Whether you sell fishing charters in San Diego, cater weddings in Brooklyn, or sell baby gear in Peoria, you absolutely need to market your services or goods online. Existing customers should be able to find your well-designed and informative website with just a couple of clicks. And ideally, people who are looking for the service or goods you offer—but have never heard of your business—should be able to find it.
At a minimum, your website should do three things:
Give an accurate description of your business and how to best access it via phone, fax, email, and in person. If appropriate, include hours of operation, driving directions, and parking information.
Tell people what's special about your business. Provide enough well-presented information (including photos) about who you are and what you do that potential new customers will prefer your business to your competitors.
Give helpful, consumer-oriented information about your field. The goal here is to provide potential consumers with helpful, objective information so that they'll understand that they are in good hands and go forward with a purchase.
EXAMPLE: Terry operates Terry's Appliance Repair Center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. When business drops during the recession, Terry's first thought is to increase the size of her yellow pages ad. But then, on the advice of her tech-savvy son, she decides to spend a smaller amount creating a simple but easy-to-find website, listing access, price, and warranty of service information. When, within weeks of publication, Terry's incoming calls increase 20%, she adds a "Troubleshooting Your Problem" section to the website, focusing on the most common appliance defects and how much it's likely to cost to fix them. This results in another significant jump in calls and emails.
When Terry asks new customers how they found her, their typical response goes something like this: "When my washing machine broke, I googled ‘washing machine repair Harrisburg' and found your site. The fact that your website had lots of material about washing machine problems, and when it makes sense to just buy a new one, impressed me. I also liked that you have been in business for 12 years, return all calls the same day, and guarantee your work."
If you're new to the world of online marketing, here are the basics of creating a website. First, you'll need a domain name (your address on the Web—for example, www.nolo.com) and a hosting company (also known as an ISP) to broadcast your website from its servers. A number of Web hosting companies provide both of these services for $10 to $30 per month. (Google "web hosting" to see a long list.)
Second, you need to create your website, which consists of putting relevant information about your business onto your Web pages. One approach is to buy website development software, such as CoffeeCup, FrontPage, or Dreamweaver, and do the job yourself. (For a great book on developing a website yourself, see Create Your Own Website, by Scott Mitchell (Sams).) But since this involves a time-consuming learning curve, you may find it makes more sense to concentrate on your business and hire a reasonably priced local developer to create a website for you. A third alternative is to create a simple site by using the site builder service offered by a Web hosting company, such as homestead.com or web.com.
Once you get your site up and running, you want customers to be able to find it. With so many websites out there, it's easy to get lost in the sea of results that Google spits out. If your business is unique in your area (for example, the only riding stable in town), you may not need to worry about customers being able to find you with Google, but most companies should take steps to bring customers to their site.
There are a number of things you can do to improve your site's findability and the amount of traffic that comes to your site. This process is called "search engine optimization," or "SEO" for short. The main things any SEO consultant will tell you are that to bring people to your site, you need to use the phrases that people use to search for your products and services (these are called "keywords"). For example, if you fix cars, you want to make sure that you use the words "auto repair" in the title of each of your Web pages and several times on each page. (You can use Google's "keyword tool" to find the most searched for keywords for your business.)
A good way to make your business stand out is to include relevant content—that is, information about your products or services—on your website. For instance, if you run a bed-and-breakfast in Vermont, you might write an article or two on what to look for in a B&B, the best places to see Vermont foliage, how to dress for winter weather (including an automatically updated weather widget—which you can get for free on the Internet), and so on. If you have extra time and energy, consider starting a blog to write daily or weekly posts on relevant topics, or open a Twitter account to microblog about interesting tidbits.
This just scratches the surface of SEO, which has become a burgeoning industry in the last few years. If you want help, a local website developer should be able to do a decent job. If you are in a highly competitive field, such as a dentist or veterinarian, also look at joining a directory—usually a cost-effective approach to improving your Google ranking.
More information on effective websites. Especially if you want to create a full-blown e-commerce site designed to attract more than local traffic, see The Small Business Start-Up Kit, by Peri Pakroo (Nolo). It has an excellent chapter on building a website, optimizing it so that search engines list your site first, and driving traffic to your site.