Can a search engine find your business?

Posted on Written by David Shaw

32_searchengine_01If you’re going to get people through the door, you’ll have to fine-tune your Web marketing methods

In the spring of 2008, Candlewood East Marina completed a major expansion of its facilities, which include a 240-slip marina on Candlewood Lake in Brookfield, Conn., and a 40,000-square-foot sales and service center across the street. Several months later, the Great Recession began and new-boat sales plummeted at the Cobalt, Nautiques and Malibu dealership.

But Candlewood East had an ace in the hole. Its expansion included a complete redesign of its website and a partnership with ARI, a leading Internet marketing services provider based in Milwaukee that serves the marine, recreational vehicle and other industries.

“To take a hard look at results, I’d have to say things would have been a lot worse during the recession if we hadn’t done [the new website and online marketing],” says Ryan Slater, the company’s sales director. “If you’re not moving ahead, you’re falling behind. Even though the upfront costs of the process were a little intimidating, based on where we were coming from, in the long run we have found that Internet marketing has greatly improved our business efficiency and the bottom line.”

32_searchengine_02Although Internet marketing, which includes such tools as search-engine optimization and pay-per-click advertising, is not an immediate solution in difficult economic times, it does open avenues for generating and managing leads and converting them to sales in a more cost-effective manner than most traditional print media. It also improves the tracking of results for every ad dollar spent. In a tough market, that’s an important consideration.

Like Candlewood East, Austin, Texas-based Sail & Ski Center shifted to an aggressive and comprehensive Internet marketing program. During the downturn it, too, redesigned its website, which went live last December, and partnered with ARI. Sail & Ski has three locations in Texas and is a dealer for Sea Ray, Bayliner, Boston Whaler and other builders. It also specializes in ski sports.

“We’ve doubled the number of inquiries for every part of our business since we redesigned our website,” says Buzz Watkins, Sail & Ski’s vice president of sales and marketing. “You’ve got to get people to the website, and then you have to convert them to customers, which in our business means you have to get them through the door.”

Search-engine optimization

Getting potential prospects to a website is accomplished with many Internet marketing tools, but search-engine optimization, simply referred to as SEO, is a key component. SEO involves designing a new website or changing an existing one to include keyword phrases that search engines will identify as editorially relevant, leading the search engine to rank the website or Web page higher on the list that results from a search-engine query than websites or Web pages that don’t incorporate SEO or are ineffective at employing it.

In tech circles, SEO is considered organic. The websites or Web pages on a list come up free, based on their perceived editorial relevance to a user query entered in a search engine. That’s a simplification, of course. There is much more to it from a technical standpoint. Suffice it to say that if your website includes the proper SEO keyword phrases, which search-engine crawlers (also called spiders or robots) automatically identify and rank according to relevance to a search query, you’ll get more traffic in an organic search.

33_searchengine_03Meta tags are also important — essentially HTML-coded information describing the contents of a Web page, which could be a home page or some other page on a website. Users don’t see meta tags, but search-engine crawlers see and use them. Meta descriptions typically show up in a search engine result for that page, making it important to convey a message that’s enticing enough to get the searcher to click on the page.

“What search engines want to do is deliver relevant content to what people are searching for, and the search engines are going to rank the results in order of perceived importance,” says David Main, who is head of search for Dominion Marine Media and is based in Fareham, U.K.

A leading provider of online marketing services in the marine market worldwide, the company is a division of Norfolk, Va.-based Dominion Enterprises, which owns Soundings Trade Only. “The relative authority of the site and the trust it embodies in the search world is directly related to where a given company will show up on a page of search results,” he says.

Relevant content containing SEO keyword phrases is a vital element of constructing an effective website and Internet marketing campaign. Internet marketing experts say 90 percent of potential buyers, especially of big-ticket items such as boats, consult the Internet first, and 87 percent will only look at the first page of results from a search engine. Eighty percent of all Internet searches are for information only, Main says; the other 20 percent focus on transactions or navigating to a specified website.

Without content-rich Web pages full of information about products and services, website ranking in terms of organic searches will likely fall short of expectations, Main says. “SEO is all organic for no cost, except for the time and resources to make the changes to content as needed. It represents longstanding gain on a cost-effective basis.”

Candlewood East and Sail & Ski constantly change and update the content on their websites, which helps to ensure that the pages remain relevant to repeat visitors — and search-engine crawlers.

“If you don’t update your website, potential customers won’t find it interesting, and they won’t come back,” Watkins says, adding that the company edits and updates its content every day to highlight new products and promotions and to sell the core business in a new and exciting way. “Our website isn’t static. It’s a living document and that’s important to its effectiveness.”

Pay-per-click campaigns

The other component of online marketing is paid Internet advertising. Pay-per-click ad campaigns are among the more effective tools. Sail & Ski incorporates PPC within its overall marketing strategies, spending ad dollars on highly targeted local markets for products or services, according to Watkins.

“We establish separate campaigns for each of our departments and product categories, and we have a set of mutually exclusive keywords for each campaign,” he says. “We also have landing pages for each of these campaigns. If someone does click on an ad, we send [him or her] to a landing page geared to that campaign. We don’t send the visitor to the home page.”

33_searchengine_04Jon Lintvet, vice president of product for ARI, says many dealers and manufacturers are missing the Internet marketing boat. “They’re taking what they’ve seen work in print and are applying it to the Web,” Lintvet says. “They put up nice pictures and some text, and then they leave it at that. I can’t tell you how many times we’ll analyze a potential client’s website for a redesign, navigate to the service page and all we find is a phone number. You have to have content for your website to be effective.”

It’s all about attracting the visitor to the website and offering them a value proposition, Lintvet continues. “Ask yourself why a potential customer should do business with you instead of a competitor,” he says. “Do you offer better service? Better prices? Sell on your unique strong points. Are you near a particular body of water? If you are, that should go in your content. You’ll be well on your way to getting ahead of the competition.”

Hire, or pick a provider?

Committing to enhance or implement a better Internet marketing strategy will cost money, Main says. Typically a boat dealer is busy running the business and lacks the expertise to wear the SEO or PPC hat without help. “There’s a lot to know and there are a lot of misconceptions out there,” he says. “That’s why many dealers turn to outside Internet marketing companies to help them sort through it all.”

At Sail & Ski, Watkins has two other full-time marketing people to help him build the business online and offline. “We’re a big enough company to have a dedicated marketing team. Most dealers don’t have that advantage,” he says, adding that managing an effective Internet marketing program requires a commitment of time and resources, just like managing a service or sales department.

For a smaller dealer, choosing an Internet marketing company or committing to learning the Internet ropes is an option, he says. “I’m not an expert at this. It’s all pretty basic,” he says. “You just have to take the trouble to learn about how you can use the Internet to build your business.”

ARI’s Lintvet says it’s not always necessary to tear down a website and start from scratch. SEO keyword phrases can be worked into new or revised content. Graphics and Web pages can be added. At other times, a teardown is more sensible.

Upfront fees apply, Lintvet says. For SEO, he estimates that the startup costs for a single-location dealership would run between $500 and $2,500. For ongoing management and support, the fees would run between $500 and $1,500 a month. “You’ve got to consider whether it’s worth hiring someone full-time on staff to manage your Internet marketing or whether you want to farm it out to a company like ours,” Lintvet says. In regard to SEO, he suggests that an outside company would be less expensive.

On the PPC side, Lintvet says the startup costs for a single-location dealer would be $500 to $1,500. The ongoing costs per month would depend on the size and scope of the PPC ad program.

Candlewood East’s Slater says the company’s Internet marketing initiative has transformed the sales environment. “The whole package is helping us to keep track of inventory, to monitor the level of inquiries in a timely manner and to identify potential new customers and drive them to our site. The Internet is a way of life now and we’re very comfortable with it,” he says.

This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue.

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