How to Grow Your Customer Base Online
Over the years, I’ve read forum post after forum post from frustrated cake decorators stuck in the rut of providing cakes to low paying customers consisting of family, friends and their referrals. After they’ve made dozens of cakes for pennies in profit, they’re desperate to attract new customers outside the circle of their current customer base. Helpful forum members may tell these cake decorators to network at their child’s school, church and on Facebook, which certainly can prove fruitful; however, there’s a better way to go about drawing in fresh faces.
Wouldn’t you love it if your website could serve as a referral machine so you could focus on your business? These new customers will have no idea you were creating cakes with ornate gum paste flowers for $1 an hour nor will they know Aunt Betty’s cake was only $25 because you made it for the cost of the materials.
Whether you own a shop or a home based business, the steps are the same for improving your website’s visibility in local search results. Attaining high ranking in local search is very different than achieving national rankings, but there really is no need to rank nationally unless you’re going to earn thousands of dollars for flying across country to make a cake on site. In the event you do achieve that level of recognition, potential customers would be searching for you by your name.
Welcome to the World of Search
When I first entered the world of online search, search results were listed in alphabetical order. So, if your website’s page title began with the letter “A”, your website was on page 1 in Google for the particular search term that page targeted. Search has evolved tremendously over the past decade and the rules have changed. Luckily, attaining a high ranking locally is relatively easy in comparison to achieving national rankings. There are 100 billion local searches performed each month in Google. Your piece of the action is there for the taking when you position yourself to rank locally.
Assess the Competition
If you perform a search for “cake decorator” in Google, do you see local search results? If not, your job will be much easier. How close is your nearest competitor? If he/she is not in your neighborhood, you’re bound to take the top position in the local search results once you take the steps to do so. But, even if you do have nearby competition, you can draw in new customers and here’s how to go about it:
Here, we will focus on getting your website found in local search results for keywords people type into search. There are steps to take both on your website and off. Note that there are many different attributes that come into play both on and off your website. This outline represents a simplified explanation that be broken down further into more detail.
On-Page Ranking Factors
- Have a contact page with your company name, address and phone number. The URL should contain the name of your city.
- Use keywords in your page titles, but don’t go overboard. The keyword should only appear once. If you right click on any page of your website and select “view source,” look for the words between the title tags located just below the <head> tag on the page:
Example: <title>Orlando Wedding Cake Decorator</title>
These are the words the search engines use to list each page of a website in the search results. Be sure the title of each page is different and relevant to the specific keyword that page targets.
- Don’t rely on pictures alone.
Yes, people love pictures of beautiful cakes. The problem is that the search engines can’t appreciate them nearly as much as we do. The only information a search engine can derive from a photo on your website is the file name and alt text. Written words are what get websites found in search for keywords and the higher the quality of the page, the better the page will perform. In addition to a photo gallery, your pages could have text that incorporates the keywords you want to rank for and your location. A high quality page should be a minimum of 300 words. In every niche, what is necessary to rank well varies depending on what the competition is doing. Take a peek at what type of content your competitor is publishing to get an idea. (But, please don’t copy the wording. This is called duplicate content and will hurt your website).
Off-Page Local Ranking Factors in Order of Importance:
- Reviews – reviews by real customers where your website is listed online; i.e. Yelp.
- Citations – Your business name, address and phone number on important local business listing websites.
- Links from high quality, related and local websites.
Before you can take advantage of customer reviews, you need to have your citations in place. The most important thing to get right is consistency of your business listings. Your business name, address and phone number must be exactly the same on your website as it is all across the web. That means if your address is 5 Main Street on one site, it should not be 5 Main St. on another. If you abbreviate a word, do it everywhere. Every little character matters down to the comma, period and dashes between the digits in your phone number.
A good tool for creating consistent listings, correcting incorrect listings and managing duplicates is Moz Local. There are other tools available online but most do not handle duplicate listings and cost more than the $49 fee for this service. The tool provides a downloadable spreadsheet with instructions for filling in all the relevant information for your listings on the 7 major listing services that provide business listings across the web. Moz.com/local
Another important attribute of your business listing is the category. Be sure to choose the correct categories for your business. Once you are logged into moz.com/local, you can search by main category or keyword to find the most appropriate main category for your business. You may select up to 5 different categories.
In the event you do have a lot of local competition, you can take your citation strength a bit further with some research. Whitespark.ca offers a tool that allows you to enter local keywords and find out where your competition is getting their citations. For instance, if you perform a search for “Orlando cake decorator”, you will get back a list of urls where your competitors for that term derive their listings in order to pursue a listing of your own on the same website.
Co-citations are also helpful in local rankings and they are not links. Google is smart enough to pick up on where your business name is listed in conjunction with a part of your address, whether it is together with your street, the town or your phone number.
Once all of your business listings are in place, the number and frequency of reviews play a role in how well you rank. Here’s where those low paying customers can prove quite valuable. Invite them by email or through Facebook to leave you a review.
Please don’t ask people who are not your customers to leave you reviews. Yelp has language filters in place to detect fake reviews. These websites are designed to be savvy enough to detect that the most likely people to review your service are in close proximity to your business location.
One way you can encourage reviews is by offering a discount off the customer’s next cake order. If you don’t ask your satisfied customers to leave a review, the only reviews you may end up with are those from disgruntled customers. When people have a bone to pick, they are more likely to look for a way to get the word out.
Links from Relevant and Local Websites
This is where most people get confused, make huge mistakes and can actually harm their websites. There is so much to cover on this topic that I implore you to do some reading before you embark on link building on your own. One of the more daunting outcomes of link building improperly is the fact that Google will now penalize your website for links it considers spammy or unnatural. You can end up tossing your website right out of the search results if you build too many links in a short period of time, too many links using keywords or attain links from low quality websites.
Related websites: Your safest bet is to find popular cake and baking websites, provide quality content to them (perhaps a tutorial or tips) and let the website owners link however they choose to.
Local websites: Perhaps your customer owns a business nearby and links to you. The geographical proximity of her business makes it a good local link. If you belong to the local chamber of commerce or an industrial association, those are good sources for links.
One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen repeatedly by owners of all different types of websites is copying the competition. Yes, you can learn from observing what your competition is doing, but keep one thing in mind: when you copy your competition, you copy what your competitor is doing right, but you also copy what your competitor is doing wrong. Your competitor may be doing well today doing those wrong things and then get hurt down the line when Google catches on or updates its algorithm. I highly recommend you familiarize yourself with Google’s Webmaster Tools guidelines to be aware of what types of behavior can get you into trouble before you do the damage.
A few of the many things to avoid that I commonly see:
- Submitting content that is already on your website or submitting the same content to multiple websites. Doing so creates duplicate content which is bad both for your website and the website that hosts it.
- Creating tons of blog comments using keywords to link to your website.
- Keywords in signature links from forums.
- “Do follow” links from paid ads. (“Do follow” links are links that pass page rank).
There’s a very long list of things you should avoid doing. When in doubt, consult with an expert.
If the process seems overwhelming or you feel you just don’t have the time, you can implement the above steps a little at a time or hire someone to help you get found in local search. The lesson I hope you take away from this article is that you don’t need to feel helpless about the condition of your customer base. And once you do something about it, there just may be someone living a mile away from you who will be very excited to find you in the search results the next time she needs a cake.
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