relaying inventory and sales numbers to employees and sales reps, and doing data entry, such as inputting invoices and payments into QuickBooks," recalls co-founder Michael Fishman.

But since adopting Lettuce, Fishman says PureFix Cycles has experienced 250 percent sales growth. In addition to improving the online retail process, Lettuce has also improved his company's order processing and inventory management. With PureFix Cycle’s staff of 15 employees and 23 independent sales reps, Fishman hails the app as a boon for his company's online operations.

"We are also able to ship our goods much faster because orders are put in more quickly,” he says. “The faster orders go out, the faster the goods sell and the more orders we get as a result."

This is just one example of a small business that has greatly benefited from adding an app to its checkout process. What other tips should small businesses keep in mind when using digital tools to optimize the online checkout process?

Do your homework
No two businesses are the same and neither are their needs when it comes to the online checkout process. Evaluate what you require most in your online retail operations, and then speak to others who have used the same systems or read the reviews. As with any product, never buy a digital tool unless you investigate it thoroughly beforehand. Kevin Morgan is managing partner and chief operating officer of Anant Corporation, a company that helps small businesses run and grow their online operations, and agrees with this guidance.


“I can't tell you how many clients have come to us for emergency help after their original developers caused serious problems by not following industry standards in modifying their shopping cart,” he says. The company currently has a client that has spent nearly double their original investment on fixing a badly coded cart that prevented successful checkout. As a result, they experienced months of delays in launching their online product. “For small business owners dependent upon online sales for revenue, nothing is worse than a delayed rollout,” Morgan says. “Don't skimp: invest in quality developers the first time around.”

Dodd Caldwell, co-founder of MoonClerk, a web-based software that allows small businesses to accept online payments, says every ecommerce site owner needs to make sure the digital tools for the checkout are “efficient, safe, and easy for your customers to use.”

According to Caldwell, ask developers the following questions:


  • What security systems does it have in place?
  • What resources are available to you for troubleshooting problems and resolving potential failures?
  • Does the checkout process do everything you need it to do without tiring consumers with redundancy or unnecessary steps?

Never store a customer's credit card information on your site

This may sound contrary to a small business owner’s wish to expedite the checkout process, but the repercussions could be costly should your online vendor fail a compliance audit. According to Morgan, storing customer credit card information on your site and/or server is a “huge” financial and security risk.

While there is no legal prohibition preventing a non-PCI (Payment Card Industry) compliant merchant from storing credit card information online, the terms of service of major credit card issuers require that transactions are completed using a PCI compliant service,” he says. “A merchant's ability to accept cards may be rescinded should an online vendor fail a compliance audit. If a business owner is not compliant, the time and money to resolve the issue could be significant.”

Make cyber security a priority
With recent headlines of fraud and consumer identity theft at major retailers, small business owners need to place a premium on data security. Dom Morea, senior vice president of First Data, a provider of mobile and ecommerce solutions, concurs.

Fraud costs both merchants and individuals billions of dollars each year,” he explains.. “Small businesses must do everything they can to protect themselves and their customers. Merchants should look to payment processors that encrypt card data upon the swipe, which will help provide customers with protection from fraud during and after the transaction.”

Check your analytics
Is there a drop in your sales conversion rates when customers begin the online checkout process? Examine what your analytics are telling you. Perhaps it's not the digital tool you're using that's causing customers to not complete online purchases, but rather the way your site is guiding customers through the checkout process.

According to Caldwell, customers often drop out in the checkout process if they read “confusing information or text about shipping or delivery [of products].” To prevent this, Caldwell advises small businesses to be as specific as possible about “when, how, and for how much the product will be delivered or shipped.” 

In this vein, rather than swap one digital resource for another, small businesses might only need to make tweaks to improve the checkout process. An example would be making sure that the checkout process has the same style and design (such as colors and fonts) as the rest of the site, says Caldwell. He feels this can improve the conversion rates. Also, keep the checkout process as short as possible.

Eliminate any unnecessary fields or questions that the customer has to fill in and answer,” explains Caldwell. “People will give up during the checkout process if it feels too long.”

Update technology
It’s not enough for your company’s website to have the right digital tools for online purchases. You need to be mobile ready as well. “Consumers are turning to their mobile devices for browsing and shopping now more than ever,” says First Data’s Morea. “Plus, with the ability to easily bounce between pages, customers are likely to return to the site, select items, purchase gift cards, or share 'wish list' findings with others.

And by making sure your technology is current, customers will not be hampered with the burden of printing out coupons and rewards or holding on to paper loyalty cards, adds Morea. They will be able to use their smartphones or tablets to find online coupons, which can further streamline the checkout process.

“Merchants should respond to their customers' desires by seeking out a point-of-sale system that has an integrated loyalty program,” explains Morea. “It simplifies the loyalty process for merchants, and customers can connect via their smartphone to receive offers and redeem rewards.”

The rise of mobile has certainly changed the face of business as we know it, and mostly for the better. Now that pretty much everyone has a smartphone, it is important that those phones are equipped with the right tools to keep up with the hectic life of a business professional. Having to put something off until you can get back to the office or hotel room could cost time, money, and even sales. That makes having everything you need in one mobile package a smart choice.Steve-Strauss--in-article-Medium.png


Take a look at these five apps that will add functionality to your phone – and life - with ease:


Audio Memos


Audio Memos is a great app that lets you record audio quickly and easily, whether you’re leaving yourself a reminder or recording a meeting or lecture. Lifehacker called it “the best voice recording app,” and it’s easy to see why – it’s simple, easy to use, and incredibly useful.


The app can even be set to start recording when it hears voices, so you can avoid long silences at the beginning of your recordings. Use the various extensions to trim your recordings, compress them for email, and upload everything to Dropbox, Box, Evernote, Google Drive, or simply send messages via email.




What do you do with those 20 or 50-odd, assorted business cards you’ve collected after you leave the conference? Most of us do a quick sort, and even then, the ones we keep often just get tucked away. Is there a better way to organize them? You bet.


With CardMunch, you just snap a picture of a business card and the app does the rest. It automatically converts the text on the business card into an address book contact using your mobile phone’s contact system. Snap a picture, ditch the card. Additionally, since CardMunch is owned by LinkedIn, you can take that contact information and add the person as a connection on LinkedIn, making it easy to view even more info through their profile right away.

Click here to read more articles from small business expert Steve Strauss



MightyMeeting is a powerful tool that ensures you are never unprepared for a meeting. You can:


  • Store PowerPoint presentations and PDF files and share them any way you want to.
  • Set up online meetings that anyone can connect to using their phone, tablet, or computer.
  • Download documents to your device before you head out to a spot where you know that you are going to be without an internet connection, and use Nearcast to share them over Bluetooth between any iOS devices in the room.
  • You can even create an interactive whiteboard that everyone can use to share ideas.




I travel a lot, giving speeches and what not, and TripIt is my go-to travel app. Here’s how it works: with each travel reservation you make – car rental, flight, hotel, etc– you simply forward the confirmation to TripIt and the site combines them all and sends you back a master calendar/confirmation/itinerary. The elegant itinerary then syncs with Apple and Google Calendars. It also contains weather info for where you are going, as well as maps and directions for each stop on your travels. TripIt Pro adds real-time flight information, a flight finder, and more to an already robust app.



This is another of my favorite business apps. Hightail is a great way to share large files that might otherwise be practically impossible to send. The app lets you send files up to 2GB instantly from your computer or mobile device, and store an unlimited amount of files online. Such large attachments usually upset regular email servers.


At Hightail.com (formerly YouSendIt), you can see who has downloaded your files, and even control who can and can’t make changes to those files. Finally, you can also sign documents through Hightail and return them immediately, making sure that contracts, mocks, and other documents take as little time as possible to get approved.


These apps help make your phone or tablet the only device you need to get everything done. Do you have an app you can’t live without? Share it with us.

About Steve Strauss

Steven D. Strauss is one of the world's leading experts on small business and is a lawyer, writer, and speaker. The senior small business columnist for USA Today, his Ask an Expert column is one of the most highly-syndicated business columns in the country. He is the best-selling author of 17 books, including his latest,The Small Business Bible, now out in a completely updated third edition. You can listen to his weekly podcast, Small Business Success, visit his new website TheSelfEmployed, and follow him on Twitter. © Steven D. Strauss.


You can read more articles from Steve Strauss by clicking here

Rainy_Day_Fund_body.jpgby Robert Lerose.


If you lost your best-paying client today, how would you make up the difference in income until they were replaced? If the economy stalled and your customers put a hold on orders, could you keep your business running until things picked up? Setting money aside in a rainy day, or emergency, fund can help you stay afloat during severe or unexpected downturns in your cash flow. It takes discipline and planning to open and maintain them, but they should be part of the overall financial strategy for practically every business. Here are three expert viewpoints on how best to manage them.   


Ask three key questions

While the general idea of a rainy day fund is probably understood by most business owners, the particulars are often up for debate, even among financial professionals. "It's not a fund, but a collection of funds," says Stephen Nelson, a Redmond, Washington-based CPA. "The most important part is that you've got enough cash to keep the business going."


Nelson says that money in one fund might cover your expenses if a client is late in paying or if a vendor demands payment sooner than expected. A second fund could be tapped if you lose a major customer or a vital employee departs, along with the income they generated.


There is no one formula to figure out the amount of cash to set aside, but Nelson breaks the problem down by starting with three questions. First, how much extra cash does your business need to smooth out any short-term bumps? "If your small business is scrambling to pay the bills, the simplest thing is to have a bigger business or checking account balance," Nelson explains. "You just have to keep adding cash until you're out of scramble mode."



Second, how much would you need to survive a major disruption, such as the unexpected cancellation of a big order? Nelson admits that it is difficult to plan for something like this and suggests doing a Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats—or S.W.O.T—analysis to come up with contingency plans.


Third, how much money would you need if you had to close your business and find other work? "You don't want to be in a situation where you've depleted every bit of cash you have," Nelson says. "You're going to have some period of transition that will be different, depending on your business. You have to have a plan for this. Even if you're a successful entrepreneur, you may end one business before you're ready to begin the next one, so you need to be able to fund that."


The six month plan

While it would be tempting to use funds in a rainy day account to help pay for regularly scheduled expenses—such as payroll taxes, utilities, and insurance premiums—small businesses should draw from them for emergencies only. Still, this can be interpreted broadly.


"You try to estimate what could happen and then put money aside for that," says John McCoy of Westerville, Ohio-based McCoy Wealth Advisors. "Let's say the air conditioning decides to go out when it's 110 degrees or you've got to buy a new computer—these were things that you weren't expecting to happen that could hurt."


Like Nelson, McCoy says that there is no universal way to calculate an adequate dollar amount to store in a rainy day fund, but a careful analysis of your cash flow and expenses can point you in the right direction. For example, a business that derives 90 percent of its income from one client should have sufficient funds to cover its sudden loss—and then some. "When you're trying to replace customers, there is always a lead time to sign up new customers and then there's a lead time to get your first check from them," McCoy says. "It's not a quick process in a lot of instances."


McCoy says that a good target is to have at least three to six months of cash reserves in the fund. While each business is different, having a business plan that is reviewed regularly can be a good tool in figuring out an amount to have on hand.


View them like insurance

Depending on their circumstances, experts say that some businesses might prefer to have funds that last longer.


"You should set aside six to nine months of business expenses," says John Bonesio, co-founder of Roseville, California-based Simply Great Lives. "Business expenses mean keeping the lights on, paying the employees, and keeping the business open. It's not a percentage of income. It's an amount so that your business can survive six to nine months if you're not generating income."


Bonesio says that businesses should track what they spend their money on, do what they can to minimize expenses, and use the savings to fund the rainy day account. He prefers using a regular savings account or some other type of investment vehicle where the money is liquid and available whenever the business needs it.


"In a sense, having all the money in a savings account costs you because you're not getting a good return on your money. But you have to think about this rainy day fund like insurance. It costs you to have the insurance," Bonesio says, "but you're glad you have it when you need it."

Instagram_body.jpgby Jennifer Shaheen.

Instagram is the photo-sharing social media site with 150 million active users, 70 percent of whom check their Instagram accounts daily. More than a third check several times a day. Those kinds of numbers can be exciting for small business owners who want to promote their businesses.

Instagram is the easiest way to attract your ideal followers and gain new clients,” says Sue B. Zimmerman, owner of SueB.Do, a seasonal apparel store on Cape Cod. Using Instagram, Zimmerman increased sales at her shop over 40 percent in a single year.

Take a look at these six ways to leverage Instagram for your small business:

1. Educate yourself

If you’re not already familiar with Instagram and its functionality, you’ll want to learn how to use this powerful tool specifically for business. Bola Olonisakin, creative director and online strategist at GTech Designs, a marketing agency specializing in web design, custom content, and social media, recommends going directly to the source. “To assist the numerous entrepreneurs who are discovering its benefits, Instagram set up the Instagram For Business blog containing tips, brand spotlights, and news from Instagram headquarters,” she says.

2. Use the right images

“Every business owner needs a visual strategy,” Zimmerman says. However, knowing what type of images you want to share is only the first step. “Strategically using hashtags on your Instagram posts can extend your reach and helps with SEO,” she says. A critical part of a visual strategy is knowing how you’re going to share your Instagram images on other social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Used properly, Instagram can allow a business owner to be effective and efficient.

3. Create a posting schedule

While Instagram originally developed for people to share their images in real time, you don’t need to use the tool that way. Many business owners create pictures or videos that can then be posted at a later date. “It isn’t necessary to post every day, but it is advisable to determine a schedule and decide what to post and when to post it,” Olonisakin says.

Instagram_PQ.jpg4. Go behind the scenes

“One of the great things about Instagram is that you can really use it to humanize your brand,” Zimmerman says. She recommends using video to show behind the scenes action in your business, such as product creation, setting up displays, and more. “Share pictures of your team members,” she says. “People are more likely to support your business when they feel like they know you.”

5. Provide content of value

How-to videos, incentive offers, and genuinely entertaining images give people a reason to follow your Instagram account. Once you have followers, make sure to encourage engagement, Olonisakin says. “When you post an image or a quote, encourage people to react to it,” she says. “If it’s a quote, ask people if they think that it is true or not. If it’s food, ask people to post whether they would try it. The more posts you get on an image, the more other people are likely to see it.” Don’t forget that social media is a two-way street. “Engage with your followers from other social media platforms by following them,” she adds. “‘Like’ their photos. Leave comments.”

6. Keep it local

For many small businesses, emphasizing local connections is a key part of their marketing strategy. “You can create very niched Instagram accounts by giving each one a distinct name or handle,” Zimmerman says. For instance, you can create Instagram accounts for specific aspects of your business, such as a bridal retailer who also sells prom dresses and special occasion wear in addition to wedding gowns. For businesses in destination locations, consider including that location in your handle. “This can be extremely valuable, as it helps people discover your business when they’re visiting,” she adds.

When used correctly, Instagram can be an effective tool for promoting your brand. The app is available free through iTunes, Google Play, and the Windows Phone store. You may soon find that it becomes one of your most effective social media marketing tools.

Mobile_Voices_body.jpgby Jennifer Shaheen

In 2011, Apple released the first version of Siri, the app that enables iPhone users to conduct online searches using only their voice. Since that time, smartphones have become ubiquitous—more than two-thirds of all American adults have one, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project—and voice search capabilities have grown exponentially. Google’s Android platform now supports voice search that rivals Siri’s performance.

There are several reasons why consumers are adopting voice technology with such enthusiasm. In a study entitled, Google Search by Voice: A Case Study, a team of researchers cite convenience, safety, and user expectations as the primary drivers of voice search adoption.

In response, Google has changed Hummingbird, one of the programs they use to determine site rankings. The primary shift, according to Google spokesman Matt Cutts is away from keywords toward a more natural way of speaking, which he terms “conversational search.”

“People want to be able to search in all kinds of ways,” Cutts said in a July statement, prior to the changes to Hummingbird. “They don’t want to think about keywords if they can avoid it, and I think over time, we’ll get better and better at understanding that user’s intent whenever we’re trying to match that up and find the best set of information or answers or documents—whatever it is the user’s looking for.”

How voice search will impact your business marketing

“It is important for business owners to optimize their SEO for voice search,” says Cammi Pham, community manager for Filemobile, a marketing firm that coordinates and supplies user-generated content to major brands. “When someone uses a voice search app, they’re most likely not going to use keywords such as ‘best cupcake New York.’ A voice search for a local cupcake shop will sound like ‘Where is the best cupcake shop in New York?’”

Mobile_Voices_PQ.jpg“Don’t write for search engines; write your content for the consumers,” Pham adds. “Business owners should optimize their websites and social networks with long tail keywords that are more likely to be used by consumers.”

A long tail keyword is a combination of three to four words that people would commonly put together when searching for your business, such as “bridal shop plus size Chicago” or “tax accountant small business return.” A good best practice is to develop a list of the long tail phrases you’d most prefer to   be located with. . Make sure that these phrases are actually in alignment with why your customers choose your business.

Social media and reviews become even more important with voice search

You may already recognize social media’s impact as a generator of positive word-of-mouth on behalf of your small business. In the voice-driven search era, your social media presence can also have an impact on your site ranking.

“I find a lot of businesses spend money buying ads but they forget to optimize their profile,” Pham says. “Make sure you fill out every field in your Google+ local page. Google+ strongly impacts search results.” Reviews are also very important. “Ask for reviews,” she says. “Consumers and search engines favor reviews. Consumer trusts their peers more than marketers.”

GoogleHumm_Body.jpgby Jennifer Shaheen.

Hold on to your hats, small business owners. Everything you thought you knew about SEO and making sure your customers could find your business online may not be true anymore. That’s thanks to Google’s recent adoption of Hummingbird, its new, more dynamic method for improving search results.

“The Hummingbird algorithm is significant as it changes Google from being a search engine to an information engine,” says Mert Sahinoglu, a partner in Chicago’s Falcon Living Real Estate. He has been a digital marketing consultant for over a decade and says that for the small business owner, “This means that they will have to provide more information and multimedia content to their Google+ profile.”

“It’s important to state that Hummingbird is not just an algorithm update,” adds George Zlatin, director of operations at Digital Third Coast Internet Marketing, a Chicago-based SEO consulting and marketing firm. “It is a structural update to the algorithm that affects 90 percent of search queries. To put that in perspective, when Google releases a normal algorithm update, that usually affects anywhere from one to three percent of queries. So this is much, much larger.”

Widespread smartphone and tablet use led to Hummingbird

“In mobile search, thanks to technologies such as the iPhone’s Siri, customers are asking more questions rather than typing keywords,” Sahinoglu explains. Keyword-based searching is still practiced by the majority of desktop users, but Sahinoglu expects this to change. “As Google improves Hummingbird, questions will replace keywords as customer confidence in getting the right answer for the question increases.”

GoogleHumm_PQ.jpgHummingbird may already be helping your small business

“If you create a lot of good content on your website that is relevant to your business you are more likely to get more traffic from that than pre-Hummingbird,” says Zlatin. “Hummingbird does not mean that Google doesn’t use traditional ranking factors anymore, such as keywords, backlinks to your site, or content. It is just a new framework put on top of it.”

Best practices for small businesses

It’s very important to understand that Hummingbird places a high value on information from Google+ profiles and social media platforms. This means your business may have some more work to do besides the creation and sharing of keyword-rich, unique content on your website and social media platforms.

“You should provide as much detail as possible in your Google+ Local profile, including opening/closing hours,” Sahinoglu says. Images are also becoming increasingly important. Sahinoglu recommends that profile photos should always be selected with marketing in mind. “Photos are definitely becoming the first impression a new customer sees about a business in the new Google.”

Hummingbird will also push small businesses to network with their geographic area customers or with their niche group of customers more on Google+, according to Sahinoglu. Another key factor to consider is your Google + Authorship authority. Google + Authorship is a verification that links online content to the person who wrote it. The more published content you have out there, the more important you become in Hummingbird’s eyes. You will get a bigger boost from content that appears on sites you don’t actually control.

SBC newsletter logo.gifContent is still king

“The best advice I can give small business owners is to really focus on adding unique content to their websites.” Zlantin says. “Talk about what you know. Talk about what customers are asking you. This type of content is going to bring more traffic from Hummingbird.” He adds, “There is no way you can predict all of the search terms people will write, so it’s better to just focus on writing content that is important to them.”

“Start building an extensive Q&A library about your products or services,” Sahinoglu recommends. “This could be a brand-related Q&A or a non-brand product/service Q&A. Optimize a unique page for each Q&A.”

Going forward: Be prepared for change

Google is continually refining and adjusting all of the algorithms they use to determine search results. This upgrade to Hummingbird is sure to be followed by others in the future. As a small business owner, maintaining awareness of these changes and implementing recommended best practices is the best way to ensure favorable search engine rankings.  

eCommerce_Body.jpgby Jennifer Shaheen.

There are three reasons why retailers should want to use the recommended product feature on their websites, explains Dave Huckaby, author of the Grabapple Guide to E-Commerce. “You increase conversion rates, increase ticket size, and increase user engagement,” he says. “Amazon is the king of product recommendations, and we can all learn from their example.”

Carol Friedman, owner of Books to Bed, which sells children’s sleepwear, agrees. “I wanted the Amazon effect,” she says. “After adding the recommended product feature to our website, we saw an increase in how long our visitors were staying on our website. And the longer they stay, the more they spend.”

Making the most of the recommended products feature

There are two ways for a retailer to add the recommended product feature. The first option, custom-coded websites, generally incorporate a SAAS (software as a service)-based solution where a third party manages the recommended product feature for a monthly fee. Custom coded websites are a pricey option, costing at least $5,000, which Huckaby says is typically out of reach for many small businesses. On the other hand, a majority of e-commerce sites, including Shopify, Yahoo Stores, and Big Commerce, incorporate a recommended product functionality as part of their standard package, with enhanced versions available as an upgrade.

“It's one thing to have a recommended products feature, it's another thing to use it strategically,” says Linda Bustos, director of e-commerce research at Elastic Path, a provider of e-commerce software. “The biggest mistake is using defaults out of the box, and not applying appropriate merchandising rules to your tools.

Taking a hands-on approach is essential to success with the recommendation products feature, Bustos adds. “The key is to begin with your sales strategy, and ensure your tool is set up to deliver you goals. Systems that automatically generate recommendations require some behind-the-scenes fine-tuning to ensure that your customers are seeing the products you want them to see.

“Whichever platform you choose, take a quick run through the instructions, watch any videos the host may provide, and see what the tool’s limitations are,” Huckaby recommends. “The best way to learn the software is to just start playing with it. See what you can do and what you can’t.”

eCommerce_PQ.jpgHuckaby, who uses Big Commerce to host his own e-commerce sites, used this method to discover a problem. “On the categories pages on my site, there’s lots of relevant text, which is great for Google, but that text is the first thing the customer sees.” he says.  “They have to scroll down to see the product. I had to go into the code and fix that myself. It’s an example of how these solutions aren’t necessarily tailored to the needs of the retailer. You have to be willing to go in and tweak them.”

Location is everything: The best place to display product recommendations

“Where you show product recommendations matters,” Bustos says. “It's very common to do so on a product page, but you can also use the recommended product feature to display merchandise on your home page based on past visit viewing behavior or incoming search terms. You can also make use of the recommended product feature right after the action ‘add to cart’ and on your cart page.”

“You want to alter your product recommendations based on where your customer is in the buying process,” Huckaby adds. “If your customer is looking at bass boats, for example, you can recommend other bass boats. But if they’ve started spending a lot of time looking at one particular bass boat, you’ll want to display trolling motors, oar locks—the type of add-on items that would increase their satisfaction with the purchase. Once they have that boat in their shopping cart, you want to recommend the specific bolt-on accessories that are made for that particular bass boat.”

SBC newsletter logo.gifCreating your own recommended products feature

Using your site-search feature, you can create your own recommended products feature if the results you’re getting from your embedded tool aren’t satisfactory. “Let’s say during the holiday season you want to offer gift sets containing several items, but your system doesn’t have the capacity,” Huckaby says. “Making use of your site-search feature, you can do a search by tags to include all of the gift sets. Then you save this search as a static web page, and link to it from your product page. When customers click on the link, they’re presented with all of the gift sets.”

Test everything

“As the store owner, you want to keep a log,” Huckaby says. “Track your results over 90 days to see how things are working. Then, if you go in and make some tweaks, you’ll want to track those as well.”

Bustos also recommends extensive testing of the recommended product feature. Her list of what to look at includes where the recommendations are placed; how many per page; and the price points. She also advises retailers to use language such as “you might like” and “recommended for you” rather than “similar item” or “goes perfect with.”

HolidayEcommerce_Body.jpgby Jennifer Shaheen.

If you’re in e-commerce, you know the crucial holiday selling season is right around the corner. And with consumers looking for the best deals—and Amazon expanding the range of products and services it offers—it’s getting increasingly difficult for independent retailers to compete.

With these concerns in mind, we turned to leading e-commerce experts to ask them what small business owners need to do right now to enjoy a more profitable holiday season.

1. Seed the ground now for holiday sales

In an environment of economic uncertainty, customers want to make the most out of their purchasing dollar. Ron Rule, an e-commerce engagement expert, urges retailers to start offering gift cards on their websites now. “There is a psychological difference between gift cards and coupons and they're perceived differently by buyers,” he says. “A coupon means you're saving money, but a gift card is money.” These gift cards can be used to make additional holiday purchases, boosting your customer’s buying power. “In the end, you're still just discounting your order but that difference in perception to the buyer will make result in a better response than a coupon of the same value,” Rule adds.

2. Time is of the essence

For every person who’s starting their holiday shopping right now, there are plenty who wait until the very last minute. That’s why it’s important to be clear about your delivery times, according to Andrew Youderian. The author of Profitable e-Commerce operates several e-commerce businesses. “Shipping times are always important to communicate clearly, but there's no other time of the year when it's as important to get it right as during the holiday season,” he says. “At the forefront of most shoppers’ minds is: ‘Will this be here in time?’”

Amazon Prime’s two-day delivery has made it an incredibly popular option among holiday shoppers. When you’re competing with Amazon, you need to provide the same level of service. Details matter, Youderian says, adding, “Make sure you're very explicit about when items will ship and, more importantly, when you guarantee they will arrive. Don't simply say things like ‘Three-Day Shipping’. Instead, give an exact arrival time so customers don't have to guess or calculate themselves.”

HolidayEcommerce_PQ.jpg3. Highlight your recommended products

“Gift buyers want to get the perfect gift with the least amount of research,” says Youderian. “So while they know Dad would love a new power drill, they really aren't interested in researching tools for two hours to find it. Make life easier on them, and prominently recommend your top-selling products, and the best choices for different types of applications and users.” Top-of-the-page placement is often best, as it helps you capture the attention of shoppers too busy to scroll down. “Keeping these recommendations short, specific, and to the point will dramatically increase the chance of the shopper buying that gift from you,” he says.”

4. Reach out to existing customers

Remember to re-engage past customers, says Rule. “It's a million times easier to sell to someone who's already purchased from you than it is to attract a new customer,” he says. “The best way is to segment your customer list based on what they've previously purchased and email them a promotion on something else they're likely to buy. Even sending the same message to everyone is better than doing nothing.”

5. Build demand through strategic blogger outreach

Terry Lin, creator of the podcast, Build My Online Store, recommends reaching out to bloggers as a long-term strategy to boost holiday sales. “Bloggers enjoy sharing new stuff they like with their audience, so reaching out and sending them a sample to provide a product review, or working together to host a giveaway contest is a great way to get started,” he says. “In addition, you'll also get on the radar of other bloggers in the market as the recognition snowballs over time.” The fall season is the ideal time to leverage established blogger relationships by asking for their input and participation in holiday marketing campaigns.

6. Don’t forget to say thank you

“Using a smartphone, record a 60-second  thank you video and send it out to all your customers over the past year giving them a quick update on the business, and include a coupon code at the end of the video thanking them for their support,” Lin say. “People buy from brands they know, like, and trust, and nothing conveys this better than seeing the owner of the business in a video. Once it's recorded, promote it across your social media channels, email list, friends, family, and colleagues.”

GuardDuty_Body.jpgby Jennifer Shaheen.

When an unauthorized party gains access to any of your customer’s personal information, this is known as a data breach. Says Don Klaskin, Managing Director of Corporate Resolutions Inc., a security and investigation firm: “Small businesses often don’t believe they’ll be the target of attacks. So they do not invest in their systems as much as larger organizations.” In March 2013, the Ponemon Institute, a research center dedicated to privacy, data protection and information security policy, reported that more than half of the small businesses they’d surveyed had experienced a data breach.

The consequences of a data breach can be significant. The first hit comes to the relationship you have with your customers and business partners; if they do not feel that their private information is safe with you, they may no longer be willing to work with you at all. And the bad publicity that surrounds a data breach can negatively impact your future growth.

There are several ways a data breach can impact you financially. In addition to lost sales, there’s a risk that your intellectual property could be sold or used by your competition. Regulatory fines and lawsuits can result in tremendous expenses.

You’ll also want to have a conversation with your insurance agent. Standard commercial property and liability insurance does not protect you from data breaches, which can mean you’re left trying to cover all of the costs of a catastrophic data breach out of pocket. This can bankrupt a small operation.

Data breach insurance is available from all major carriers. There are several levels of coverage available, making it easier for you to comply with regulatory requirements, restore customer confidence, and defend yourself in case of lawsuits.

Internal and external threats

As a responsible business owner, you want to protect your customers, and you want to protect yourself. The first step to ensuring that you’re doing everything you can to keep customer data safe is to look at how data is being handled within your organization.

The common assumption is that most data breaches are the result of a hacker’s concentrated efforts, but that’s actually not the case. According to the Ponemon Institute, the primary causes of data breaches were employee or contractor mistakes; lost or stolen laptops, smart phones, and storage media as well as general procedural mistakes. Criminals don’t have to steal our data—we’re giving it away.

The problem of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)

GuardDuty_PQ.jpg“Your company’s data is at risk. But the threat isn’t from cybercriminals. Instead it is your own employees who are often unwittingly putting your data at risk by failing to ensure their mobile devices are safe and secure,” begins “Employees Tell The Truth About Consumer Data”, a report from Aruba Networks. As businesses become more mobile, more and more of us are using our own personal laptops, tablet computers, and smartphones for work. Aruba estimates that half of us will be using personal devices for work by 2017.

While BYOD has some advantages for the small business owner, this cost-savings carries a risk premium. You can’t prevent your employees from losing their laptops, tablets, or smartphones. You can’t control your employees from logging onto unsecure networks, which makes your data vulnerable. You can’t control who has access to your employees’ devices: the manager you trust with everything could very easily have a relative that might create a risk to your business.

While it’s important to understand that, ultimately, you can’t control what your employees will do with company data, it’s still important to have strong, documented policies and procedures in place regarding what types of data employees are allowed to access and how that data must be secured. In a list of best data security practices relevant to BYOD, experts recommend insisting on regular data backups and strong device passwords.

PCI Compliance: What you need to know

Protecting credit card information is obviously a top priority for the business owner. If you accept credit cards, you need to operate your business in a way that is PCI Compliant. PCI Compliance means adhering to the best practices for merchants spelled out by the PCI Security Council, a trade group that includes all of the major credit card companies.

https://smallbusinessonlinecommunity.bankofamerica.com/servlet/JiveServlet/downloadImage/4542/Image-CTA-v2.1.gifThe main thing you need to know about PCI compliance is that your business should not be  storing customer credit card information. Online shopping carts, for example, allow your customer’s credit card information to ‘pass through’ to the payment processor without your staff ever being able to access that information. If for any reason you take credit card information over the phone, data must be destroyed immediately after you’ve entered it in your payment processing system. Be hyper-vigilant about this. Credit card companies aren’t forgiving of mistakes, and your customers won’t be, either.

Be on guard: Best practices to keep your customer data safe

While there’s no way to completely eliminate the chances of a data breach, you can take steps to minimize the risk. The best approach addresses both internal and external threats. Here’s what you need to do:

1. Invest in your data systems and backups. Review your internal data security systems and invest in extended measures for protecting customer and company information. Be sure you’re your backing up your information for extended periods of time. Klaskin explains, “Many small businesses do not invest in firewall protection or extended back-ups due to cost. And this can cost them more in the long run.”

2. Put restrictions on data. Restrict access to essential information only, and let employees know how you expect them to handle that data. Look at restricting export access from your customer data storage applications and adding extended permissions on certain company files that contain intellectual property.

3. Provide regular reminders about data security. You want your team to be mindful of the location of their laptop, tablet, and smartphones. You may even want to look into tools for monitoring these devices, such as Prey Project for various devices or Spector CNE for reviewing desktop computer activity.

4. Double-check your web store’s compliance. If you run an online store talk to your web team to ensure that the shopping cart used on your website is PCI compliant. Visit the PCI Security Standards website for more hints on how to keep credit card data secure.

5. Double check outside vendor policies. Any time you share data with a third-party site, your data becomes vulnerable. Do your due diligence on how the third-parties you work with protect your data, and what actions they will take if your data is breached. Accountability is important.

Penguin_Body.jpgby Jennifer Shaheen.

On May 22nd, the rules of the Internet changed. That’s when Google introduced Penguin 2.0, the latest version of the algorithm it uses to determine website rankings and filter spam content out of search results.

For some small businesses, this was good news.  “I was so happy,” says Sam Spano, the owner of Copper Fields Designs, a Yonkers, New York-based manufacturer of fine art for the garden. “All of a sudden, we had this spike in interest for our products. We started getting all kinds of calls–even though we hadn’t changed how we were using updating our website[DP1] . I asked our new web development team what happened, and they told us, ‘Penguin happened.’”

Other companies didn’t notice any impact at all. Ken Scarbrough of Ultimate Dive Travel, whose company relies heavily on his search position as a way to promote their dive tour business said, “We’ve checked all our analytics. It doesn’t matter which metric we look at: nothing seems to have changed. Our SEO is still working for us.”

The situation was more disconcerting for other business owners. “We were doing everything right,” says Patrick Weir, CEO of EZTrackIt, a package tracking software company. “It’s very frustrating to see your site fall off the first page in the wake of Penguin's update.”

What is Penguin 2.0?

There are at least 4.85 billion webpages online. Sorting through all those webpages to identify and rank those sites that best meet a search inquiry is a monumental task, especially when you consider that correct results are expected to appear almost instantaneously. The mechanism Google uses to accomplish this task is a very complex, very secret algorithm called Penguin.

Penguin is designed to provide the high quality search results you’re seeking while simultaneously filtering out fraudulent or spam sites that use what are known as black hat techniques to artificially inflate their search engine ranking results. Because spammers are always changing and refining their techniques in the hopes that they can better game the system, Google plays defense by continually changing and refining their algorithm—hence, the release of their latest version known as Penguin 2.0.

It’s an arms race of sorts. This time, some completely legitimate small business websites got caught in the cross-fire, though. Some sites suffered, dropping several positions, or even pages, in search engine rankings, while other sites benefitted from being re-examined by Google using the new parameters for quality set by Penguin 2.0.

Google says that only 2.3 percent of all English language websites will be affected by the changes. Still, approximately 56 percent of those 4.85 billion webpages are in English, which means a 2.3 percent impact rate is fairly significant—that’s 62.5 million webpages.

Penguin_PQ.jpgWhy didn’t Penguin affect all small business websites the same way?

Not all websites were affected by Penguin in the same way because there’s more than one way to build and maintain a website. There are several factors that Penguin considers when determining your site ranking. Links are especially important: sites that added a high volume of inbound links, especially over a relatively short period of time, were the sites that Penguin hit the hardest. For years, spammers have been artificially inflating their search engine rankings by creating tremendous numbers of low-quality inbound links, a strategy you can read about here. If the Penguin algorithm determines you’re using a similar technique on your website, you’ll be penalized.

Aaron Wall, the SEO expert and highly respected tech blogger behind SEOBook.com, has been quick to point out that the results from Penguin 2.0 sometimes don’t appear to make a lot of sense. Websites that have no content at all yet have what is known as an authority domain name, he notes, now rank above sites that have pages of content but a less desirable domain name.

Post-Penguin: Slow and steady SEO

If you’re not sure if Penguin has affected your business website, the first step is to do a Google search for your company. Is your site turning up where you expect it? If you’ve gone down in the rankings, you’ll want to take action to recover your status.

https://smallbusinessonlinecommunity.bankofamerica.com/servlet/JiveServlet/downloadImage/4542/Image-CTA-v2.1.gifQuality website content is more important than ever. You need to make sure you're putting up content that will get shared and read by your audience. Social media plays a critical role here. If you’ve avoided Facebook or Twitter until now, it’s time to reconsider these tools.

Examine all the links you currently have on your site. Consider ditching the links that aren’t quality; they have a tremendous negative impact on your site ranking under Penguin 2.0. Build links with credible sources at a steady pace and you’ll find your ranking return.

Were you blindsided by the Penguin update?

We all know how important it is to have our business websites appear on the first page of a Google search. Having your site suddenly vanish from that position can be a very disconcerting experience, and it makes the situation worse if you didn’t know the changes were coming.

Raising your awareness is key for any business owner who uses the web as a central part of their marketing endeavors.  WebProNews is a great, easy to understand resource for the business owner who manages and maintains their own website. For information specifically about any changes at Google, you’ll want to check out Matt Cutts’ blog, Gadgets, Google and SEO.  Matt is the head of the Google Webspam team, and he consistently shares news about any changes that will impact user experiences. This isn’t the first time that Google has changed the Penguin algorithm, and it won’t be the last. But it can be the last time you’re surprised by the Penguin.

WebsiteExpiration_Body.jpgby Heather Chaet.


Milk. Credit cards. Warranties. If you were a contestant on The $25,000 Pyramid, you would guess “Things That Have an Expiration Date”…and move onto the next block to reach those mega winnings. Other items your teammate could also have said? Small business websites. Yes, your company’s virtual hub can expire. Not only is the technology for websites constantly changing, the way customers interact with the web is continually morphing. The result? Your older website becomes a liability rather than an asset for your business. But because websites don’t come with “Use By” dates stamped on them, we talked with some website designers and small business owners to discover how to tell if your company’s website has expired.


1. It just looks outdated— especially compared to other sites

There is one simple way to know if your website has expired: go surfing. Log on and see what other websites in your industry look like. Spend a few minutes on each of your competitors’ sites, and note what your site has and—especially what it doesn’t have—compared to them. “It always helps to keep an eye on the competition,” says Jonathan Passley, president and CEO of the web design company PDR Web Solutions, “A simple visual comparison of the sites will give you an idea whether you have fallen behind in terms of web design.” 

2. Your brand is nowhere to be seen

As your company has grown, you’ve honed its look and focus. Think about when someone stumbles onto your seven-year-old site. Does your unique company brand pop off the screen? (Hint: it should.) “If the first impression of your website does not resonate with your demographic, you have lost their attention at kickoff,” says James Trumbly, managing partner of the web development agency HMG Creative, who has written extensively on the impact of a good (or bad) website. “A cohesive brand image and identity is essential to gain credibility among your consumers or clients.”


Zane Schwarzlose, search marketing specialist for web design company Fahrenheit Marketing, notes that most small business websites appear boring and generic because they don’t identify their company’s unique selling propositions [USP]. “Your USP are the positive things you can say about your company that your competitors can't—[what] truly sets your business apart from the crowd. Emphasize these traits throughout your website,” offers Schwarzlose.


WebsiteExpiration_PQ.jpg3. Your site doesn’t have a blog (or it does, but the last post is five months old)

If you only have an “About Us” page and a few testimonials on your site, you’re missing out on a vital way to engage potential customers as well as drive traffic to your site. “Adding a blog to your site brings huge SEO benefits,” says Jessie-Lee Nichols, marketing manager at Quintain Marketing. “Every time you publish a blog post on your site, another page is added to your site map. It is one more page for Google to index and shows Google that you regularly update your site. This boosts your rankings.” Josh Waldron, website designer and founder of Studio JWAL LLC, agrees. “Outdated websites provide basic information about a business, but they rarely offer any information of value. Figure out the questions that your audience has and address them via a blog post or a video,” suggests Waldron.


4. Customers don’t know where to go on your site

Nothing will turn off a potential client faster than a website that is complicated or frustrating to navigate. Test how many clicks it takes “Patty,” your next-door neighbor, to find what she needs on your website. If it is more than three, you need a revamp. “Ease of navigation is key to pull readers into your content,” notes Trumbly. “Think of your layout like a game plan of where you want clients to look and click. A simple, organized layout wins hand over fist against dense copy, dozens of tabs, and multiple, competing messages.”

5. Your site has features customers don’t want or need

If it’s been two years since your last website overhaul, reach out to customers to see what they like and don’t like about your company’s website—and be prepared to be surprised. Elaine Costa, managing partner for Plush Swimwear, recently redesigned her company’s site, but made sure to survey customers before diving in. “Ask your customers what they want to see and what’s not important to them,” says Costa. “There are so many technologies out there these days, you can get lost in trying to guess what is critical or not. We were surprised to learn from our survey that the Live Chat and a Personal Stylist feature were not at all important to our customers, so we didn’t include these in our revamp plans.”


6. Your homepage gives your life story, your co-founder’s life story…

The most up-to-date website is clean and simple. Be honest: are those words you would use to describe your website? “The most common thing I see when clients come to me to redesign a website put in place 10 or more years ago is that their site is trying to be everything to everyone,” says Nichols. “Your homepage should be visual. It shouldn't tell your life history. Create engaging content that will lead a viewer further into your site. Learning to self-edit and letting go of wordy descriptions and corny stock photos will serve you well.”


7. Your site doesn’t cooperate with your phone

Think about your website beyond the laptop—how does it work? “All sites should be optimized for smartphones and tablets, so much Internet traffic is now originating from those sources,” Waldron points out. “Design your website using a platform that facilitates growth instead of hindering it.” Nichols agrees, noting that mobile users account for the majority of web browsers these days and if your site isn't mobile friendly, you have lost that market.”

LogoTips_Body.jpgby Heather Chaet.


The Nike swoosh. The Twitter bluebird. The Starbucks green mermaid. We’re all familiar with these vivid logos. Now think of your logo. You have one, don’t you? A great logo can attract customers even before they know anything about you or your company. Read on to discover what to keep in mind when designing—or redesigning—your logo to carry your company’s image to the next level and beyond.


Know your overall brand personality

You think you know your company and your brand inside and out, but can you describe the feeling and personality you want to portray with your logo? Spend some time detailing your overall brand identity. “I'm often reminding business owners that their logo is only a small portion of their overall brand,” says Vicki James, small business marketing strategist at Stand Out Results. James works with clients for two months, developing an overall brand profile, including the core essence and the personality of their company long before heading to logo-designing stage. This time is vital to create a logo that will portray a company’s essence accurately.


Allan Branch, co-founder of LessAccounting, recently redesigned his company’s logo to be sure it was a good representation of his firm’s personality. “We're a boring accounting app, it's not sexy, no one likes accounting,” says Branch, “but we try our hardest to be friendly, fun, and the least boring we can be.” Branch worked with a designer to throw out any traditional accounting logo ideas. “Our new logo has nothing to do with accounting, no dollar signs, no calculator. In a digital world, we're trying our hardest to feel handcrafted and warm, friendly but not silly,” says Branch.


Answer the tough questions

After you have specified your brand personality (but before you call that graphic designer) determine what you want to do with your logo from a marketing standpoint. How will you reach your customers and look when compared with the competition? Mark Rushworth, head of search at Blue Logic, a digital design and marketing company based in the UK, reminds his clients to stay objective. “Remember, you’re designing your logo for your customers. Take your personal preference for fonts and colors out of the equation,” says Rushworth. He also asks clients to think about whether their logo will resemble their competitors or stand out. These are issues that Rushworth suggests business owners should address before talking with a designer.


Amy Burkert, founder and self-proclaimed “ring leader” of the pet travel website GoPetFriendly.com, thought about what her customers wanted and how to stand out from the crowd. “We have a unique logo—a cartoon dog holding a sign in his mouth that has our web address on it,” Burkert says. “The cute pup with his tail wagging makes you happy and gives the impression that this is a friendly, approachable company [which people want when they are thinking about vacations and their pets].” Burkert has used her flexible logo in a variety of ways for marketing purposes. “We can put him in sunglasses on the beach, show him with a packed suitcase, or give him a big smile with his tongue hanging out and people still recognize him as part of our brand,” she says.


LogoTips_PQ.jpgRemember the basics and keep it simple

As much as you would love for that five-color, detailed picture of your grandmother to be the face of your cookie company, it may not be the wisest choice. Angela Nielsen, president and creative director of One Lily Creative Agency, a full-service strategy and web design company, has developed over 500 logos in the last 13 years and knows what works and what doesn’t. “Consider all mediums the logo will be used in—web, print, marketing materials, promotional items, and so on,” suggests Nielsen. She advises business owners to choose logos with “no more than two or three colors,” which keeps printing costs down, an important factor for any business. “[Also], the logo needs to be scalable to large size (think billboards) or very small (think business cards),” says Nielsen. “The [best] logo is simple, professional, and memorable.”


Rushworth agrees. “Kill the tiny detail. Like faxes, websites are low resolution, so make sure your logo has bold detail,” Rushworth says, “The most basic, [black-and-white] representation of your logo should work equally as well as a high-resolution, color version.” Rushworth suggests thinking of all of ways the logo may be used—from the upper corner on a piece of paper to “the app icon version of your logo. It needs to work [in all formats].”


Get a professional’s help

Though you may be decent at Photoshop, your homemade logo isn’t going to cut it if you want to really stand out. “Your branding should be as brilliant as your business,” says Leslie Ann Akin, owner of Lake Oswego Graphics. “Everything matters. Interview and hire a competent designer to create branding that reflects your business in a style that is significant and meaningful.” Akin warns small businesses against ordering pre-made logo templates found online. “Who wants to do business with someone who has not branded their business with a distinctive style?” Akin asks. “You need to appear worthy of your competitor's clients.”


You can find a designer to fit your budget and timeline. “Young and just-out-of-art-school designers are a good choice—they’re up on all the latest software, know all the tricks, and rock at design,” says Akin, adding, however, that more experienced graphic artists “are often able to get through the process with a little more ease and probably faster.” No matter what designer you go with, Akin reminds small business owners to always be sure to check portfolios and references.


Lauree Ostrofsky, life coach at Simply Leap, LLC and recent author of I'm scared & doing it anyway, decided to work with a designer to redo her logo and had excellent results. “The movement of the dot above the ‘i’ has become a signature for me,” she says. “With a company name like Simply Leap, it often conjures up the image of a big bold jump. While that is an important element of my work, it truly is the series of small shifts you make in your life that lead to a leap.”

ReputationMgmnt_Body.jpgby Jennifer Shaheen.


Navigating the world of online reputation management services can be extremely tricky. The industry is unregulated and Forbes magazine has, in recent reporting, shared stories that might make any small business owner nervous. All this makes researching the real value of online reputation management services that much more important and it begs the question: for the small business owner, is it worth your time and money to invest in online reputation management services?


Small business, high stakes

“Integrity is a platform to market yourself and your business,” explains Marvin Sandberg, a counselor for SCORE, a non-profit small business counseling service. “When your reputation is put into question it can be difficult to bounce back.”


“The fine art market is a small one, but there’s a lot of money in it,” Sandberg says, by way of an example. “People pay hundreds of thousands—even millions—of dollars for genuine and historical pieces. But before they do, they want to have that artwork authenticated appraised and provenance researched. I privately consult with a firm who had a situation in which they were unfairly skewered in the press in a way that made their firm appear unethical. This firm’s integrity was put into question—and it took  time to bounce back—all because this article appeared whenever the name was searched on Google.”


Brent Franson, vice president at Reputation.com says, “There are numerous statistics that show reviews materially impact a company's financials.” Franson cites a recent Harvard Business School study of Yelp.com that found a one-star difference in a business’s online rating impacted its bottom line by between five and nine percent.


The need for reputation management varies tremendously based on the type of business you’re in. Customers don’t research all purchases with equal diligence. If you’re in a business where you’re selling expertise and trust—think professional services, or very high-end retail—the odds are much greater that your customer is going to be researching you online before they do business with you. Think of reputation management as a life jacket for a certain kind of business: if you’re a ferry boat captain, you’ll want one, but if you run a bowling alley, probably not.


Reputation management services promise to provide a range of services, including reputation monitoring and repair. The former provides small business owners with notification whenever their business is mentioned online, whether that’s on a news website, blog, review site, or social media. Reputation repair takes the process a step further, promising to remove or mitigate unfavorable commentary so it doesn’t appear on the first page of search engine results.


ReputationMgmnt_PQ.jpgThe Internet is written in ink

Erasing content from the Internet is not an easy task. Independent review sites like Angie’s List and Yelp—often a small business’s biggest source of external reviews—seldom, if ever, take down negative commentary. These sites warn reviewers of legal issues, but stand behind the mantra that reviews are freedom of speech. Content removed from websites, blogs, and social media platforms can often be found by a determined searcher using an archival site like Wayback Machine, and once the searcher has found the content, there’s absolutely nothing to stop them from reposting it all over the Internet.


Rather than removing negative commentary, reputation repair services focus their energies on ensuring the search results related to your company are more positive in nature. These techniques can include high-volume targeted searches, generating positive content and commentary regarding your company, acquiring negative domain names, and redirecting traffic from these sites to your company site, and more.


Pricing for these services range from a one-time fee of a few hundred dollars to address problematic content to more than $25,000 for an ongoing reputation repair campaign. Is this money well spent? That’s a question that’s often hard to answer, as there’s no sure-fire way to track all the sales you might have missed because of a critical review. So, for every small business, the reputational risk and potential return on investment will be a unique equation.


Considering the DIY approach

DIY reputation management can be a valid option for the small business owner. If you are uncertain about the value of reputation management services for your company, take the time to discover what you can find out on your own. “Many small businesses can be very surprised by the results that show up on the first page of the search results, especially if they have never really done a search for their business online before,” says John Souza, president of Social Media Magic University. “Also, not all the information will be positive or true.” 


Free tools, such as Google Alerts and Social Mention, can help you determine who’s talking about your business online and what they’re saying.


Lower cost options may already be at your fingertips. If you are paying for a social media management tool like Sprout Social or Raven Tools to manage your day-to-day social media, be sure to check out their extended features for social monitoring.


Repairing a reputation

If you discover problematic content, you have options. Exercise restraint before you respond to negative postings on review sites; adding your commentary can actually boost the visibility of the complaint by making it appear more active. The best response to negative publicity is positive publicity: make strategic use of media connections and solicit positive commentary from your best customers on social media to organically boost your online image.


Once you’ve developed a baseline understanding of what your online reputation is, the next step is to monitor the web for any changes. Google Alerts and Social Mention will deliver emails to your inbox daily, letting you know what is going on. Take the time to read these emails. Social media management tools often have graphs and charts to show you positive and negative feedback. Awareness is key to assessing the seriousness of the situation and crafting an appropriate response.


If you don’t have the resources to handle these tasks in-house, you may want to outsource the content development to a reliable pro, says Souza. “Most businesses do not have time to continue having fresh, original content published week after week so a professional service will help you with everything from blog posts to press releases,” he explains. “A good web reputation management agency will work one-on-one with you to produce maximally effective content.”


QAtendellhacker_Body.jpgby Erin McDermott.


Charles Tendell is often the guy you wished you had called sooner. He’s what’s known in the cybersecurity business as a “white hat hacker”—an expert in the ways malicious hackers try to breach computer systems, who also helps teach businesses how to keep them out. (Think of a Lone Ranger for the Internet era.) Writer Erin McDermott recently talked with Tendell, a Denver-based certified ethical hacker, about protecting small businesses, the challenge of social media, and outsmarting the bad guys.



EM: How did you get started? How do you become an “ethical hacker”?

CT: I got into computers at a pretty young age. My dad brought home our first computer and told me not to touch it—and that was, by far, the biggest mistake my father ever made. I learned my way around the keyboard very quickly, and this was back in the days before we had graphical user interfaces and you had to know the actual command line. As I grew up, I was pretty malicious in high school—I was into the school’s systems, the library’s. If I could get into it, I got into it. I joined the Army right out of high school.


I was self-taught about a lot of the security things I did and the Army gave me the opportunity to go to school, so I got a degree in information systems security. I was in the Army for about six years and did computer forensics, penetration testing, and security architecture for the military police, the military Criminal Investigative Division, the Air Force, and Marines. I helped design security implementations for the 82nd Airborne Division. After I got out, I continued my education, but I worked with companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and a lot of small companies. Then I started a few investigations firms, like what I’m doing now. Along the way, I’ve teamed up with the EC Council to get their certified ethical hacker designation.


EM: The word “hacker” makes some people nervous, even though there are good hackers as well as bad ones. How are “ethical hackers” monitored to be sure they are on the level?

CT: They monitor my activity—I have to give them my continuing practical education points, that show I’m authoring a book or reading this or took this training course. Without those, they can take my certification from me. Beyond that, say you and I are talking and you ask me to do something unethical and I actually do it. Or if you catch me doing something unethical. You can report me to EC Council and they’ll do an investigation, but over the course of the investigation they’ll also suspend my certification. If they do find that I violated the code of ethics, they’ll rescind it and I’ll no longer be able to call myself a certified ethical hacker.


EM: Anyone who wanted to hire an ethical hacker would be able to verify that you and your colleagues are, in fact, genuine good guys? Is there a website?

CT:  With EC Council, you actually have to submit a request in writing. As a security professional, we’re all, well, mildly paranoid [laughs] so privacy is a big deal. But if you submit your request in writing to verify my information, they will respond back and can say he or she is indeed a certified hacker, from this date, and in good standing.


QAtendellhacker_PQ.jpgEM: What happens when you get hired by a small business?

CT: There are two types of clients. There’s the pre-hack client, who just feels they’re going to come under attack and maybe just need to tighten security or get started with a security program. And then there’s the post-hack client, who has been breached and has some information that has been posted online or they’ve had some proprietary information or some intellectual property stolen. They want to know how it happened and what their recourse is.


For the pre-hack clients, I’ll come in and meet with the leaders of the company and find out what security means to them as an organization, what their situation is and what they’re worried about protecting. From there we’ll work together to design a roadmap for security implementation. We’ll do a risk assessment, a gap analysis, and a vulnerability assessment to see what holes might potentially be in their infrastructure. We’ll do a penetration test to verify any vulnerabilities we can validate. Then I’ll show you how to patch those holes.


For the post-hack clients, all of the same processes applies except now I’m tracing back the source of your breach and guiding you down the path of where it went, and here are some of your potential legal avenues. I’m not an attorney, so I can’t give legal advice. In both cases, I get to what’s called a “black hat test,” where the client gives me as little information as possible: “Here’s my URL and here’s my phone number. See what you can get.” Those are a lot of fun because I get to do all of the research and pretend to be the bad guy. Then there’s the “gray hat” one, where they give me their entire network structure and say: “Just tell me what we’ve got.” That’s a little less fun because there’s not as much investigation involved. In both cases now, small business owners are worried about mobile devices.


EM: What are you seeing with mobile devices?

CT:  A lot of companies are now using a BYOD—Bring Your Own Device—policy. They’re saving themselves money by allowing their employees to use their own mobile devices and letting them connect them to email and company WiFi. A lot of breaches are happening because you get the cats with the jail-broken phones or the rooted Androids who can circumvent certain security mechanisms on your network and potentially infect you with malicious software.


EM: If you’re using your laptop to do a lot of things besides financial transactions, there are reports that there are entry points to your computer through sites like Twitter, Facebook, a webcam, etc.

CT: Absolutely. A lot of small business owners, I’ve found, buy one computer and want to be able to do everything from it. But they mix business and personal. They get a business Twitter or Facebook account and they still use it like they would their own personal computer. They go to websites they might not want to go to where they can potentially pick up malicious content or malware. They download files without really thinking about everything. And they don’t really have the back-end protection to prevent some of the attacks there. A lot of people will say they’ve got antivirus software that’s up to date or all these other protections, but there are ways for hackers to make those what’s called “FUD,” or fully undetectable, by your antivirus system and they can honestly infect you.


One really big mistake that a lot of business owners use is making their Twitter password the same as their Facebook password, which is also the same as their email password, which is also the same password to their local machine. A lot of these online social media are designed to be as user-friendly as possible. But on the security end, there’s a triangle that goes Security, Functionality and Ease of Use. As you get closer to any of those pillars, naturally you move away from the others. A lot of social media sites are more geared toward functionality and ease of use, so security isn’t necessarily the top of their list. And it’s far easier to compromise a Twitter account than it is an enterprise email exchange that’s fully patched.


EM: So say I’ve got a bricks-and-mortar store along with an online shop. What are the biggest mistakes for me to avoid?

CT: Aside from not duplicating passwords, and keeping your antivirus and anti-malware software on your machine updated? Be very wary of public WiFi—if you’re going to be doing any transacting there. In social media, if you get an email or message that contains a link in it, even if it’s from your friend or appears to come from someone you know on Facebook—sometimes it may be a photo or a link to a survey there—contact the person who sent it, via another method, before you click on it. In recent months, I’ve seen a lot of people send out that “I Just Won This Great Vacation!” post. [Laughs] I will instantly call or text that person and tell them I think they’ve been compromised and this is what they need to do right away. I take those links into my “sandbox” and oftentimes, sure enough, it’s been what’s called a drive-by Java infection. You click the link and your browser will download a remote-access Trojan, giving an attacker full access to your machine. So, be wary of people sending you links.


Be very, very, very cautious of any type of link, even if you see a message from Facebook’s security center, that says click here to log in or click that link. If it’s telling you that you need to re-log in to that account or go somewhere to take any kind of action, type the URL in yourself or go to Facebook.com and log in normally. Facebook will get you to your message box and you can deal with any security issues there. As often as possible, don’t click the link, especially if it takes you to a log-in page—avoid logging in there. There are ways where hackers are able to do credential harvests, so basically you’ve just given them your log-in and password even though it looks legitimate to you. But somewhere, someone sitting at a terminal just got your Facebook password.


EM: Social media must be a nightmare for the people in your business. Although I suppose it has created a lot of work, too?

CT: [Laughs] It is both a blessing and a curse. It’s got its good things, but when you don’t use it appropriately it’s also got its negative things. A lot of small business owners get the advice that they need to be using social media and all these different avenues to promote their business. And that’s all a small business owner is thinking about—the bottom line. How can I promote my business? How can I increase my revenue? So they jump on these things and security is an afterthought. Their accounts get compromised and send out all these different links, people click on it, and until that happens they’re not really thinking about it.


EM: This has to be pretty exhilarating work for you at times.

CT: It’s good to see the ‘Aha!’ moment. It’s even better when clients ask me to do an assessment or an investigation and they implement the things that I recommend. Then someone tries to hack them again and fails. And then I can show them this is how it was foiled, this is where the attacker came from, this is what they were using—they love that. And I love being able to save the day like that.


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and interviewee. You should consult a qualified professional to assist you in developing and implementing sound security policies and practices.

FBGraph_Body.jpgby Erin McDermott.


Your small business’s Facebook page is about to need a makeover.


Graph Search, the social network’s new internal search engine, is aiming to take away some of Google’s dominance by tapping into information that’s more personal to its one billion-plus users. The key question: Will people trust their friends more than the links Google’s search algorithm produces?


The new element is slowly being rolled out—so far, about five percent of users have access. But an early look at the technology shows why it may be a powerful tool for small businesses. Graph Search harnesses information that real people take their own time to post, identifying themselves along the way with the things that make them happy. The results could lessen the value of strangers’ opinions on service-review sites like Yelp, Angie’s List, Zagat, or TripAdvisor. After all, who would you prefer to listen to for advice about a business, an anonymous poster or a friend you’ve known since the sixth grade?


Think of Graph Search like this:


I’ve lived in my town for just a few years and I’ve come to rely on the advice I get from my hair stylist. Tiffany is not only a small business owner and wizard with color charts, she has always steered me right about other local things, like finding a reliable mechanic and the difference between October’s annual beerfest and brewfest (skip the beerfest).


Tiffany is also a Facebook friend of mine. When I recently got access to the Graph Search beta, I tested it with a question I might otherwise pose to her: I was seeking a pediatric chiropractor. The top result was a nearby office’s Facebook page—and there was Tiffany’s little profile picture below it. That’s because she became a fan of the chiropractor’s page, giving it her virtual recommendation. This is where my real and digital worlds collided.


What else can you now see?


From the new search prompt, once you type something like “People Who Like…” followed by the name of any business on Facebook, it opens a window into the profiles of everyone with that shared affinity, not just your friends. If that affinity happens to be you and your small business, you’ll see a scrolling list of all of the customers who consider themselves your fans, complete with other things they say they like, such as tastes in music, organizations, or what they watch on TV. You can even see if they have some affection for your competitors. One step further: Try typing in “People Who Visited…” followed by the name of your business and you’ll see who has checked in after saying they’ve come through your door. Within these lists should be the clues you need to figure out how to get these clients more engaged with your social media—and by extension, your business—and to become more visible to their friends, and potential new customers.


FBGraph_PQ.jpgThere are also going to be major questions about privacy, as with anything involving the massive social network. One example: A search of “People Who Work at XYZ Café” would bring up the profiles of any employee who identified themselves on Facebook as being part of that business. Paul Crossman, a marketing specialist for social media at Cybermark International, says the new search exposure could shed unwanted light on employees’ postings, particularly if it’s offensive material or conflicts with the company’s mission. One other interesting tool: Change the search terms to “People Who Used to Work at XYZ Café”, and the ranks of former employees pop up. (Check out this spot-on thinkpiece about privacy and other hurdles facing social search.)


It all could dramatically expand a business’s footprint on Facebook. Here are a few early tips from the pros about Facebook Graph Search optimization:


Make a Facebook profile, even if you don’t intend to use it. Local searches are going to bring up your business whether you like it or not. Take the time to make sure your URL is right, the phone and physical addresses are accurate, and you’re listed as being in the right industry. Even some old-school shops generate dozens of likes in some cases, outranking tech-savvy newbie competitors in small markets. Plus, claim your stake so that a hacker (or rogue competitor) can’t hijack it.


Fill in all of the blanks, the more the better. Make sure your “About” section is completely and accurately filled out, with all of the pertinent details and SEO-friendly search terms. “The more check boxes you have checked as a small business means the better chance you have of showing up in results,” says Cappy Popp, a principal and co-founder of Boston-based Thought Labs, a social media strategy advisory group.


Location data is very important. Like the hyper-local search that Google, Yahoo, and other giants are pressing, Facebook Graph Search—and the social network’s advertising setup—will be targeting even the smallest businesses—the enterprises that users see every day. A search for something like “Italian Restaurants Nearby My Friends Like” or “Flower Shops in North Jersey” will show the spots closest to users, so getting your business on Facebook’s map will be crucial. If your business has multiple locations, now’s the time to consider claiming and setting up a page for each of them and adding relevant information like each location’s hours of operation. That way, consumers can find individual locations in Graph Search results, rather than just your brand or main location page.


Likes will matter more, and so will check-ins. Under Graph Search, Popp says Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm for users’ news feed will calculate the timing of fans’ engagement a bit differently. While the equation once favored the reaction to the most recent content, now “likes” will never go away. “If I do a search on ‘Restaurants My Friends Like,’ the results of that will stay static forever,” Popp says. “The more likes you can get as a small business means, by far, you have a better chance of showing up in those search results.” So encourage people to like your Facebook fan page in your physical store and encourage them to also check in. Provide online coupons (through Facebook) that if they like your fan page, they get a certain percentage off their next visit.


Engaging content will remain paramount. The formula won’t change for what draws people to your social media offerings. Frequent posts of relevant and attention-getting information, photos, and offers are the lifeblood of Facebook for small businesses. The more your fans interact with your business on Facebook by liking, commenting on, and sharing your posts, the higher your EdgeRank score will become. And the higher your score, the more likely you are to show up in your fans' news feeds. By taking a look at the newly displayed interests of your fans, it will be easier than ever to see what might draw them to your business. For instance, Kate Dinkel of Cybermark suggests taking a look at the musical interests of your followers. If you notice a number of them are Beatles fans, why not play the Fab Four in your shop? Is there a band that many of them like that is coming to your town? Get tickets and run a contest for your customers. “I think it will be more about content now,” Dinkel says. “You need to be sure that each individual post has positive feedback. It’s also going to be better for promotions—and you’ll be better able to see what your clients really want and you can gear those promotions toward that.”


Think a lot about privacy, too. Access to this new treasure trove may be a delicate thing for some customers. Privacy settings on Facebook are always evolving and many users take months or years to adjust to their comfort level. So just because you have access to all of this new information doesn’t mean you’re now best pals with the fellow who stops in to your shop once a month. Over-familiarity can be killer and cost you a fan, and a customer. Keep the long view of what your demographic is—that’s what the “Graph” part is all about.

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