Small business tech: How to build a low-risk web business

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Small business tech: How to build a low-risk web business
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Attracting search engines

Setting up a website is half the battle - the hard part is drawing people to your new site. Marketing and word-of-mouth will draw visitors, but attracting the attention of search engines is critical to the success of most web businesses. Google accounted for 87% of the searches that took place in Australia in February, which means you should focus your energy on improving your Google rank, and treat success on any other search engines as an added bonus.

Google offers plenty of advice on search engine optimisation (pdf), including the linked PDF starter guide that's essential reading before you start designing the structure and content of
your website.

There are some fundamentals to getting your site noticed by Google's spiders.

Submit to Google

Submit both your URL and sitemap to Google and the other search engines. If you rely on regional business, make sure they're registered in the Local Business Centre too.

This lists your company name, address, brief description and even basic promotional materials. Your site is then listed on Google Maps, ensuring your business appears on the map and listings at the top of the search results when someone searches your location or business type in Google.

Much of the good practice boils down to common sense. If your site is cleanly laid out and easily understood by human visitors, a search engine will have no problem. Pages should be clearly titled, with the <title> tag appearing within the <head> tag of the HTML, and each page uniquely titled.

Product pages
If you're selling goods on your site, you should give each product its own page. This allows you to get the product name in the <title> tag of the page, making it more likely that Google will rank the page when people search for that product name. Sites such as Amazon list the name of the product in the page's unique URL, too.

This makes the URL more digestible for visitors, and Google will bold the part of the URL that contains the searched-for keywords, making it more likely your site will stand out in a long list of search results (type "U2 achtung baby" into Google to see an example).

Also pay attention to the description metatags on your site. This gives you the opportunity to provide a brief description of the content of a page, and often appears beneath the page's title in Google's search results. You've got 160 characters to make the text concise and containing the keywords that describe that page.

Encourage linking
Also useful is encouraging other sites to link to your own. The more authoritative the site that links to you, the better, although trying to convince major media outlets to write about and link to your small business isn't exactly easy. Here it can pay to be creative: an entertaining blog that displays your expertise can not only gain a loyal readership, but attract links and drive traffic to your website.

Don't let your site become static
A regularly updated website with lots of interesting, well-written content will help boost your Google ranking. Think laterally: a website selling spare parts for vintage cars could provide an illustrated guide on how to change spark plugs, for example. Guides can attract traffic to the site, and give visitors confidence that the people they're dealing with are experts.

You may decide to seek professional help with your search engine optimisation (SEO). There are hundreds of so-called SEO experts out there. Some are genuine, but some could end up costing a naive website owner thousands of dollars for nothing more than a spot on Google's blacklist.

"Deciding to hire an SEO is a big decision that can potentially improve your site and save time, but you can also risk damage to your site and reputation," Google advises. "Make sure to research the potential advantages as well as the damage that an irresponsible SEO can do to your site."

Be wary of any SEO company that guarantees it can get you to the top of Google rankings for your chosen keyword, for instance. You can't buy your way to the top of Google's search rankings and, despite claims to the contrary, no SEO expert has "cracked the secret" search algorithm.

Steer clear too of any SEO firm that encourages you to swap links with other members of its client base - especially websites that have no direct relationship to your business. Google rewards sites that attract genuine links from other relevant businesses, but punishes sites that attempt to build artificial "link farms".

Google Analytics
Many of the tools used by the SEO experts can also be obtained for free. Google's own analytics tool provides a detailed breakdown of visitors to your site, tracking details such as which keywords they typed into search engines to arrive at your site, the pages they entered and left through, and which pages are the most popular.

Yahoo's Site Explorer also keeps an eye on which sites are linking to your own, allowing you to foster closer relationships with businesses in your field.

The money spent on an SEO expert could even be better spent on "buying" traffic using Google's AdWords service. These adverts can be regionally targeted, to stop an architect in Melbourne wasting money on clickthroughs from house owners in Cairns.

Google has a bevy of AdWords tools that can optimise your paid-for keywords based on your budget, and reveal the number of competitor sites also buying those keywords.

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