That’s the harsh reality facing many aspiring online businesses. Thanks to pre-built e-commerce tools and Web hosting sites, launching an online business may not be all that complicated. But there’s a big difference between launching a site and attracting paying customers.
For Darren Sussman, president of TheaterMania.com, the key is a well-executed search engine strategy. Through a comprehensive search engine marketing and optimization program, TheaterMania.com has become one of the Web’s leading destinations for news, reviews and online ticket purchases for Broadway, off-Broadway and performance theaters nationwide.
“A lot of entrepreneurs may throw a few ads on Google and hope for the best,” says Sussman. “But optimizing your website to show up in search engines is both an art and a science.”
Because search engines such as Google, MSN and Yahoo are the first places customers go to locate information, products and services on the Web, getting high placement on relevant searches can make or break an online business. In TheaterMania.com’s case, when someone visits Google and searches for “discount theater tickets,” Sussman’s site shows up highly ranked in both the sponsored links (the small text-only ads that appear on the right side of the page) as well as in the list of search results.
TheaterMania.com sponsors dozens of search terms during a given month. The company also pays for an expert to recommend, implement and manage its search advertising campaigns. But small businesses don’t need such sophistication to get started.
Build a Site With Tags in Mind
For those just getting started with a business-oriented Web site, Sussman recommends that quickly mastering “tagging” and “keywords.” To get started, figure out the five or 10 terms that describe your business, notes Sussman. In his case, terms such as “theater,” “tickets,” “discount,” “Broadway” and “seats” come to mind. In Web jargon, these words are known as “tags” or “keywords.” If you build your site using a blogging platform (such as Blogger.com, TypePad.com and WordPress.com), you can quickly note the tagged terms in each page. Each day, search engines such as Google and Yahoo go through sites looking for tags. The more tags and readership you have on a particular topic, the higher you’ll be ranked in a search engine, Sussman notes.
But be careful. It’s tempting to resort to “tricks” to get a search engine to rank your site high. However, these tricks can actually have the opposite effect, and doing so frequently can get you blacklisted from a search site’s database. “In our case, we certainly wouldn’t want to write the word ‘Broadway’ on our home page 30 times just for the sake of getting a good search ranking. What we really want is a site that provides rich content.”
To do this, Sussman notes, it is important to make sure the site uses consistent terminology. For instance, imagine if TheaterMania.com had 90 stories about “Phantom of the Opera.” The musical’s full name would therefore be an ideal tag. Now, using that same example, imagine if 30 of the stories 90 mentioned only “Phantom” rather than the musical’s full name. Or imagine if 30 of the stories mentioned “PotO.” The net result: inconsistent verbiage could limit TheaterMania’s ranking in search engines on the term “Phantom of the Opera.”
Start With a Small Ad Budget
Once you’ve mastered the nuances of tagging, you can begin to explore sponsored online ads. Fortunately, Sussman notes, sponsored search engine systems such as Google’s AdWords allow you to set up a daily advertising budget, from as little as $1 or as much as $1,000 or more. If no readers click on your ads, you don’t pay any ad fee. But if you attract lots of clicks that use up your daily budget, your ads are suspended until the next day, Sussman notes. “You can really control your costs per click, how frequently your ad is displayed and how far your money goes each month,” he adds.
For beginners, Sussman recommends that you run a 30-day Google AdWords trial using three or four different ads. That way, you can see which ads attract the most impressions and click-throughs, and you’ll also be able to measure your cost per lead.
Once you have a feel for AdWords, see if there are lesser-known search systems that may offer additional help. TheaterMania.com advertises on numerous second-tier search sites, including destinations like Dogpile.com, Sussman notes.
Find Help Before You Need It
TheaterMania.com has been studying search optimization (building your site with search in mine) and online advertising ever since the company launched in 1999. But as the company grew, Sussman realized, keeping up with search trends required too much time and money.
“You have to know how to find some outside experts,” says Sussman. “If you don’t have a big ad budget, attend search-oriented conferences or speak with boutique advertising firms to see if they know a bit about search engine optimization. Build a few relationships before you need them. That way, you won’t be scrambling for help when the time comes for some outside perspective.”
TheaterMania.com now uses an outside consulting firm to test and recommend thousands of search terms per month.
Hiring outside consultants for online search makes sense for businesses with significant online sales, but may be overkill for other business models. “You’ve got to do some cost analysis before making a decision,” says Sussman. “You have to apply a dollar figure to the amount of time and money you’re spending trying to master online search on your own. When that figure is higher than the cost of outside help, it’s time to bring in the outside consultants.”
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