According to the U.S. Small Business Association, 99.9 percent of all businesses in the nation are defined as small businesses, or those with fewer than 500 employees or less than $7 million in annual revenue.
One of the biggest challenges for these nearly 30 million business owners is how to market effectively to attract people who want to do business with them. With limited budgets, they have limited resources to spread among marketing choices.
Fortunately, one of the most powerful resources around is 100 percent free, and it didn't even exist just a few years ago. Google generates about 10 billion searches every month, or about 2/3 of all global searches.
When giving talks to groups of business owners, I always ask, "How many of you used Google yesterday to search for something?" Invariably, every hand goes up. "What then, are you doing to get your business onto Google?"
Searching for local businesses
Most of us prefer to do business with a local business — someone we can develop a relationship with, and isn't a long drive away. For these "wallet-ready" businesses, as I call them, it's crucial to get in front of the people who want to do business with them.
Examples of wallet-ready businesses might include attorneys, insurance agents, electricians, hair salons, auto mechanics, restaurants, veterinarians, plumbers, caterers, accountants and travel agents.
It's unlikely that we'll drive very far to get a haircut or have someone do our taxes. People in those businesses likely have plenty of competition in their cities, so it's even more crucial to get the attention of people who are searching for them.
For instance, if I search on Google for "livermore auto insurance agent" I'll get a list of seven businesses at the top of the results. These seven listings are free listings that Google provides, and we see the McPeake Insurance Services at the top of the list.
Anthony McPeake gets calls and business each week because of this listing. How much does it cost him? Nothing.
What's it worth to him? To quote a TV commercial, "Priceless."
How to get to the top
Only seven businesses can be listed on the Google Places listing. So here are some steps you can take to get higher on the list.
First, you must claim your listing. Most of us have business listings because Google is picking up our data from places such as InfoUSA and other big databases. If you haven't claimed your listing as yours, Google is a bit "suspicious" of the data and may devalue the listing. You should make sure that it's 100 percent accurate by claiming it and editing any mistakes.
Go to www.getlisted.org and type in your company name and ZIP code. Assuming your listings have been found, click the link(s) to each of the systems to "Claim Your Listing" and follow the steps to own it.
Next validate all of your data and fill out your listing completely. Make sure your listing is consistent across all systems, including address, phone number and company name. Make sure there's a link back to your website, too.
In Google Places, you can upload photos and YouTube videos. Make the first image you upload your logo file to associate it with your business. The rest can be about your work, office, staff or whatever you want. The more complete your online profile is, the better you'll show up in the listings.
Online reviews count as "votes"
Finally, encourage your customers to leave reviews for you online. These are the 5-star ratings. If the reviews are on Yelp, CitySearch or Google, they all count. The more reviews you have, the better — even if some of them aren't perfect. Get the reviews over time. This looks less "suspicious" to Google.
You never want to leave reviews of yourself just to boost your image. It violates Google's terms of service and your listing could be removed.
So go ahead and get free listings on all the systems you can find. Other systems you might consider are Yelp, BestoftheWeb or MerchantCircle. You never know where someone might come from when they're searching for your business.