Targeting the Customer Next Door

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Businesses traditionally turn to the Internet with thoughts of opening their doors to the world. But what if you are a small, one- or two-location services company or store that requires customers to walk in your door? You don't have aspirations of global domination, but you do want to leverage the Internet to benefit your growing business.


The Internet finally has a place for you. Or rather, it has gotten sophisticated enough to help users find you. Whether your business is the salon around the corner, the local hardware store or a local restaurant, surfers have new ways to find you among the 500 billion pages in cyberspace. Increasingly, Web directories, search engines and geo-location technology simplify the process.


Web directories. The Web directory method of local advertising is easy for most small-business service providers to understand because it is the model we are used to with the traditional yellow and white pages.


To stay relevant in this increasingly Internet-oriented society, local directories emerged as a digital alternative to their printed counterparts. They operate very much like the traditional yellow pages, selling ad space for a fixed duration and offering varying levels of prominence for price to advertisers. To find a local firm in a Web directory, a user begins with a region and narrows the search by drilling down to the product or service.


Regionally dedicated directories have grown more sophisticated with other advertising products and services to boost revenue. These online ad venues now offer links to advertisers' Web sites, click-to-call (via IP phone or by a call-back mechanism similar to that offered by Verizon's SuperPages) and most recently have tried to provide pay-per-call services through a company-technology called Ingenio.


Ingenio, currently running on Smartpages.com, among others, provides alternative phone numbers that reroute callers to the real location and charges for each one of those "pings." You, as the advertiser, pay only for each actual phone call routed from prospective customers.


Search engines. Search engines are the most popular way for surfers to find new sites. Customers use them to look up companies online before doing business with them. They increasingly are used to track down even local companies.


Companies like Google, Overture and LookSmart responded to this trend by creating programs that let advertisers bid on relevant key phrases to promote their Web sites to searchers. Since advertisers using this model pay for every click they get ("pay-per-click" advertising), it is important that clicks come from appropriate, targeted searchers who are likely to buy the advertisers' products or services.


Typically, the more general the term, the more searched upon and expensive it is. This pricing model of paying more for general terms is opposite that of traditional online advertising, where the more closely targeted the media, the higher the price. Broader, more-sweeping terms are also likely to be used by searchers who may have no interest in the business' services and usually produce many prospects outside the appropriate region, since they are not specific.


One way local companies avoid the higher cost and non-targeted overage of general terms is to put a regional word within the paid search phrase: for example, "San Diego hair salon" as opposed to just "hair salon."


Geo-location. Responding to regional advertisers' increasing needs, geo-targeted advertising opportunities were introduced. Because these services automatically identify where the user is sitting based on his IP address (among other things), they eliminate the need for surfers to put in qualifying words for location and provide locally targeted ads in response to searches on broad terms.


Someone surfing from Boise, ID, and looking up "plumbers," for example, automatically will get "plumbers in Boise" without having to type in the location.


The revenue incentive to search engines is that they can open more broad search terms to a larger advertising market, charge more for those terms and sell more inventory for searches.


Advertisers have a better chance to reach more targeted prospects immediately interested in their regional services. Surfers can find local companies with even broad terms online.


As a bonus, Google also is attempting to merge its search engine technology into a yellow pages-like destination with Google Local. As it functions now, in a beta state, Google Local serves its best guess at site owners' business types from its existing search algorithm (based on factors such as page content, link-backs from complementary sites, etc.).


Google Local returns the respective contact information from the site's content in a familiar directory format that traditional yellow page loyalists might be more apt to use. Surfers can search on companies in a more familiar format and gain access to convenient contact information, links, driving directions and more.


Google Local has integrated geo-targeted advertising to allow advertisers even more options to stand out.


Other applications of geo-location technology. Such technology has other applications that Internet marketers are using. Audience-specific information or content can be served to users based on their geographic information gathered when they hit a company's Web site.


Sites can change currency or provide alternative promotions based on the visitor's locale. Marketers can even restrict access by users from a competitor's internal domain. Geo-location technology lets marketers prevent access to their services when prospective visitors are coming from areas where it is illegal for those services or products (such as with gambling or selling alcohol) to be offered online.


Though the vastness of the Internet can be daunting, technology offers new ways for advertisers to target searchers doing their homework online. By leveraging geo-targeting and geo-location technology to tailor the Web user's experience, these companies can drive visitors to their store's physical location through the most efficient use of the Internet's reach.


Technology is letting regional service providers gather a higher percentage of targeted customers from a pool of admittedly fewer, yet more likely to purchase, Web site visitors. It is all about quality, not quantity, for a cost-effective, valuable Internet presence.


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