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Three important words to remember when opening a retail store may be location, location, location, but opening a virtual storefront on the Internet has its own special rules. Unlike brick-and-mortar shopkeepers, Web store owners can't rely on neighborhood fliers or mailbox circulars to bring customers to their stores. They also can't rely on the store's physical location, a pedestrian-heavy boulevard or even air conditioning on a hot day to lure people inside. Instead, Web shopkeepers are faced with the grim reality of publicizing their stores in a medium that is cluttered and difficult to navigate.
But there's good news. If you're an online retailer, you can utilize search engines--similar to neighborhood Yellow Pages--that allow Internet shoppers to type in a keyword and match it to your product offerings. As e-commerce and the comfort level with online shopping grow, search engines are increasingly being used as store directories. Search engines also provide ways to target a highly focused audience with a sales message. While Web shops are undeniably more difficult to find than the neighborhood corner store, a directory listing is perhaps the best place to start promoting your site.
Melissa Campanelli is a technology writer in Brooklyn, New York, who has covered technology for Mobile Computing & Communications and Sales & Marketing Management magazines. You can reach her at Melisscamp@aol.com
Making The List
There are thousands of search engines--or similar types of entities, including online Yellow Pages, newsgroups and Internet discussion groups--to choose from today. Yahoo!, Infoseek, Excite and Lycos are on the short list of the most popular search engines and directories. Although it's possible to get lost in the shuffle of these large search engines, to reach as many people as possible, the major search engines are the most attractive option.
These sites are visited by millions of users every month. According to Planet Ocean Communications, an Internet marketing company in Captain Cook, Hawaii, more than 95 percent of all people on the Web use only eight search engines. The major search engines serve a purpose, but don't overlook site-specific search engines.
You can submit your Web store address to these sites yourself by contacting the search engine directly, but this can become time-consuming. Two good alternatives are to use a promotion software package or hire a service company to perform this task for you.
PowerSolution's SitePromoter (http://www.sitepromoter.com) submits your site to 150 search engines, while CyberSleuth Internet Services' Net Submitter Professional (http://www.cyber-sleuth.com/nsp) not only offers fully automated submission to hundreds of search engines and directories but also offers semiautomated support for hundreds of other submission sites. These products cost less than $100.
As for online services, The Central Registry (http://www.centralregistry.com) submits your site to 620 resources that include search engines and online Yellow Pages. NetCreations' PostMaster URL Announcement Service (http://www.netcreations.com) is an automated Web service that "announces" your site to 400 search engines as well as other directory sources and media organizations. There's also LinkExchange's Submit It! (http://www.submit-it.com) service. It lists your site on more than 400 search engines and has a PositionAgent that monitors your site's rankings on major search engines and provides you with weekly e-mail reports on your position.
If your site is listed with a few search engines but doesn't get a good ranking during searches, try FirstPlace Software Inc.'s WebPosition Analyzer (http://www.webposition.com). This software queries and analyzes the quality of your site's search returns on most major search engines and offers suggestions for improving your rankings.
Another possibility is The WardGroup (http://www.thewardgroup.com), which can determine if you're positioned well on the search engines and provide suggestions on how to improve your searchability factor, or WebPromote (http://www.webpromote.com), which says it can perform each directory submission on an individual basis. Prices for these services vary greatly--from about $249 for one URL submission to $3,000 for a full-fledged promotional campaign. Most of these software and service companies also ensure your site is listed correctly and with the right types of search engines. Submit It!, for example, has an extensive roster of suggested specialty sites that vary by product or service group.
Many of these products and services submit your site to "announce" sites and special-selection sites, which are designed to promote new sites and relaunches. Some, such as http://www.whatsnew.com, are general in nature, but there are many more that cater to particular industries, consumers or regions of the country.
Special-selection sites are generally site-of-the-day sites. According to Cool Site of the Day (http://www.coolsiteoftheday.com), the premiere special-selection site, it gets thousands of visitors each day.
Not Just For Searching Anymore
The major search engines offer you a lot more these days than simply a chance to list your Web address. Most of them have their own minishopping areas, where your company's Web site can be listed. When a cybershopper clicks on a particular category, he or she is sent directly to your store. These areas are similar to cybermalls, which are searchable by category and are designed as ways for Web shopkeepers to increase their traffic.
While most search engine directories offer links to larger online companies--including 1-800-FLOWERS or Barnes & Noble's online bookstore--Yahoo! keeps your shopping experience close to home. The engine recently acquired e-commerce vendor Viaweb and now hosts the small-company-oriented mall, renamed Yahoo! Store (http://www.viamall.com). Visitors are presented with a list of sites organized by category, including health and beauty aids, apparel, electronics and automobiles. It's relatively easy to get listed in the store; you just use Yahoo's e-commerce software to build a Web page advertising your store, which comes with an automatic listing on Yahoo! and the other major search engines. Yahoo! Store shopkeepers pay a flat rate that's determined by the size of their sites. A small store that has up to 50 items for sale, for example, costs $100 a month.
Hitting The Links
Other ways to get your site noticed are through affiliate programs and partnerships with content sites. Affiliate programs allow a Web store to be linked with a larger Web site that contains products or contents similar to the products or services the store sells. The advantage to these programs is that when a Net surfer is checking out the bigger Web site, your smaller Web store can be spotlighted. When the visitor clicks on your URL, he or she is automatically sent to your site.
Affiliate programs also work well when forming partnerships with specific content sites that draw Web users in need of certain news, information or advice. The idea is to make sure your Web store is in a place where your biggest potential customers are.
There are many ways to form partnerships with these sites, but a common way to get listed is to offer a percentage of your Web sales to sites that link to you. The terms of these agreements vary from site to site.
Some sites offer added features. Yahoo! Store merchants, for example, are provided with Link Tracker software that allows them to assign a special code to each site that links to their own. This code helps track how many visitors and which sales came from a particular link.
Paul Graham, founder of Viaweb, says it's important to encourage related sites to approach you to make a deal. Put a link on your home page, for example, that says something like "Link to us and get a cut." With links to other sites, Graham says, "You'll create the image that your site is a major player."
Another way small companies can piggyback on the efforts of larger companies is by being listed in a Web directory of bigger businesses. These directories are typically owned or sponsored by publishing companies, which often allow smaller companies to be listed alongside larger, more well-known companies.
This phenomenon is especially popular in the manufacturing industry, where directories showcasing smaller industrial manufacturers or retailers are popping up all over the Web. One of the largest databases of industrial suppliers today, with a searchable database of more than 480,000 manufacturers, distributors and service companies, is the Thomas Regional Directory Co. (TRD) at http://www.thomasnet.com Here, a company can receive a free listing that includes its address, phone and fax information, and product/service description. Listings can also include contact names, year established, staff size, sales volume and an e-mail address. If a company is a paid advertiser of TRD, it can also offer prospective customers an online brochure or catalog, electronic line cards (comprehensive lists of a company's products) or fax forms that enable customers to contact a supplier directly.
More To Come
We've only touched on a few ways to promote your site to the masses and to targeted groups. But there are plenty more ways to go about it (we'll cover them in future columns). As small businesses become more Web-savvy, they're learning that the world of Web promotion, marketing and advertising is a vast one that can provide great opportunities to get their products on the virtual shelves.
Internet Malls: Should You Or Shouldn't You?
One way many small companies target online customers is by parking their Web sites in online malls. These shops, generally organized by category, are plentiful. In fact, there are dozens to choose from, including The Internet Mall (http://www.internetmall.com), Choice Mall (http://www.choicemall.com), iMall (http://www.imall.com) and Internet Plaza (http://www.internet-plaza.net). Some malls are geared to a specific region of the country or to a type of product. A listing can cost up to $250 per month.
While these sites seem innocent enough, they've been shrouded in controversy lately because of the sometimes-shifty ways the site companies use seminar programs to promise consumers the chance to earn money by participating in their virtual shopping malls. These selling techniques caused the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and law enforcement officials in 27 states to begin cracking down on these online malls. Provo, Utah's iMall Inc., for example, is being investigated by the FTC because of questionable practices. An angry group of sales representatives who sell space on the mall also posted a Web site recently that's filled with complaints about the high prices they paid to become franchisees--with hardly any return.
While not all virtual malls are alike, it's important to keep the hazards in mind and check to see if unscrupulous practices are apparent before signing up to be on a virtual mall. Remember: It's best to shop around for all available options and check references before signing up.