Why are we still having this discussion? Because data show that a surprising number of businesses still don’t have a website. Surveys from as recently as October 2016 find that close to half of all small businesses don’t have a website, and it’s not just solo work-from-home moonlighters, either.
Specifically, a Capital One survey of 400 small businesses — its Fall 2016 Small Business Barometer Survey — found that only 56 percent have a company website. And only 53 percent of those were mobile-optimized. In other words, fewer than 30 percent of businesses surveyed had a mobile-optimized website.
Further, there is a fair argument that websites are no longer as effective in the local market. Technology and cost certainly are no longer barriers given the availability of subscription options for even the least sophisticated users and slick DIY platforms for those who don’t want to hire a freelancer or agency. Instead, the challenge is that websites must compete for relevance in a market with many other media platforms — social media sites, directories and review sites — that are often viewed as proxies for the face of the franchise.
Today, social media is dominating SMB attention, a survey conducted by the Local Search Association (my employer) has found. Almost 43 percent of SMBs surveyed said that it would be the media of choice if they could only select one form of online marketing to use. That was the top choice by a large margin, with SEO ranking second at 25.6 percent. This preference explains why social media pages such as Facebook pages are increasingly used as the primary public-facing “landing page.”
Other “proxy” home pages include directory listings that are sophisticated enough to contain virtually all the key information customers are looking for. Third-party sites can integrate multiple functions such as e-commerce, online booking and reviews and attract a bigger and broader audience than an individual website. And even Google profiles, knowledge graphs and snack-pack listings can suck huge amounts of traffic away from a website.
All in all, median click-through-rate (CTR) from a #1 result on Google is down 37 percent over the last two years, according to a study by Wordstream. That seems like pretty strong evidence fewer people are visiting websites and are instead relying on other media.
While these reasons are seemingly enough to persuade some that third-party-owned pages are a sufficient and simpler alternative to maintaining a business website, other data reveal a different story. Below are five reasons why every business needs a company website for local search marketing.
According to LSA’s (Local Search Association) April 2017 report, “The Digital Consumer Study,” that examined digital media use in 12 US cities, websites were the second most-used media to find local businesses. Only two forms of media were used by the majority of consumers when looking at “past week” usage trends: search engines and company websites.
Consumers use websites to find or engage with businesses 63 percent of the time. And while the perception is that the variety of media available to consumers would decrease website use, LSA’s numbers show something different — 2016’s weekly website usage rate of 63 percent was an increase over 2015’s 60 percent rate.
These numbers show that despite the growth of other media, the value of websites has not diminished – in fact, it continues to grow. While Wordstream’s study showed a decline in CTR from Google SERPs (search engine results pages), consumers are finding and clicking through to business websites from other sources such as Yelp, YellowPages.com and Google My Business listings.
Only 5 percent of consumers surveyed by BrightLocal in 2016 never used search engines to find local businesses — which means 95 percent have. And 69 percent reported searching for a local business at least six times per year. So SEO is a big deal.
According to Moz’s 2017 Local Search Ranking Factors, the top 10 factors for appearing in organic Google search results are related to a business’s website or domain. These factors include how authoritative your website is, based on who is linking to your site, how many third parties are linking to you and the quality and relevance of your content, to name a few.
While arguably, these factors can be fulfilled on a Facebook page, realistically, that doesn’t happen. For one thing, a major factor — authority of the site — is difficult to achieve on a social media site, since Google doesn’t consider social signals such as likes or followers in weighing influence. I performed a few test searches on Google of snorkel gear, ski equipment and pool supplies in Plano and Frisco, Texas, and found only two Facebook pages of local businesses — and they were deep into the search results. In both cases, the Facebook pages appeared many results after the respective websites of those businesses.
Note that I’m not talking about searches in which a business’s name is specifically typed into the search box. Those results commonly return Facebook pages, Yelp listings and Groupon offers. However, since finding new customers is the top marketing priority for businesses, according to a Unity Marketing survey last year, businesses can’t count on folks who already know their name and proactively search for it.
Maintaining a website that has quality and relevant content that is consistently referenced and linked by other reputable third-party directories, sites, articles and posts is critical to being found when customers conduct research online and are looking for products and services to buy.
According to Moz, the biggest impact on local pack ranking factors is your Google My Business (GMB) profile and the proximity of your business to the searcher. Yet having a complete and rich GMB profile does not guarantee you will show up in Google local finder or map results. Businesses often make the mistake of assuming that you’ll automatically show up in searches for your business category (as listed in your GMB profile) in your geographic area.
Despite the fact that proximity, physical address and GMB business category rank 1, 2 and 3 in Moz’s local pack ranking factors, Google often lists businesses that are not in the initial search area while omitting results that would otherwise match the search, deeming those other results more authoritative. It’s not just new or small businesses that are affected, either; big brands can struggle with this, too.
Some of the factors that affect organic SEO rankings — such as backlinks, domain authority and clicks — are also essential to ranking and appearing in Google local finder and map results. Also, I’ve found that having location-based information on your website and linking to that source from your GMB profile can help boost local search results.
Just because someone looks at your Facebook page or reads reviews on Yelp doesn’t mean they don’t also want to see your website. In fact, consumers typically rely on multiple sources to gather information before making a purchase decision.
Research by YP and LSA found that, on average, consumers use approximately three sources before making an individual purchase decision. And 30 percent automatically strike a business from consideration if they don’t have a website.
Thus, those businesses that don’t have a website experience a significant loss of ready-to-buy, high-intent potential customers.
Consumers may find you on Facebook, Google Maps or Yelp, but one big part of your online reputation comes from your website. Research conducted at Stanford in 2002 (PDF) found that 46 percent of consumers made their decision about a website’s credibility based upon its design, layout and typography.
Listings may provide business details, and reviews give other customers’ opinions, but on a website, prospective customers hear directly from you about you. Facebook and other social media provide a partial view of your business, but the ability to personalize the design is extremely limited, and your information is presented in a format that’s the same for everyone.
A website is a storefront that reflects your identity and allows your consumers to form opinions on the quality of your products or services, the trustworthiness of your business and whether you are someone they want to buy from. It is especially important for services. According to a study from the e-tailing Group and Oracle (PDF), 75 percent of consumers say the quality of product images is essential in selecting and purchasing products online. For services, a website is your product image.
It may seem easy as marketers and agencies to just do what our clients want. Yet marketing decisions that SMBs make may be based on incomplete or out-of-context information. For example, an SMB may look at the time consumers spend on social media and quickly conclude that its marketing resources should be spent in proportion to that social media use. Or an SMB may make an even bigger mistake and decide that it can rely solely on social media.
I’m not bashing social media as a marketing tool. However, it behooves us as marketers to educate our clients and make sure they understand the context of data they use to make decisions. We should help our clients look deeper into consumer trends and come away with better insights to make good decisions. One of those is to avoid sacrificing websites in favor of social media or other media in local search marketing. Websites remain a critical part of local search and are essential for attracting the customers necessary for business growth.
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