Marketing Strategy Sign

7 Essential Local Business Internet Marketing Tips

Marketing Strategy SignBeing a local business owner is tough work. Your livelihood depends on your ability to attract foot traffic into your storefront, and more often than not, there’s a big chain with a multimillion dollar marketing budget right down the street. When your marketing “team” consists of one person (i.e. you), and when you have to split your day between sales, customer service, inventory management, and accounting, it can be hard to keep up.

To help make your business stand out from the crowd without becoming sleep deprived or having to resort to robbing a bank (don’t do that), I put together seven super-actionable and low-cost Internet marketing tips. Let’s get right to them:

Seek Out Consistent Citations in Local Directories

Citations are online “references” to your business, usually found in local directories like, Superpages, Merchant Circle, etc. The more references there are with consistent information (i.e. the same name, phone number, and address), the more certain search engines like Google can be that your business is legitimate, helping propel your rankings in search results.

I’ve covered the importance of citations and how to get them elsewhere, so go ahead and read the following posts for details:

Develop and Deploy a Mobile-Friendly Website

61 percent of smartphone owners search for local information, according to a Localeze study released at the end of last year, and of all the mobile searches for local businesses, 52 percent result in calls. That’s a lot of potential customers browsing the Internet using their phone; is your website designed to convert these mobile viewers into storefront traffic?

Smartphones provide a unique Internet browsing experience. The screen is much smaller, often only three to four inches, the connection is slower (at least for now), and the user is usually in much more of a hurry. There is no time to zoom in and wade through paragraphs of text with miniscule font just to find out what days you’re open.

A mobile-friendly website is specifically designed to be viewed on a smartphone. It contains only the essential information that a prospective customer is likely to look for while on the go (e.g. contact information and location), does not include images that would take too long to load over a 3G connection, and may incorporate native smartphone features such as click-to-calls buttons.

Below is an example of a website that’s optimized for mobile viewing:

In terms of actually developing the website, there are a couple of different options that I’ll cover in detail in a follow-up article, so for now, check out my preferred platform: dudamobile.

Manage Reviews on Yelp, Google Places, TripAdvisor, etc.

More than 1 in 4 consumers regularly use online reviews to determine which local business to use (up 5 percent from 2010), and 52 percent are more likely to use a local business if it has positive reviews, according to the 2012 Local Consumer Review Survey.

In short, customers are actively utilizing the Internet to research businesses they’re thinking of visiting. If you want to stand out, testimonials and positive reviews from past and current customers are a must!

It’s important to frequently review popular directories like Yelp, Google Places, Yahoo! Local, and TripAdvisor to see what people are saying about your business, and to respond accordingly. Take the time to thank customers who left a positive testimonial, and offer to remedy any problems that come up.

For optimal results, aim to perform a review audit at least once a week; in most cases, it’ll take only a few minutes.

Follow Best Business Website Practices

Is your website designed to convert visitors into traffic? Does it contain information that potential customers are looking for?

I already wrote a pretty lengthy post outlining the features of successful SMB websites, but here are the highlights:

  • Make sure your contact information is prominently displayed on every page
  • Maintain an active business blog
  • Use actual photos of your staff and products (i.e. no stocks and generics)
  • Monitor your website usage with Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools
  • Include links to your social media profiles (e.g. Facebook)
  • Install a lead capture form
  • Follow best on-page SEO practices

Utilize Foursquare to Attract New Business and Reward Loyal Customers

Foursquare may have started out as a fun game where users win points and virtual badges by “checking in” at local venues, but since launching in 2009, it has become a versatile promotional tool for business owners.

This location-based social sharing network allows businesses to attract new customers as well as reward existing ones through an array of newbie and loyalty “check in deals”. At St. Pete Bagel, for example, we offer a free donut or bagel to everyone who checks in for the first time, and a free 16 oz. Frappucino for every 10th check-in.

Moreover, when a customer checks in at a venue, he/she has the option of sharing the check-in via Facebook and/or Twitter. This makes it easy to connect with your most loyal brand advocates, and helps spread the word about your business among the customers’ friends and peers.

To get started, create a merchant account and start exploring the check-in deals interface.

Monitor What People Are Saying About Your Business

In addition to responding to customer reviews, it’s also important to monitor what people are saying about your business more generally via online channels like Twitter, Facebook, and local blogs.

To start, I recommend setting up Google Alerts and Twilerts for terms related to your brand.

Google Alerts sends you a notification whenever Google finds and indexes web content with your specified keywords; Twilert does the same, but it’s specifically designed for Twitter.

For St. Pete Bagel Co., we configured Google Alerts to receive a daily notification with a list of all the websites that Google has in its index and which mention the term “Pete Bagel”. We didn’t choose to include the prefix “St.” or the suffix “Co.” since sometimes people leave out the suffix entirely and more often than not don’t include the period after the “St.” It’s important to think about how your customers refer to your business (regardless of its actual name), and to choose your keywords accordingly.

The same general process applies to Twilert; just choose your primary keywords, designate when you’d like to receive the notification emails, and you’re good to go.

If you need more guidance on setting up Alerts or Twilert, just leave a note in the comments!

Connect with Customers and Network Using Social Media

Did you know? “Facebook fans are much more likely to purchase from, consider, and recommend the brands that they engage with on Facebook than non-fans,” according to recent study from Forrester.

Moreover, when Constant Contact analyzed the behavior of U.S. consumers ages 18 and older, it found that “60% of brand followers are more likely to recommend a brand to a friend after following the brand on Twitter,” and “50% of brand followers are more likely to buy from that brand.”

If you do it right, social media can help create an army of loyal brand advocates, drive traffic to your website, and generate buzz around your business that translates into increased sales, but it takes time, patience, and consistency.

The best advice I can give here is to be strategic about which social channels you choose to engage with your customers, to be authentic, and to think long and hard about whether you have the resources to manage an active Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest/Google+/LinkedIn profile. Once you start, it’s very hard to stop.

All that said, remember that social media isn’t just an opportunity to connect with your customers; it’s also the perfect platform for cultivating long-term relationships with people who might be able to help you down the line, e.g. journalists and industry leaders.

It was on Twitter, after all, that I first learned about LocalShops1, a local business networking organization in Tampa Bay that’s been instrumental in helping promote St. Pete Bagel to local consumers.

All righty, that wraps it up for today. As I mentioned, if you have questions or comments about any of these recommendations, drop me a line on Twitter or in the comments section below.

Security Guard Cartoon Picture

3 More Tips for Securing Your WordPress Website

Security Guard Cartoon PictureIn the days that followed my publishing of 6 WordPress Security Tips to Help You Sleep at Night, I thought of a few extra tips that didn’t make it into the original post, so I decided to put together a quick follow up. Let’s get right to it:

Login LockDown — a super nifty and free plugin designed to thwart brute force attacks (i.e. when the malicious hacker attempts to gain access to your dashboard by trying thousands of common passwords in sequence, usually via automation software). The plugin monitors incorrect attempts to log into your website. If it records a pre-designated number of failed attempts from the same IP address, it disables all login privileges for that IP address/range for a specified time interval. By default, the lockout sequence initiates after 3 failed attempts from the same IP address within a 5 minute interval, and the lockout period lasts for an hour, but you can easily modify these settings.

BulletProof Security — yet another WordPress plugin that’s jam-packed with security features. The installation process could be a bit more intuitive, but once you get this baby up and running, your WP website will become a virtual fortress. The plugin restricts access to numerous files with sensitive information about your website (e.g. what version of WordPress you’re running, what plugins you have installed), disables directory browsing, cripples image hotlinking attempts, etc. It’s truly an all-in-one solution, and best of all, it’s free (there is a paid version, but the free alternative will more than suffice, unless you’re operating a commercial website that generates significant revenue).

BackupPress — My preferred WordPress backup plugin. It’s cheap ($5/month/website), functional (backs up all WP as well as non-WP files), and super convenient (all backups are stored on the company’s secure cloud servers). The backup runs automatically every night, and the plugin requires very little configuration. You can also restore to an earlier point in time right from within the WP interface. Although not strictly a security plugin, regular backups are a must, so I decided to include the plugin on this list.

If there are any WordPress security plugins that you use and which I didn’t cover, let me know the comments!

Google Malware Notice

6 WordPress Security Tips to Help You Sleep at Night

Let me start this post with a confession. When it comes to web and blog security, I used to be cocky, really cocky.

I always believed that the people who get infected with viruses and malware use passwords like “password123″, and who are still running their website on a CMS (content management system) that hasn’t been updated in years. I always knew it could technically happen to me, but figured even thinking about it would be a waste of my time.

And then it happened.

On that fateful summer Tuesday, I got an email from a business school professor that I was designing a website for alerting me that the site had been hacked, and was now directing all of his students to pornography websites. The next day, I got word that customers were refusing to use the website that I had designed for St. Pete Bagel because their antivirus software kept going off whenever they viewed the homepage. Within a few days, it was the same story for virtually every web property that I had been managing, and this page started hunting my dreams:

Google Malware Notice

Notification that Google had detected malware on my website, shown to all visitors

Turns out, I was among the tens of thousands of victims who were hit by the TimThumb security vulnerability. I had received an email about the discovery of this security hole from the creator of the WordPress themes that I was using, but mistakenly assumed that only a small percentage of users would be affected, and that I didn’t have much to worry about. If I had actually read the email in full, I probably could have avoided the weeks of stress and hair pulling that followed.

Thankfully, all of the really nasty malware infections are now gone, but the experience was beyond painful, and taught me a valuable lesson, which is to never, ever assume that your website is immune.

Remember, it’s almost never personal. Your website didn’t get hacked because it’s your website; it was infected because software that automatically scans hundreds of thousands of random websites for identified security vulnerabilities tagged your site as a potential target.

In an effort to spare other WordPress website owners the horror that I went through, here are six tips for making your site into an impenetrable online fortress.

If necessary, let the pros handle the cleanup — I started by trying to remove all of the nasty malware code that had spread throughout my websites. I used Sucuri‘s free website malware scanner to determine which files were infected, and then got to work. It seemed easy enough; time-consuming and repetitive (essentially deleting chunks of the “bad” code over and over again), but after about an hour of cleaning, my antivirus finally stopped going off. Thinking I was in the clear, I went to bed, only to wake up the next morning with more malware warnings. I ran Sucuri’s scanner and sure enough, more infections!

Turns out, I had taken care of the symptoms, but the disease (i.e. the backdoor that had allowed the bad code to “sneak in” again) was still alive and raging. In situations like these, it’s important to inspect and clean literally every file; miss anything and you might as well start all over again (just like I had to).

I was on deadline to get these websites up and running within 24 hours, so I decided to stop playing superhero and let the pros handle it; I paid $89.99 and signed up for Sucuri’s monitoring and cleanup service. Every 6 hours, the Sucuri staff check my website for infections and malware. If something triggers the scan, they’ll log into the website and perform all of the deep cleaning on my behalf. I sent over my FTP login information and waited. After a few hours, I got a comprehensive email with a list of all of the files that had been cleaned and patched. I haven’t had a problem since!

Key takeaway: it’s better to be safe than sorry. I could have spent days inspecting and cleaning every one of the hundreds of infected WordPress files, but I realized that my time is valuable, and let people who clean websites for a living handle it.

Now that the website is clean, let’s look into how we can prevent re-infections.

Update, update, update — an update a day keeps the malware away. But seriously, if there’s nothing else you take from this post, remember this — updating your templates, plugins, and core WordPress files is the number one way you can keep your website infection-free.

New versions of WordPress contain bug fixes, stability improvements, and security patches for previously discovered vulnerabilities. The WP dashboard displays a warning when a new version of WordPress becomes available (same with select plugins and templates), and the updating process is pretty much automated by this point.

If you rarely log into your website backend, download and install a plugin like Update Notifier, which will send you a notification via email.

Be selective about your templates — on the topic of WP templates, it pays to be choosy. Specifically, be sure to select a template that is actively maintained and improved. When TimThumb became public, the folks behind Elegant Themes immediately got started working on an update. If the template isn’t available through the official WordPress directory, you may not receive automatic update notifications, so do your homework and become familiar with how the creator distributes updated versions.

Only use plugins you actually need — this is a big one. If you download a plugin that you don’t actually end up using, don’t just deactivate it; take the five extra seconds to completely delete all of the associated files from your WordPress directory. A preponderance of inactive plugins presents a huge security risk, especially if they haven’t been updated in a while.

Go ahead, log into your WP backend and do some plugin’ cleaning; I’ll wait.

Finished? Good, let’s move on.

Users and passwords — limit the number of users with administrative privileges, and instruct those that do have admin access to use a strong password. A strong password consists of:

  1. At least 8 characters
  2. Both uppercase and lowercase letters
  3. Numbers
  4. Special symbols (e.g. &, #, -)
  5. Phrases with no semantic meaning (i.e. the more gibberish it looks, the better)

Malicious hackers frequently try to take over WordPress websites by using brute force attacks; they literally keep trying password after password until they can get access. Don’t make it extra easy for them. All of this is equally applicable to your FTP accounts; if you don’t know how to change your FTP login info, contact your webhost or drop me a note in the comments section and I’ll try to help you out.

Oh, and since we’re talking about users, if you suspect your website has been the target of a malware infection, start by checking the Users page within the WP dashboard. If you see any entries that you did not create, remove them right away.

Watch your company — this is where I got burned bad. All of the websites that I manage are installed in the same directory on my server, which means that once one website got infected, it was only a matter of time before the malware started spreading and cross-infecting all of the other web properties. Indeed, this is ultimately why I ended up upgrading my account with Sucuri to include multi-site monitoring.

To get around this issue, just make sure to follow and implement the advice that I’ve provided above to all of your sites. Remember, vigilance is half the battle.

Waking up to find your website slapped with a big, red “Warning: Something’s Not Right Here!” sucks, a lot. It’s bad for your stress levels, your business, and the time that you’ll spend cleaning it up could have gone into things like customer service or writing a new blog post.

Still, it’s happened before, and it can certainly happen to you, too. I didn’t think so, and boy, did I pay the price. Be smart, and good things shall come.

Has your website ever been hacked? How did you deal with it? Share your stories in the comments below.


8 Features of Successful Small Business Websites

Here’s a harsh dose of reality: most small business websites suck, and that’s not just my personal opinion. Study after study has shown that a large number of SMB websites don’t include even basic contact information, links to social media profiles, and aren’t optimized for mobile viewing.

On some level, I sympathize. Running a business is really hard work, and it’s easy to leave your website neglected and out-of-date.

That said, you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on web development to make your website work for your business. Here are eight ways to help your site stand out from the the pack.

Contact information — you’d think it’s a waste of time to reiterate the importance of having your phone number, address, and hours of operation listed prominently on your website, but according to research conducted by BIA/Kelsey and vSplash, more than a majority of small business owners is failing to do just that! The study found that 60 percent of SMB websites don’t have a phone number listed on the homepage, and 75 percent lack an email link. Come on, folks, this isn’t rocket science; make it easy for a prospective customer to find and contact you!

Mobile-friendly version — here’s an eye-opening statistic for you: 61 percent of smartphone owners use their phone to find local information (source), but yet more than 93 percent of SMB websites don’t render properly on a mobile phone (source). Compared to PC’s and laptops, smartphones have a much smaller screen and usually rely on a slower internet connection, e.g. 3G. Try to access your website on a smartphone (e.g. iPhone) and ask yourself these questions (courtesy of Google):

  1. Do you see any missing images or broken content?
  2. Can you read the text without zooming or scrolling?
  3. Can links and buttons be clicked with a thumb?

If the answer to any of those questions is “no”, get yourself a mobile website.

Blog — again, the research is pretty clear on this point. Companies that blog get 55% more web traffic and 70% more leads than those that don’t, according to figures provided by HubSpot. Moreover, 57% of businesses report that they have acquired a customer through their company blog. A customer-centric and well-maintained blog makes it clear that you’re an authority in your field, and comes with an array of search engine optimization benefits. Remember, though, the purpose of your blog should be to entertain, solve your customer’s problems, and/or make your customers’ lives better (however you want to define “better”). It should not be just another outlet that you use to pitch your products!

Actual photos — here’s something I never really understood. The point of YOUR website should be to showcase YOUR business, YOUR staff, and YOUR products. Why then do webmasters and business owners insist on filling their website with generic, stock photos that they downloaded from websites like iStockphoto? If there’s one thing that I think is missing from most SMB websites, it’s personality. The website operator is too focused on selling a product and making money, rather than telling a story and eliciting their customers’ trust. Be authentic, and don’t be afraid to show off the real people behind the logo.

Google Analytics / Webmaster Tools — Google Analytics is feature-rich, free online software solution that makes it possible to monitor how many people visit your website, which pages they view, how much time they spend there, and literally hundreds of other relevant metrics. If you’re running any sort of a marketing campaign that involves your website and you don’t have Analytics or a comparable package installed, you’re doing it wrong, plain and simple.

Google Webmaster Tools is a lesser-known tool, but equally valuable. Once properly configured, you can get such information as which websites link to your page, whether your website’s returning crawling errors, search query keyword data, etc. Perhaps most importantly, if Google ever decides to send you a notification regarding your website (e.g. that you’ve been penalized because of shady SEO practices), it’ll be through your GWT account.

SEO optimized — according to an annual survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, more than 73 percent of all Americans use search engines. Moreover, of the people who are interested in learning more about local clubs, bars, and restaurants, 38 percent rely on search engines as their primary source of information. That’s a significant chunk of traffic that business owners simply can’t afford to ignore.

Search engine optimization is a multi-faceted, multi-stage process of helping your website appear at the top of search engine results for keywords and phrases that are relevant to your business. This post isn’t about how to optimize your website, so here are two resources to get you started: The Beginner’s Guide to SEO from SEOmoz and the Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide from Google (yes, THAT Google).

Social media links and widgets– these days, not being active on social media networks like Facebook and Twitter is the 1990’s equivalent of not being listed in the Yellow Pages; it’s just not acceptable. Facebook alone has over 900 million users, and according to a recent Forrester study, “Facebook fans are much more likely to purchase, consider and recommend the brands that they engage with on Facebook than non(Facebook) fans.” Point is, if you do it right, presence on social media can be a boon for your bottom line. Shockingly enough, BIA/Kelsey found that only 19.5 percent of SMB websites contain a link to the company’s Facebook page.

Lead capture — your website should be designed to do three things: (1) attract visitors, (2) convert visitors to leads, and (3) produce a measurable ROI (return on investment). It doesn’t matter how colorful it is or how high-quality the photos are; if the website isn’t helping drive traffic into your storefront, you’re, once again, doing it wrong. If you’re in the service industry, offer your website visitors a white paper or a comprehensive best practices list in exchange for the visitor’s email. If you’re a local restaurant, provide a coupon (again, in exchange for contact information). The goal is to pull the visitor into your sales ecosystem so that you can nurture him or her until they convert and become a customer. This HubSpot page provides a great example of how online lead generation works in practice. The “Learn How to Attract Customers with Twitter” ebook is free, but to get it, the website visitor has to fill out a short form.

Ask yourself, “how is my website converting visitors into leads?”

All right, folks, that about wraps it up. If you have questions or comments about any of the tips covered above, drop me a note in the comments.

15 Marketing Blogs You Should Start Reading Right Now

Whether you’re a business owner looking to learn more about leveraging social media, blogging, and SEO to boost sales, or an aspiring inbound marketer like me, staying up-to-date with industry developments is mission critical. Google alone makes more than 400 changes to its ranking algorithm every year, and it seems like a new social media platform makes an appearance every day. The Internet provides a lot of opportunities for data-driven success, but if you want results, you need to keep up.

The list below includes blogs that I read on a daily basis via Google Reader. Some are more focused than others. Social Media Examiner primarily covers developments in the social media space, whereas copyblogger is an excellent resource for aspiring bloggers. That said, integration is the cornerstone of most successful marketing campaigns, so it’s worth your time to spend a few minutes at least scanning the headlines and reading pieces that pique your interest.

Well, enough small talk, let’s get right to it:

Now it’s YOUR turn! Are there any blogs that you read regularly and which didn’t make it onto my list? Share your favorites in the comments section below.

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