As a web design/development student, the subject of SEO is relatively new to me. I wanted to explore how Internet Marketing applies particularly to home-based businesses, sole proprietorships and freelancers that operate only online, without a physical business location.
As I researched this topic, I Google’d queries like “SEO for Small Business,” SEO Challenges for Entrepreneurs, or Marketing for Freelancers. As you can guess, my search results delivered a bazillion sites promoting their SEO services, some companies claiming to hold the keys to SEO with miraculous results, and others promising free SEO tips. The thought occurred to me: if I were not currently taking a course in Internet Marketing, the multiple components of SEO could be overwhelming and confusing. And how might a small business owner who only operates virtually, navigate through the aspects of SEO to find an effective marketing strategy?
To learn more, I recently posted the following questions on LinkedIn’s (SEL) Search Engine Land group forum.
In broad terms of the feedback I received to these direct questions and in my further reading, the consensus seems to agree that: Yes, SEO is essential for small business, including these specific types of businesses. As author Mason Hipp, of blog post titled “SEO Explained For Small Business Owners” on the website SmallFuel Marketing states, “At it’s root, SEO is about getting free long-term exposure for your business.” Hipp goes on to note that SEO for small business is a tool used to increase website traffic, build visibility and manage a company’s online reputation. And when SEO is done properly, it can benefit a business long-term.
In terms of SEO strategy however, there is no magic bullet formula for propelling a small business to the top in page rank for Google or other search engines. There is no cookie-cutter response that fits all small businesses, or even necessarily a fixed formula for one type of business, i.e. freelancers. Furthermore, because Google’s algorithm continues to evolve, marketing strategies must be tailored and adaptable, regardless of business size.
How Important Is It To Use A Commercial Address On Your Website If You’re Operating Only Virtually?
In more specific terms of the feedback I received to my questions, trust and legitimacy emerged as themes. A couple of the contributors on the LinkedIn’s SEL group forum indicated that without a physical business address, establishing a company’s validity could be a problem, as well as gaining the confidence of prospective clients. Further, if a business wants to market locally, the basics of SEO tell us that gaining a spot on Google Places or Yahoo Local require a physical address, and those listings can speak to the “legitimacy” of a business.
It also seems to depend on the function of the business – i.e. an online retailer vs. a virtual office assistant. Group forum contributor Nicholas Carroll points out three additional reasons a local business address may hold express value for an online business: First, when a customer “is buying something outside their range of experience, he or she may want to look the seller in the eye.” Secondly, when more money is at stake in a business transaction, personal contact (or the accessibility that a physical business location could imply) may be a decisive factor for a potential client or customer. Thirdly, Carroll says people who cannot “afford to hire the wrong person or buy the wrong product…and are on desperate timelines” may find face-to-face service as high-priority.
While I understand these concerns, I don’t think that a physical business address on one’s website necessarily equates to establishing trust and legitimacy between business and client. For businesses that do not market locally, i.e. an online retailer, they may skillfully establish their company’s online visibility without a physical address. The more important factors in this case are: that the search engines can still find them, good site content, and customers who find the business to be reliable with consistent products and services. As another SEL forum member pointed out, writing quality content, keeping that content current and relevant should gain credibility with those seeking your services, and with Google. – These factors take precedence over a physical address.
In terms of local ranking, others on the SEL group forum pointed out that a business could still rank well, for local terms if you are using your target key words. For example, as Mike July responded to my post, “You can still optimize for geographic locations without necessarily providing a physical address…my blog ranks for the phrase ‘Internet Marketing Grand Rapids’ even though I work out of my home and my address appears nowhere on the site.” In Mr. July’s blog post entitled “Is Working From Home a Deterrent to Credibility?” he goes on to point out that despite his address not appearing on his website, he still establishes confidence with his prospective clients. He finds that working from home is an asset, and not only because it keeps his operating costs down as a business owner. Mr. July says that prospective clients often find the idea of working with a home-based business reinforces their sense of confidence and reliability in that business.
Ultimately these issues of building trust and legitimacy between a business and its clients are not really unique to small, virtual-based companies. People still want assurance, confidence in whom they are dealing, and reliability in the service being provided by a company. Personal contact via technology or in person can instill that confidence and sense of accessibility to a company as well.
In terms of marketing a small business online, the fundamentals of SEO apply just as they do for larger, highly visible companies. Basically, as Aaron Wall, SEO expert and author of SEO Book, says “The success of a page should be measured by one criteria: Does the visitor do what you want them to do?” –And to work toward that end, regardless of whether a small business is operating only virtually or if have their commercial address plastered all over their website, success depends on three points to remember:
*Author’s Note: This article is not a comprehensive “answer” to questions posed above. As a current student of Internet Marketing, I compiled the opinions I received on LinkedIn’s Search Engine Land group forum, and further research I read on other sites which seemed relevant to the topic. That being said, I would like to thank all of those who took the time to respond and provide feedback. And I would like to thank those indirect sources I stumbled across through readings.