In the first installment of our internet presence series we looked at the pros and cons of using social media as your main internet presence.
Now we are going to take a look at some free options for advertising your business on the web that are more substantial than a Facebook or Twitter presence.
Local Review Sites
We have all stumbled across directories of local businesses when searching for a company online. They are like phone book ads, but usually with more detail. These sites provide a platform for customers to review a company’s service, which makes them great if you are a potential customer researching the best company to do business with.
Examples of sites like this include Yelp, Manta, Hotfrog, Citysearch, Local.Yahoo.com, and Yellowpages.com.
What Is So Great About Review Sites?
Review sites are good for letting customers know that you exist, whether you provide great service, and how to get in contact with you.
A great perk is that it is usually free for your company to put a listing up on the site (although they try to get you to pay for extra capabilities in most cases).
These sites tend to rank high in the search engines, so having your business listed in a directory may help it to get found.
If you provide great service and garner positive reviews on these sites it will become much easier for your company to get found, and you may even gain a significant amount of business from traffic through these sites. We all trust the opinions of others more than advertising, which is why we look at reviews before watching a movie or reading a book, rather than trusting the movie trailer or book excerpt. Reviews have the power to develop great sense of trust in your customer base.
The Wrong Way to Use Review Sites
There may be a temptation to go on a review site and write reviews about your own business. Do not do this!
Soon after my wife and I moved to a new city we looked up some local restaurants on a review site. One of the closest restaurants scored all five-star ratings with seven or eight reviews. Each of the reviews was enthusiastic about the restaurant and the food.
Both of our meals were bland and not very good. It was a major letdown.
It did not take long for us to realize that the reviews about the restaurant were probably from people who were invested in it. Not only was our food bad, but whenever we walked by the restaurant was mostly empty. Not typical for a raved-about, highly rated restaurant.
The fake reviews left a bad taste in our mouths (pardon the pun) and we have not eaten there since.
Avoid writing reviews about your own company and embrace the occasional bad review that you might get from a customer. They will always exist. It is tough not to take it personally, but every single company gets the occasional bad review. There may be something in the review that you can take away to improve your business, and a negative review shows customers that all of the reviews were not written by you!
Why Review Sites Leave Something to Be Desired
There are some great benefits to review sites but they are not the end-all, be-all of your company’s internet presence.
For one thing, you have no control over the site. They can change their rules or their focus and dump you from their listing tomorrow. They could even close down completely.
Review sites also do not convey professionalism. The information that you can list about your business is limited, and it is not regularly updated.
When I search for a company online and I only see a Yelp listing in the search results (not an actual company website) I assume one of a couple things:
- The company is not savvy enough to have a basic website of their own. Can I trust them to be competent at the services that I need?
- The company could have gone out of business. Their website might be down and only their Yelp listing is left up. Is the information on Yelp still current?
Review sites leave some gaping holes in the market’s understanding of your business and offerings. You need a more robust site that can be updated regularly, like a blog.
Free Blogging Websites
A step up from both social media and review sites, and a step closer to your own real website, is a free blogging website.
When I was first thinking about starting a blog I joined WordPress.com and started a free blog. This particular blog was about a hobby of mine, home brewing beer, and I wrote about it every single day.
Over time my writing improved and I learned how to use the different functions of the blogging website – adding pictures, adding links, formatting the text, creating new pages, etc. I was able to customize much of the website’s design to make it look like the blog that I was envisioning.
My family and friends followed along, and it was a fun time. The best part was, this was all free.
Then one day I learned that I could post an affiliate link for products, such as a link to a book on Amazon that told Amazon who had sent the customer to them. If the customer bought the book after clicking on my link I would get paid a small commission, at no extra cost to the book buyer.
I realized that this was a great idea – I showed people which books were helpful for learning about a topic, they bought the book at the normal Amazon price, and I got a small commission. There are bloggers out there that make a full time living off of this.
BUT, it is not allowed by most free blogging platforms.
I logged on to the site the next day to write a new post only to find that my blog had been disabled and I was blocked from using it anymore.
Examples of Free Blogging Sites
Examples of sites like this are WordPress.com (WordPress.org is different) and Blogger.
Think of these platforms as shopping malls – you can rent out a store in the mall and customize it to your store’s needs, but you do not own the mall itself. WordPress or Blogger does.
The mall is providing the real estate on which you set up shop. In internet terms, this means that they are the “host” and they are hosting your site.
This is different from “self-hosted” websites in which you pay a company to host your site and you have full ownership and control over the site and what goes on there.
The Upside of Free Blogging Platforms
Free blogging sites are a great place to start if you are building an online presence. They give you somewhere to send your customers to learn more about what you offer, and you control the content and most of the design.
These platforms also teach you a lot about the “behind-the-scenes” of what goes into a blog. It is better to learn about blogging and website design on a site where you have little to lose – if you “break” the site you can easily get assistance from the site host. If they can’t fix the site and it is lost, at least it was free!
Downsides to Free Blogging Platforms
There are in fact downsides to free blogging platforms.
The first is the same as all of the online tools that we have talked about in this series so far – you do not own the site. If the host platform decides to change its rules it can drop your blog from its site. The host can also go out of business, and your site is lost forever.
There are two disadvantages to these blogging platforms in regards to search engine friendliness. First, you do not get a totally unique URL.
If this site were hosted on WordPress.com you would have to type in www.smartrentalbusiness.wordpress.com to get to it. Every blog hosted by these sites includes the platform’s name in the URL. This makes it very long and cumbersome. Not ideal when you are trying to tell customers how to find out more about you.
Second, it is rare to see a site which is hosted on a free blogging platform show up in a search engine. If you host your site on one of these platforms your website traffic will either come directly from people that you refer, or possibly from people who are surfing the blogs on that particular platform. It is not likely that you will be seeing people from the world’s largest internet traffic source – Google.
Finally, there are drawbacks to free blogging platforms when it comes to website functionality.
As I learned the hard way, you cannot post affiliate links. For some websites this may be no big deal, but for others it is a significant source of profit.
Also, you cannot add “plugins” which are free pieces of software that you can easily install on a website to add features to the sidebar, track your traffic, display your social media posts, and much more. This really limits what you can do to customize the site and utilize it fully.
The Final Word on Free Blogging Platforms
In general free blogging platforms are a great tool for learning how to blog and build websites. They can be a great short-term solution when you are starting out, especially if you are unsure of your market or the viability of your business.
Long-term, these sites are not as useful. They have significant limitations which prevent you from getting the most out of your company’s website.
Next: Real Websites
In the next installment of this series we will take a look at the ideal online presence for your company: the self-hosted website. I will show you how to set it up and how to get started, and I promise that it is not as difficult or as expensive as you probably expect.
Has your company utilized review sites or free blogging platforms? Share your successes or failures in the comments below.