When Jay Greenstein, president of the R.A.G. New York retail chain, launched an online shopping site last year, he figured hed have no trouble luring customers.
After all, he has six Manhattan stores known for low-priced fashions emblazoned with various New York City logos, and they were all promoting the new Web site.
But Greenstein soon learned that to be a hit online he needed to get hits on search engines.
With his ragnewyork.com eking out a paltry three sales a day, he hired Blue Fountain Media, a Web site design firm near Union Square, to develop a search engine optimization strategy a form of Internet marketing that aims to improve a sites ranking on search engine listings.
Soon after the online tune-up, ragnewyork.com appeared on the first page of searches using phrases like NYPD hoodies and I Love New York T-shirts.
Sales soared to nearly $12,000 in December from $2,000 in August. Sales now average $8,000 a month from about 400 daily visitors. Greenstein said he spent $30,000 on the project and is now paying $1,000 a month to keep ragnewyork.com in a prime search position.
This got people to visit the site, said Greenstein, whos preparing to open a store next month in Jamaica, Queens. It was definitely worthwhile.
With the economy in a tailspin, paying for marketing is a stretch for many entrepreneurs.
But for small businesses hoping to boost online sales, its crucial to be front and center on the left-hand side of the first page of search engine results where shoppers typically begin a search as opposed to the pay-per-click ads on the right, or on subsequent pages.
Search engine optimization is a way to boost the odds of reaching them.
Everyone feels a sense of hesitation, said Blue Fountain Media creative director Gabriel Shaoolian. But if you do it right, you will see the traffic.
Search engine optimization works to vault a site to the top of search listings by using carefully chosen and strategically placed keywords, and by boosting the number of outside links.
The process often requires ongoing tinkering to keep up with rivals and changes in the way search engines organize results.
Jennifer Shaheen, president of the Technology Therapy Group, a Web communications firm in White Plains, Westchester, said a first step in devising a search engine optimization plan is to figure out the keywords or phrases you think your customers are most likely to type when looking for the kind of products or services you sell.
If your goal is a less popular search word, you might be able to optimize your Web site on your own because the project requires less day-to-day monitoring.
Shaheen recommended two sites: seomoz.org, which offers free limited access to tools and guides, and sells enhanced tools for $79 a month; and seobook.com, which offers a free e-mail course.
If its a term searched by fewer than 300 people a month, you can probably do this yourself, if you have been educated, Shaheen said.
Expect to require more help and pay higher fees if your search words are more popular such as cheap digital camera, a phrase thats searched about 49,500 times a month, according to Google.
But if your desired phrase is less popular, Shaheen said, such as funeral home in Harlem, youll likely need less assistance.
Patrick Weir, the owner of packing and shipping store Manhattan Mailroom on Columbus Ave. on the Upper West Side, was able to teach himself how to make his Web site turn up more prominently in searches. But it took time and energy.
Knowing nothing about search engine optimization, Weir started reading HTML For Dummies a few months ago to learn Web language basics. He then took a $50 online search engine optimization course offered by Shaheen and began working on his Web site, manhattanmailroom.com, on his own.
Within a week and half, he said, he saw the results. I chose to invest time over money, Weir said.
If you plan to hire a search engine optimization firm for your small business, expect to pay fees ranging from several hundred dollars a month to as much as several thousand a month.
If a consultant will be providing content to add to your site, review samples of their work, Shaheen said.
Ask, What keywords do you have your clients up for? What were the results? Shaoolian said.
Internet giant Google doesnt discourage search engine optimization, and even said it can help improve a site. But it warned against unfair manipulation.
Blue Fountain guarantees it will get customers on the first page of a Google search for at least 15 popular keywords within six months of working on a site.
The Holy Grail of online marketing is to get your Web site on page one of search engines. Page two is useless, Shaoolian said.
The questions for business owners are, how do I get there and how do I stay there?
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