With the explosion in online tools and applications, small businesses can be understandably bewildered when figuring out a strategy that pays dividends. To cut through the clutter, Robert Lerose spoke with Andy Swindler, president of Astek Consulting, who founded his Chicago-based full-service interactive marketing agency nine years ago. Some edited excerpts from the interview:
RL: What should small business owners keep in mind as they put together a web strategy?
AS: Clearly define your business goals. Certainly you have to be agile enough to make course corrections, but sticking to those goals really can be a guiding light through that process long before you think you need a Facebook page or something else.
RL: What common mistakes do you see websites make?
AS: It probably depends on what era the website was built in. If you go back five years, a lot of websites were still built using Flash. That has largely gone away. Now, everybody uses Google almost every day. Knowing just a little bit about search engine optimization (SEO) can increase the value of your site because you're aligning what you're doing and what you're putting out there with what people are actually typing into Google.
RL: Can you give some examples of relatively simple tactics small business can use?
AS: A blog can be a really easy way to get started. Anybody can go to WordPress and almost instantaneously get a blog up and running. The nice thing about it is that it tends to support some basic SEO tactics fairly well. If you can get people linking to your site and your content that will also elevate you on Google. Another thing I would say is, get some meaningful content on your homepage. The homepage is still the most important page of a website in terms of how Google ranks them. Google’s search algorithm wants to see the terms that are relevant to the business that people are searching for.
AS: It varies depending on the business. If you're not a web designer and you don't have the resources to hire one or you don't have the time to learn this stuff yourself, starting with a template can be incredibly efficient. The nice thing about Word Press is that there are thousands of free themes and templates. I also recommend a site called Templatemonster.
RL: What else?
AS: Speaking more tactically, keep your navigation simple. Bigger buttons, more white space, and a clearer direction about what a user should be doing. You have to find a way to tell your story and lead them through it in a way that makes sense. That's the cardinal rule: you want people to hang around long enough to get to your call to action.
RL: Search engine optimization is a way for website pages to rank highly in a search by using such things as keywords. What perspective can you give about this?
AS: One common tendency is for businesses to really focus on their brand name. But typically what we see is, you're going to come up first in a search for your brand name anyway. But there are people out there who want your product or service and don't know you exist and they think about your product or service in a certain way. There's a free tool called Google Insights. It will give you an at-a-glance view of actual search traffic over periods of time. You can type in multiple keywords and actually chart them out and see how many searches those keywords are getting. Once they're at your website, make sure you tell them something useful or offer them a coupon--whatever you want to do to bring them into your orbit and close that deal.
RL: There's a lot of talk about social media—a lot of pressure, really, for business to have something in place, even if they're not sure which platform to be on. Your thoughts?
AS: Social media is about building relationships and talking to people conversationally. Facebook is a great way to experiment. It's a very easy tool to use. Social reviews, something like Yelp, are as relevant as ever. All the search engines have some kind of local search function built into them. Google, as an example, has Google Places. Every small business needs to go onto Google and claim their business page. It's really important because if you have ownership of it, you can add details, write your own description for your business, and add photos. It's not something you need to maintain as much. Google, Yahoo and Bing—they have a local directory submission process that a small business can go through. You should do it across all three.
RL: Email marketing is still an effective way to reach prospects and customers. What are your recommendations?
AS: There are laws that dictate how you can collect and use email addresses. I recommend putting some sort of email sign-up form on your website right on your homepage. When you send email out, you don't want to send a big blast. There are services that do that and which handle all of the technical backend stuff. We really love a service called MyEmma.
RL: What about buying or renting a list?
AS: I think of that as a last resort because there are so many more genuine or natural ways to get in touch with people. Having a newsletter can be a great way to keep people informed. MyEmma will not accept rented lists at all. That's one reason they have good penetration rates. They're a 100-percent pure opt-in organic service.