How Promoting an Online Business Works

The virtual marketplace is bursting with business opportunities, but taking advantage of online commerce requires very particular marketing strategies.
The virtual marketplace is bursting with business opportunities, but taking advantage of online commerce requires very particular marketing strategies.
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While you may think the hardest part of getting your online business up and running is the planning and development of your Web site, your battle at that point is really only half won. You still have to get people to visit your site, and as if ­that weren't enough -- you also have to get them to buy something once they get there (assuming your site's purpose is to sell something).

According to Media Metrix, the Web saw an estimated $73 billion in retail revenue in 2002, and that number is expected to jump to $118 billion by 2005. So how do you get some of that action for your own Web site? Well, first you have to get people to your site. But how do you do that? How much does it cost? What works the best?

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In this article, we'll tell you how you can code and register your site so people can find it with search engines, how you can better promote your products within your site, and how you can make some extra money through allowing others to advertise their products on your site.

Getting Traffic to Your Online Business

Some of the ways to bring traffic to your site include:

  1. Use search engines and get high rankings within keyword searches.
  2. Get PR about your site in local, regional or national press.
  3. Create a customer newsletter to keep customers coming back to your site. Encourage readers to pass it along to their friends.
  4. Visit newsgroups and becoming an "expert" in your field to subtly promote your site. With this, as well as the customer newsletter, your goal is not to sell but to become a "voice of authority" by supplying useful information. Your e-mail tag and contact information within your newsletter is what will bring them to your site and sell your products or services.
  5. Run classified ads online.
  6. Generate some informative articles related to your topic and submit them to at least 10 e-zines that reach your target market. Include your business information and site URL in your bio data.
  7. Get more links to your site, both free and paid, through business or consumer product directories and affiliate programs.
  8. Don't forget the power of word-of-mouth (a.k.a. viral marketing).

The biggest payoff will come from listings and rankings within search engines and Web directories, so let's focus on that.

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Using Search Engines and Directories

One of the best ways to get more traffic on your site is to get a high ranking on the top search engines. Search engines are how most people find the sites they visit. They go to Google or Yahoo! or one of the other major search engines and type in words or phrases that describe what they're interested in. Then they go through the sites listed on the first page of the 100+ pages that come up. That means that even if you're on the second of the 100+ pages of search results (which is not bad considering...), you still don't have that great of a chance of getting clicked.

So how can you get to the top of that first page of sites? First, let's talk about search engines. Search engines create databases of the information on Web sites across the Internet. They categorize that information according to keywords so that users can easily find the precise information they are looking for in the more than one billion Web pages out there. While some search sites are directory-based like Yahoo!, with sites being reviewed and indexed by real live people, others depend on spiders (also called robots) that constantly crawl across the Web, visiting Web sites and indexing their content based on the text found on their pages and then following their links to other sites. Still others rank sites within search categories based on how much the sites are willing to pay for click-throughs. The sites pay nothing to be listed, but may pay a small amount for every person that clicks on the link to their site.

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The current trend seems to be that the true search engines, the ones that use spiders to index the Web, are partnering with the directory-based sites. Keep an eye on future developments there. In the meantime, cover your bases by registering with everyone.

Although there are hundreds of search engines and directories (and new ones every day), there are three or four that you MUST be listed on because they drive the most traffic. First, you need to make sure you get listed in Yahoo!. Various reports say anywhere from 50% to 80% of all Web site visitors originate from a Yahoo! search. Your site needs to be there. It costs $199 to get your site reviewed by Yahoo! and will be well worth it if your site gets listed. (If it doesn't, then you're out $199.)

The next largest players are Google and Inktomi. These are both true "search engines" that crawl sites and index content and links. Submitting your site to these major players is still free, although your listing is not guaranteed, and you may also have the option of paying a fee for a premium listing (or "buying" a keyword) that will put your site at the top of the page or in a sidebar.

Inktomi doesn't maintain its own search page, but it does have many large portal partners, such as MSN, AOL, LookSmart, About, and HotBot, that use Inktomi's search database and technology. Registering your site with one of these will submit your site to all of them.

Getting Listed with Search Engines

In order to get listed with search engines, you'll need to submit your site to them. Yes, those search engines that crawl sites may eventually find you, but remember that they either follow links or go to sites they've been told about. If there aren't any links to your site, then they may never crawl it. So, submit your site and submit it often, since so many new sites are created and crawled every day that many other existing sites are dropped every day. To submit your site to a search engine or directory, go to its home page and look for a link (usually at the bottom of the page) that says something like "add a site," "add a link," or "suggest a site." From there, you will be given instructions on how to go about submitting your site.

There are also services that will submit your site to "hundreds of search engines" -- for a small fee. These are not usually effective, however, and you're better off doing it manually. When you submit your site to search engines, list your keywords and site description, as well as URLs for specific pages within your site (unless the site says it's not necessary). You may have to submit the URL for each of your pages, but it will be worth the effort.

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Improving Your Search Ranking

  • For search engines that use spiders to crawl Web pages, you can improve your ranking with them (often called "optimizing your site for search engines") by making sure the keywords under which you want to be found are located near the tops of your pages. Remember, the spiders are trying to find out what your site is about. If they only see a word mentioned once near the bottom of the page, they're not going to think it's very important. Be careful not to overstuff (spam) your pages with the keywords that don't relate to your business, however, as search engines are getting smarter every day.
  • You also need to look closely at your page titles. Every page in your site has a title that shows up at the top of the browser screen. This title can help your ranking quite a bit, but many companies use the space for their company name or some marketing slogan. That's fine if your company name is a household word but doesn't match your Web address, meaning people can't just type your company name between "www" and ".com" and skip the search engine all together. In this case, having your company name in the title of your page is ideal, because people will be typing that name into search engines. But if your company is not well-known enough to bank on that kind of search, use the title area to list the keywords and phrases that describe the page. Even "professionals" blow that one sometimes, and it's a very simple way to improve your ranking.
  • Use meta tags to put your keywords right where the spiders are going to look. Meta tags are coded lists of your keywords and company or business descriptions that do not show up on your pages when viewed with a browser, but are visible within the HTML code of the page for the crawling spiders to see. For example, you would set up your meta tags like this:

<meta name="description" content="PUT YOUR COMPANY DESCRIPTION HERE">

<meta name="keywords" content="PUT YOUR KEY WORDS HERE">

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  • There are also some other meta tags you can use to tell the spider what type of document it is, how often you want the spider to revisit, and how your content should be classified (i.e. consumer, business, etc.). This code is then placed right below the <title> of your page, which falls directly below the <html> and <head> of the page. You can also include a meta tag for your page title to help reinforce it. Your page should look like this: <html> <head> <title>INSERT YOUR PAGE TITLE HERE</title> <meta http-equiv="title" content="PUT YOUR TITLE HERE"> <meta name="resource-type" content="PUT YOUR DOCUMENT TYPE HERE"> <meta name="revisit-after" content="PUT YOUR PREFERRED VISIT INTERVAL HERE"> <meta name="classification" content="PUT YOUR PRODUCT CLASSIFICATION HERE"> <meta name="description" content="PUT YOUR COMPANY DESCRIPTION HERE"> <meta name="keywords" content="PUT YOUR KEY WORDS HERE">
  • Create separate pages for each keyword or phrase under which you would like to be found.
  • Watch out for sites recommending that you create "doorway" pages (pages that are basically just wall-to-wall keywords that are meant for the spiders only). Some search engines are dropping sites that their spiders flag as having too many doorway pages. Instead, create the separate pages mentioned above for each of your keywords or phrases and make sure you use the keywords within the title, meta tags, and the "legitimate" content of the page as much as possible.
  • The more outside links you have pointing to your site the higher your ranking will be with some search engines, such as Google. This is seen as an indicator of your site's value and popularity, thus the higher ranking.
  • Be very selective about your keywords. Be your customer. Think of the most likely keywords and phrases that your customers will be looking for, and use them in your titles and meta tags. Also think about excess words you might be putting in that simply get in the spider's way. For example, you don't need to use "Services: Lawn Mowing" -- just use "Lawn Mowing" as your page title. Check out the Google Press Center to see lists of the most frequently searched keywords on Google for 2002.
  • Be careful when writing your meta tag descriptions. For many search engines, including Inktomi and its affiliates, this is the text they use as the summary for your page when it comes up during a search. Having an incoherent string of search words, or a general blurb pulled from your home page that doesn't really get to the meat of your business, won't encourage anyone to click on your link.
  • Create a "crawler" page. To make sure spiders do find all of your pages, you can create a page of links to all of your URLs specifically for the spiders. This page should have no actual text to be viewed, just the links to every page in your site. It should be connected to your home page or one of your top-level pages so the spider can find it easily.
  • Do you use a database and dynamically generate product pages? If so, it makes your life easier, but the spiders can't find those pages! Because the search strings require answers to questions, the spiders get stuck and leave. They can't provide the information the query string needs. The "?" and "&" characters throw them off. This means the directory-based search engines (which aren't true "search engines") are the only places those URLs will show up. However, there is a way to rewrite your dynamic URLs in a way that the searching spiders can understand. See Clickz Today: Solutions for Dynamic Page Registration to learn how this is done.
  • Submit your site. Many directories now charge fees to review and list your site. If they decide not to list it, for whatever reason -- the directory-based sites use live people who make their own decisions about your site -- you won't get your money back, so don't even try. Submitting your site to traditional search engines like Inktomi or Google can still be done for free if you do it yourself. Many fee-based submission services get questionable results, but there are a few good ones, like Submit It!. They will register your site with hundreds of search engines and directories and keep your links active for a year for a small fee, or you can use their lists and do it yourself.
  • Here are a few more coding techniques that will improve your site's ranking:
  • Add some "comment" tags within your code that include your keywords. Use your keywords in the "alt tags" for all of your images and links. Make your file names consistent with your keywords. Create a site map and link it to all of your pages (this will operate similarly to the "crawler" page).

Check out How Web Pages Work for a detailed look at all of these coding techniques.

Promoting Products and Cross-Selling

So you've followed the recommendations for driving traffic to your site and have a lot of visitors, but many of them either just browse and move on or buy one product and that's it. How do you get them to buy more -- or, in the case of the browsers, just buy something?

Suppose you are selling homeopathic and herbal remedies on your Web site. These are things that people don't tend to know that much about. For this reason, putting informative articles, frequently asked questions, a glossary, and the ability for visitors to post a question would probably make your site a very "sticky" site. This means that not only would people come to your site for information, they would stay there for a while and probably return fairly often. Sticky sites are good sites. Typically, the longer you can keep people on your site, the more they trust you and the more likely they are to buy and recommend your products or services.

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So, make your site a wealth of information about your product and its related issues. Give your articles and information "printer friendly" links to make it simple to print a copy. As we mentioned above, make yourself (or your site) an authority on your subject so people will rate you higher on the old credibility scale.

NOTE: Make sure you have a well-written disclaimer for any advice or information you give out, particularly if it is health-related. Get an attorney to draft it for you and make recommendations about types of information you shouldn't post.

Now, how do you get your visitors to buy your products instead of just reading all of your information and leaving? Make it easy on them. Create sidebars within your informational sections that list products or product categories that fall within the subject of information that is being displayed. Create links that allow them to add the product to a shopping cart with one click. Create comparison charts that help them choose the product that would be best for them.

Use the Amazon.com technique of adding a "Customers who purchased this product also bought these items...." section to encourage customers to buy additional related products. You can also put customer ratings for products along with the item and even on the informational pages. Customer testimonials are always valuable, but make sure they look (and are) legitimate. Include as much information as possible about the customer who is providing the testimonial. The more information there is, the more credibility it will have.

Some tips for product promotion include:

  • Have regular special promotions prominently displayed on your home page in a special area devoted to that. It may keep people coming back just to see what your current specials are.
  • Create that customer newsletter we talked about earlier and put a link to your specials there. (However, make sure you're not spamming your customers with e-mail. Let them choose to subscribe to your newsletter, and always give them a way out.)
  • Create frequent-buyer programs that let people use points or credits to get products for free or at least at a healthy discount.
  • Put together product combos at special prices. This not only sells more products, but also may help create loyal customers by including a product they might not have thought they needed. Make sure your combos are a "value."
  • Have special Web-only deals. This works well if you also have a brick-and-mortar shop, but it really will work either way. As long as you have information available that allows customers to buy by phone or fax, you can have specials for those who use the Web.
  • Offer free shipping or handling within the country or a certain geographic area.
  • Price your products competitively. Remember, your visitors are only a couple of clicks away from your competitor's site, so comparison shopping is really taken to a new level. Something to think about with pricing is to make sure you don't price your product too low, or people might think it's of a lower quality; but price your products too high, and people won't buy at all. The moral here: Do your pricing research on your Web competitor's products before you price your own products, just like you would do in a brick-and-mortar situation.
  • Create a higher "perceived value" for your customers by adding free samples, introductory offers, coupons for future discounts, etc.

 

Online Advertising and Affiliates

Maybe you want the best of both worlds. You want revenue streams from your products, as well as advertiser revenue. Are there companies out there with whom you and your business could peacefully coexist on one site? Probably. The important thing here is to stick with advertisers who are offering something that is at least related to your product line and core business. Going to a medical site and having a banner ad appear for "Free Web hosting -- only $9.95 a month!" probably makes people have a little less respect for that medical Web site.

For more details on getting people to pay you for the spare real estate on your site, check out How Affiliate Programs Work and How Web Advertising Works.

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For more information on online business promotion and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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