No, you're not alone. Trying to get your business found online is indeed dark magic.
Search engine optimization has always been difficult for most businesses, particular smaller ones like mine. Just about every client I know is trying to find the silver bullet of search: the secret way to get your company listed on the first page of Google without paying for it (or paying as little as possible). Back in the day, it was all about using the right tags and meta-something and keywords on your site so that Google could pick it up. SEO consultants promised a top Google listing for a few thousand bucks, and many could deliver ... for about 30 seconds until your Web site was pushed back to page 97.
But this has all gotten way more complicated. There is no silver bullet to getting found online. In fact, any good SEO consultant (and there are many) will tell you that it's a never-ending process, an ongoing commitment of dollars and resources, a continuing evolution of keywords, online activity, linking to others, social media activity and a thousand other ways to evidence traffic and engagement on your site in order to get the attention of the Google Gods so that your business has even a better-than-average chance of being found. Today, the Internet has evolved to the point where there are really only two types of winners in the race for page 1 of a Google search: the big companies with lots of money and the small businesses with lots of time.
We know about the big companies because we see their familiar names whenever we search for a product or service that is in any way connected to them. They spend zillions on AdWords and ads showing NBA players as old men schooling a pickup of game of teenagers and a bunch of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Jerry Seinfeld and these ads become instantly viral and drive eyeballs back to their Web sites. They employ marketers and public relations firms to get themselves mentioned everywhere by bloggers and columnists. This is what big companies do. Small businesses like mine don't have this kind of money. So in order to get found online we invest the only other resource we have: time.
Getting found online "takes a lot of work on my part," Belinda McElroy, the owner of Maxwell Creek Inn Bed & Breakfast, told me. "Believe me, there are days I wonder why I am doing this. There are so many things I should be doing, like organizing that spare room, trimming the shrubs or sweeping the back patio. I prefer face-to-face networking because sometimes the written word can be misinterpreted. Some of the payoffs are being on the first page of a Google search or even better - on top of the first page of a Google search. Seeing your star rating, seeing your author photo. That's satisfaction! But you have to continue to work on it to stay on the top of the first page of a search. It can be frustrating and exhausting some days."
There's Bing Places. There's Yahoo Small Business. There's Google My Business. Anyone running a small business - including an accounting firm -- should be listed on all of them. But ultimately you will have to focus on just one. Belinda has chosen the Google My Business route.
She uses Google My Business to post events, like what she's serving for breakfast or other local food offerings that day. She promotes other businesses in her area because that attracts people to her B&B. She blogs about the local region. She contributes to forums where other innkeepers share recipes, advice and the occasional guest horror story. She participates in Hangouts with her local association and to speak with her grandkids. She's been known to dabble with AdWords. And yes, she uses an outside consultant to help her with all of this because it doesn't matter how easy Google says it is, people like Belinda don't have time to be experts. We all need help from someone who really understands how this all works.
Can she be doing the same on Bing or Yahoo? For the most part, she can. But she chose Google My Business. This is her model. This is her marketing. This is how she gets leads. And this is how she stays connected to her guests and her community - it's her platform of choice. You need to choose yours.
By the way, they all say they're for free, but they're not free. You will spend a lot of time, and that's valuable. You will be blogging, posting photos, updating your listing, talking with people in your circles, attending a Hangout, answering a question, responding to a review (good or bad).
At the very least, in the case of Google, someone will find you on the "knowledge panel" that appears on the right side of the search page. Maybe you won't take advantage of AdWords but don't worry about Google - your traffic and data is good enough for them.
Does this mean that SEO is dead? Good SEO consultants will always be valuable to companies, big and small. But for most small businesses who can't afford this investment, the next best thing is being active on services like Google My Business, Bing Places and Yahoo Small Business. Like any smart business owner knows, you will get out of it what you put into it.
Besides Accounting Today, Gene Marks writes for The New York Times, Forbes and Inc.com. A version of this column previously appeared on Forbes.com
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