All businesses are Internet businesses — even if they don’t have a website or sell anything online. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Up to  70 percent of offline purchase decisions are made on the Web, according to Herschel Thompson, head of InteractiveStrategist.com, an online marketing consultancy.

Online searches are the new Yellow Pages, leading customers to goods and services. Even the most conservative observers of the online space concede that search engine marketing is playing an increasingly important role in driving business, particularly for small companies serving local markets.

“Search engine marketing doesn’t build awareness; it captures existing demand,” Thompson told BusinessNewsDaily. “Search engines are how most websites generate visits and revenue.”

And the local market is search’s sweet spot, he said — 29 percent of all online searches are local. There are lots of acronyms flying around in the realm of online search — SEO, SEM, PPC, etc. But it boils down to two main categories: organic search, which is based on a site’s contents and the number of other sites that link to it, and paid search, which involves bidding on key words and phrases that you believe will drive profitable traffic to your business.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) involves building a site that is search-engine friendly so that your business shows up in organic search results.

“With SEO, there are no guarantees,” said Thompson. “In some industries, it’s going to be hard to get to the top through organic search.”

But there are ways of maximizing how you appear to the algorithms that guide online search. High-quality original content is key,” he said.

“Hyperbole gets filtered out by skeptical consumers,” Thompson said. “You win online by being authentic. You can’t put lipstick on a pig.”

Search engine authority Matt McGee agrees that content is king.

“There are a whole lot of things you can do that you don’t have to hire an expert to do,” McGee said. “A lot of really good content is an absolute must. Content that answers people's questions, all the stuff people ask when they send you an e-mail.”

McGee’s specialty is Search Engine Marketing (SEM), which takes up where SEO leaves off. That process begins by taking stock of what you already have, auditing your current Web presence to see what content you have and what could be improved, how search-friendly the architecture of the site is and how well the key words and phrases match the actual language people use when they search.

Not paying attention to how customers search is a major stumbling block for many sites, he said. How you refer to your goods and services may not be the way your customers refer to them.

Once you know what you have, SEM addresses what you need.

“Identify phrases and terms you could use to add new content to your site,” McGee said. “Make sure you have analytics on your site. Google Analytics is probably more than enough for most websites. You have to know what’s working. The great thing about online markets is the analytics on the web — you’ll get solid, actionable information.”

The hardest part follows — link-building. Your company's visibility, McGee said, is largely dependent on how many links you have to your site. There are several ways to attract links, including becoming active in social media and leaving quality comments on blogs that don't necessarily include a hard sales pitch. But link-building can be very difficult for many small businesses.

Social media audiences are extremely attuned to nuance, McGee said. They don’t want to swamped by a barrage of hard-sell postings and a constant barrage of sales pitches.

“Social stuff is about adding benefit to the community,” he said.

“Link-building is time-consuming,” McGee said. “And if it’s not time-consuming, then it’s costly. It’s either a time or money issue.”

Even though link-building eats up time and has a steep learning curve, though, McGee recommends businesses give it a try.

“The most successful online marketers are the ones who are willing to commit the time to learn as much as they can,” McGee said.

The third leg of the search marketing stool is paid search, also known as Pay-Per-Click (PPC).

“With SEO, there are no guarantees,” said Thompson. “Pay-per-click is easiest to measure. “

That’s both SEO's beauty and its liability, said Ben Kirshner, CEO of Elite SEM.

“The best thing about PPC is the measurability,” Kirshner said. “It’s good because you can see how much money you’re making. It’s bad because you can see how much money you’re losing.”

Managing a PPC account, much like link-building, is very time-consuming, he said — which is why many companies outsource this function to agencies specializing in PPC.

If you do decide to outsource, Kirshner said, ask the agency how much time will be devoted to your account and who will be working on it. Will it be staffed with untested rookies or vetted professionals?

Find out their terms of engagement. Some agencies want to lock you up for a year, he said. And ask about the technology they’ll be using.

“You have to use technology to beat the big boys," Kirshner said.

PPC is affordable for small businesses, he added, citing companies that have seen results from an investment as small as $50 to $100 a month. But he cautions small companies trying to make their mark within saturated, hyper-competitive fields such as financial services, travel and real estate to give PPC a wide berth unless they have deep pockets.

“SEM and SEO are not rocket science,” he said. “But it’s time-consuming. We print money for our clients. If we were losing them money, they wouldn’t be on my client list.”
What’s the trick?

“It’s art, it’s science, it’s luck,” said Thompson.

Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at nsmith@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.