Businesses Are Looking For You...Online

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biz-search-online.jpgIf you're a business owner who sells to other businesses, a new study commissioned by Google of small-to-medium business owners' search habits should be eye-opening. To sum up: For many, the Web isn't a place to look for information, it's the only place.

Google's director of business-to-business and local markets, Sam Sebastian, shared some of the findings with me this morning. The study of more than 400 American purchase decisionmakers at SMBs conducted in March by Slack Barshinger asked business owners about their Internet habits. Among the findings: 93 percent of respondents said they use the Web to find work-related information, compared with 76 percent using trade publications and 69 percent using newspapers. More than half are online at least weekly, trying to solve a specific business problem. Twenty percent of SMBs use the Internet daily to try to resolve issues.

If you're a shipping or logistics provider, know that 46 percent of SMBs said they research providers online, while 51% purchase such services online. Vendors? More than three-quarters of respondents said they use search engines to find business suppliers.

And here's the really freaky thing--99 percent of respondents said they find search engines an effective way to find suppliers--compared with just 77 percent who said referrals from people they knew were effective! So we've hit the point where apparently many of us trust an anonymous box to help us make business decisions more than we do our own colleagues and friends.

If your Web site isn't quite up to snuff, get cracking--59 percent of SMB owners visited advertisers' websites as their next step after doing a search.

On the social media side, interest has definitely jumped. Just one year ago, 18% of respondents said they participated in blogging--now, it's 40 percent. The study found substantial participation, with 53 percent of SMBs perusing online forums and more than 45 percent using social networking sites and blogs. Just 13 percent said they have their own blog, so if you're doing that, you still have a chance to stand out from the crowd.

Personally, I've been a bit skeptical about the idea that videos on YouTube are really a way to promote your business. But SMBs are checking them out -- the study found video sites were visited by 44 percent of respondents in search of how-to and other basic business information.

Obviously, Google commissioned the study to give it leverage to convince SMBs that they should advertise on Google. But whether you've got an online marketing budget right now or not, the study's findings provide a road map for any company looking to learn more about how their vendors and business customers use the Internet, and how they can be more easily found online.

Personally, I got a great free online marketing tip out of the conversation with Sebastian. Ever noticed those Google Maps-based search results that often appear at the top of a Google search? I always wondered how to get in those, and it turns out it's easy as snap.

Google has a free service, Google Local--enter your address and you can appear in that map for local services in searches on your industry made by local browsers. There's one way to get your company noticed online that won't cost you a dime.

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