What do people think of when they are considering Corbet's Hardware, a local business near my home? For that matter, what do they think of Ambrosia restaurant? Or Alex's Dry Cleaning? What about Embarcadero Physical Therapy, or Peter Levi Plumbing?
Well, if you've read my previous writings on the subject, when someone wants to know about a local business, the first thing they'll do is put those names into Google and see what happens.
Besides the fact that I've done business with each of these establishments, (and written about a few in this series), it used to be the only thing that connected these companies together (besides geography) was the Yellow Pages. Now, all that's changed with search, and in particular, local search.
And when you drill down into it, what's really a game changer is that the best local search tools all have become platforms for conversation - in this case, conversation about the products, services, and intangibles of each small business.
So let's use Corbet's as an example, shall we, and see what we learn?
Corbet's Hardware is my neighborhood hardware store, it's something of a local legend. Let's see what happens when I put it into Google (I omitted the apostrophe, as most folks do).
Interesting. First up is a link from "zinsser.com", which appears to be some kind of a shellac company (no, really, a company that makes shellac). Corbet's probably carries their products - the Zinsser site lists its distributors - but man, what on earth is that doing being first? Clearly, Corbet's has not exactly joined the conversation economy quite yet.
Put another way, the very first link for Corbet's is not Corbet's own website (the store does not seem to have one), it's some random supplier of Corbet's. This is not a good thing.
Second up is a very nice profile of Corbet's in the local paper. Third is another link from the paper about the store moving. A credit to the store, for sure. But it's not really very conversational (for more on why I think "conversational" is so important, read this).
Fourth is a link from "ziphip.com", which looks like some kind of listings directory (or more cynically, an Adsense honeypot). Nothing really useful for a potential customer of Corbet's - nothing conversational or particularly trustworthy.
Fifth is a link from Yahoo Local about the store. Now we are getting somewhere. When you look at it, you find three reviews of the store, all of them quite positive (including one from someone named John Battelle from back in 2005. Who is that guy?). Regardless of my own bias, here's a conversation about the store folks are likely to trust. Three reviews, all glowing.
Sixth is an entry from Topix, a local news aggregator owned by a consortium of large newspaper companies. In short, the Topix entry declares that local residents are in support of the store in some kind of controversy surrounding a move to a new location. That's good!
Seventh, and just before the all-important "above the fold" (the results you see before you have to scroll down), is an entry from Yelp, one of the leading local review sites on the web. There's only one review, but it's a good one.
I'll stop now and offer a few thoughts. First, the fact is (and I speak from experience), Corbet's is a well-loved local institution, but if your first view of the place is through search, you have to work way too hard to find that out. Second, it's clear that no one at Corbet's has given the web a second thought, because Corbet's doesn't have a website, and clearly no one has joined the nascent conversation that has sprung up around the store (in the first seven links, there are four unsolicited and positive reviews. It'd be great if someone from Corbet's joined the party and said "thanks for caring!"). And third, there's a tremendous opportunity to be had by joining that conversation, in the process branding Corbet's as quite possibly one of the most beloved local businesses in all of Marin.
Turns out, Corbet's could really use that love. Remember that sixth link, the one about "some kind of controversy surrounding a move to a new location." Turns out, Corbet's landlord is raising the rent, and the store is trying to move into a new building nearby. But the city planning commission is making it hard for the company to get the zoning it needs to make the move. Corbet's has mounted a pretty good grassroots campaign through snail mail and petitions in the store, but to really win, it needs to harness the power of the web.
So far, it's failing miserably.
But imagine, if you would, that Corbet's had a blog, and used that blog to talk about its business. The folks at Corbet's could post about weekly specials, tips on home improvement, best approaches to pest control, and all the stuff that brings customers into the store. Oh, and by the way, it could leverage all its built in good will to drive its customers toward theLarkspur City Council, who, in the end, will determine whether or not Corbet's will continue as a business - if Corbet's doesn't get that zoning change, it can't afford to stay open. Ouch!
Given how sparse and poorly connected the first few links for "Corbets hardware" currently are, it's clear that such a blog would come in first, and possibly second, third, and fourth, in any Google search. Add a Twitter account, and you're nearly guaranteed to be a major force in any web-based conversation around your business. (In fact, I'd be willing to bet that within a few weeks, this blog post may well rank in the top ten for a search about Corbet's...).
In short, by joining the conversation, Corbet's would get a chance to shape it. And by shaping it, it just might ensure its future. Which leads me to ask: Has your business joined the conversation? You might consider doing so, before it's too late.