Today, most consumers have the Internet in their pockets and in the palm of their hands, and they frequently turn to their mobile devices to search for restaurants, auto repair shops, dry cleaners or whatever service or product they happen to need at the moment. If your business doesn't show up on their search, another local business will benefit.
"There may be ten hardware stores within a few miles, but if your hardware store doesn't show up when that shopper is looking for the closest place to buy a hammer, you're toast," said Chris Tolles, CEO of Topix, a Web-based local news service.
"There is a tidal wave of change going on in terms of local digital marketing and advertising and small business owners have to ensure that they have a well-maintained and accurate digital presence," said Howard Lerman, CEO and co-founder of Yext, a local advertising technology provider. "It is no longer a matter of people picking up the Yellow Pages to find a local business. They pick up their phone and tablets."
While keeping your website fresh and accurate is essential, Lerman said that it is equally important to ensure that your business shows up in local search engines. "When someone is using their mobile phone or tablet to search for a restaurant, for example, they may not necessarily end up going to the restaurant's website," he said. "That's why it is important for your business to show up in local search databases. Estimates are that one-third of searches are done on mobile phones, and that number will keep increasing."
It is critical that small business owners make the distinction between Web search and local search, Lerman said. "A Web search is just a mash-up of whatever shows up, and local search is much more targeted and you need to work with a Web designer that understands the distinction and knows how to make the most of local search," he said. "One of the first things a business needs to do is claim its Google Places page," he said, adding that it is important to make sure that your business listing links back to your website for customers who want more detailed information about your business.
This is especially true for businesses such as restaurants where there are plenty of choices in a small radius, said Kenny Herman, executive vice president of business development for Singleplatform, a digital portal integrates local business websites, Twitter, Facebook and mobile applications. "If you have a choice between two similar restaurants in an area and one you can easily go to the website and see a menu and the other you can't, most likely you'll go to the place where you have more information."
Small business owners looking to leverage the Internet to drive traffic to their stores should talk to their vendors about potential online partnerships, said Sherry Thomas, vice president of local shopping at Local Corp., an online media company. "General Electric, for example, is directing shoppers to appliance retailers in their network based on real-time localized data. More and more, people are expecting to find anything they search for near where they are at that moment."
Search engine marketing is an affordable way for small business owners to increase their visibility in search engine results, said Dick O'Hare, CEO and founder of Local Yokel Media, a local advertising marketplace. "There are really three steps to the process—awareness, consideration and purchase," he said. "If someone is not aware of your restaurant, they aren't going to plug in your restaurant's name in a search engine or go to your website." But if you offer Italian food, and you invest in search engine marketing so that your restaurant is prominent when potential customers are searching for Italian food in the area, he said that will drive traffic to your business.
Lerman said small business owners have to be prepared for the online future, which will include short-term, real-time offers to drive traffic. "Things such as Groupon Now! and Amazon's app that allows people to scan a barcode to do price comparisons are going to make it even more important for small business owners to focus on their local online presence," he said. "If they can get a better deal down the street, shoppers will take their business elsewhere."