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One of the most important aspects of running a business – any business – is data. Actionable data. You need information on which to base sound decisions that lead to increased profit. That’s what Web analytics is about.

If you’re a local business, you have to realize that every piece of content you publish online is available to anyone on the Internet.

While you could block Internet traffic from other countries and regions, you don’t want to. What if someone who lives locally to you takes a vacation in Europe and tries to visit your website to plan their re-connection with you upon their return? A better plan is to use analytics to track your local traffic and measure your results where it counts.

Google Analytics allows you to create custom reports just for that purpose. Why not create a custom report in your analytics package that gives you the important metrics that are important to your business.

Another aspect of local business is mobile marketing. This is especially true for certain sectors, like restaurants and tourist destinations. Are you measuring your mobile traffic and other mobile metrics? Do you know how many conversions you get from mobile devices versus desktop and laptop machines? If not, you should.

Finally, you should be tracking offline conversions. In the pre-Internet days, that was easy. Today, when many businesses are focused on tracking website conversions, it’s easy to lose offline conversions in the shuffle. But chances are, your business is still converting walk-in traffic and other offline traffic. You should be keeping with it.

Analytics is about more than counting traffic and bounce rates. Learn how you can keep tabs of the important information relevant to your business.

Yelp recently announced the acquisition of an online reservation management tool called SeatMe. This makes me wonder, will Yelp get into providing online reservations for local businesses? I could see how that would benefit Yelp customers and provide a more competitive landscape in local marketing.

If you run any type of local business or a business based on reservations (including hotels, B&Bs, certain entertainment-style venues, and travel packages), then Yelp getting into providing online reservations for company’s like yours would be a good service at the right price. Right?

As Greg Sterling points out, Yelp already has an affiliate relationship with OpenTable, which provides online reservations. Being able to do it themselves means they can cut their affiliate relationship and go directly to the customer.

As a small business owner, or a local business owner, if you could get an online reservation fulfillment service at an affordable price, would you go for that?

I don’t know what Yelp’s pricing model would look like, and I’m only speculating that the purpose of purchasing SeatMe would be to provide an online reservation management service, but it does make sense. The question is, is it something that small local businesses want, and is it something they could use?

Do you have your contact information clearly visible on your small business’s website? If not, why not?

I’d say this is one of the most important pieces of information to include on any website, especially if your business is a local small business that serves a geographically-based targeted audience. Your contact information is essential.

The days are long gone when the average person pulled out a Yellow Pages and thumbed through it to find a local business to customize. Today, more than half of the people in any given geographical market will go online and conduct a search for a business and they’ll most likely use Google. Ninety percent of them will use either Google or Bing. Therefore, your contact information is essential.

There are places other than your own website where it might be prudent to include your contact information. For a local business, you should claim your Google Places and Bing Local listings. A listing at several of various local business directories like Yelp and SuperPages might also be in order. But your website is the most important place for your local contact information. It is there where people are likely to engage with you and to seek out your services. If your website is optimized for the right keywords and geographical audience, then contact information will be even more essential.

People search for phone numbers online. All they have to do is type in your business name. If you have a website, what do you think they will find? If they are looking for your phone number, address, or e-mail contact information and it isn’t on your website, they will go to your competitor. It’s really that simple.

SEOmoz posted an interesting take on Google Places yesterday. The gist of the article tells how some local businesses have had their Google Places listing disappear because they don’t actually service customers at their location. That’s a slap in the face to many home-based businesses. It could happen to you.

Thankfully the article tells how to avoid that fate. Dare I let the cat out of the bag?

OK, you talked me into it. The key is to hide your local address. Yes, hide it. As in, make it invisible.

That could very well diminish your local search results, but if your Google Places listing is de-activated, then that will happen anyway.

Casting aside any temptation to make Google look like a bad guy, I’d like to instead ask you a question. Do you really need a Google Places listing? If you do any business locally, then I’d say you should have one. But is it the end of the world if your address isn’t visible? Do you really think it will make or break your local business?

With all the marketing channels available to small businesses today, I wouldn’t fret over one channel. You have to figure out how many of your local prospects would actually visit your Google Places listing. If your business is rural, it may not be that many. On the other hand, if you operate in a large metropolitan area, it could be much higher.

Like any marketing channel, you must ask yourself how important it is to your business. Then, act accordingly.

We’ve said all along that small businesses – in particular, local small businesses – should make their best use of search and social. If you can incorporate a strong search engine optimization campaign and a social media campaign, then you should do it.

As you manage your two campaigns, there are three pieces of information that you should ensure you incorporate into both campaigns:

  • Your business phone number
  • Your business address
  • Hours of operation

Why Your Phone Number Is Important To Search

According to the latest social search study, the information most often sought by local searchers is a business phone number. The second most sought after information is a business address. And the third most searched for information are hours of operation.

In fact, these three little bits of information far outweigh everything else people search for online. So you should be sure to include them on your website in a prominent location. If possible, get them into the search engines.

But don’t just stop there. More and more, people are using social networks to search for local businesses. And 91% of the people who do are using Facebook to do it. What’s that tell you?

It tells me that you should have a Facebook page and your phone number, business address, and hours of operation should be displayed prominently on it.

Why People Do Business With You

Here’s the kicker. 72% of survey respondents said they are more likely to do business with someone if a friend or colleague recommends them. If you are a business-to-consumer operation, then Facebook is your friend. Build a brand page, share it with your friends and fans (and customers) and watch them share it with theirs. A recommendation online goes a long way.

Make it easy for people to find you and they will find you. Whether in the search engines or the social networks, being found is the first step to getting business.

Facebook is one of the most powerful social media tools online. Of course, it’s also the most trafficked website online so it makes sense that any business would want to have a presence there. But what about local business? Can Facebook benefit businesses with a local presence that may not want to market themselves internationally? Absolutely. Here’s how.

  • Facebook Places allows you to edit community pages that are local to you. For instance, if you live in Boston, Massachusetts, use the Facebook search feature to find the Boston, Massachusetts community page. Anyone can edit that page. Once you make an edit, future editors who are also friends of yours will see that you’ve made changes to that community page.
  • Friends Lists allow you to create lists of your friends who may have something in common, such as friends who live in the same geographic area. You can post updates that only those friends see.
  • Local Business Listings, like Facebook Places, are community pages that anyone can edit, except that they are for businesses. Yours could very well be there, created by Facebook. All you have to do is click to edit the page and monitor what others write when they edit. You want to be sure no false information about your business is published.
  • Create your own Facebook page for your local business.
  • Post events and promote them through Facebook Events.

Facebook is a powerful way to promote your business online to people you may already know or that you meet in the process of doing business in your local area.

Does social media marketing have a limitation when it comes to local business? There must surely come a time when you have reached out to almost everyone in your demographic market. While I doubt there are that many businesses that could claim to have touched every possible customer in their region, there does come a time when your growth in followers drops to a trickle.

This is not necessarily a negative to your business although I am sure you could broaden your demographic base if you wanted to. For small businesses servicing a small geographic region, that limitation in follower numbers can actually work to your advantage. It’s much easier to become more social with a thousand followers, for example, than it is to ten thousand.

In that environment, it can be easier to convert those followers into customers (if they are not already). If your geographic base is relatively small, then there is a good chance that most of your followers know each other – and most likely you as well. This makes the social process easier and can often open the marketing angle to a more direct approach.

There is a downside to having a relatively small tightly knit community of followers – if you upset one of the followers, it will soon spread throughout the whole community. However, as in offline communities, it can be easier to seek forgiveness as well.

For most businesses, the scenario of having a tight community of followers is only a dream – yet in a way, that is what we should all be aiming for. Perhaps the mistake we are making with social media marketing is that it is too business oriented when it should be community oriented! Social media marketing may have limitations when it comes to local businesses – but that may be a good thing, not a negative.

Competitive intelligence is something you can never overestimate the importance of and you should never underestimate it as an information gathering resource. One resource that you should add to your arsenal of information gathering about your competition is WhitePages.com.

Off line, the White Pages has always been a great source of information about phone numbers for local business. Online, WhitePages.com has traditionally just been a resource that pointed you to other places on the Web. Not any more.

WhitePages.com now allows you to find national chains in your local neighborhood. This is a great competitive intelligence tool – and it’s free. Look for the Store Locator feature on the front page and start looking for your competition. You can find out just where their chain stores are located all around the country.

Sometimes, competitive intelligence is really simple.

There is a florist in New Zealand performing community penance for hijacking the Google Local listings of her competitors. I rather think she should get jail time, but that’s an aside.

If you have a local small business and you want to start marketing your business online but don’t know where to start, Google Local is the perfect place. You don’t even need a website. But if you don’t claim your business on Google Local then someone else just may do it for you and take any traffic or business that you might have received had you done it.

While this is considered criminal, consider that it could happen from someone in another country hijacking your business listing. If that happens then you may never see justice.

It’s best to prevent it from happening before you see your business in a compromised situation. Claim your business on Google Local, Yahoo!, Bing and Ask.com. It’s free and it will save you a ton of headaches.

Yesterday Google announced that it was changing the name of Google Local to Google Places. If you’re interested in why Google doesn’t have a unique domain name – yet – for Google Places, you can read about that at Search Marketing Standard. It’s a good read.

But whether you think Google screwed up or hit a home run, this is an important step for all of us, especially local business. Google says that one in five searches are local so if you have a local business then you need to claim your business at Google Places. Don’t wait.

Here are some of the new features Google has added to Google Places:

  • Claim your own service area and hide your address
  • For select cities, you can add tags to your listing for $25
  • Add photos
  • Get custom QR codes
  • Join the Favorite Places program
  • Add real-time updates
  • Track your progress with your own personalized dashboard

Seriously, this looks like a good deal to me. Could Google have rolled it out in a more strategic manner? Yes. But that they’ve done this and done it now says a lot about how serious Google is about local search marketing. I chalk it up as a plus.

Yellowbook is a staple of local business advertising. First started as a print directory in 1930 to serve Long Island, New York, Yellowbook has become a major publishing company that now serves 48 states. It is one of America’s most important publishing companies.

In recent years, however, Yellowbook has become more than a print directory. It is an online publishing powerhouse that now serves every community in the U.S. with directory services. If you want to find a particular type of business anywhere in the U.S., Yellowbook is the place to go.

But things have just got better. Yellowbook now has an iPad app. That means that the millions of early adopters who have purchased an iPad can now find any business they want through Yellowbook. Well, they can find any business listed. Are you listed? If not, the iPad is the perfect reason to list your business at Yellowbook. This is local Internet marketing at its best.

Google’s got a new way for local small businesses to engage in reputation management. It’s called Favorite Places. It seems like a simple program, starting with 100,000 local U.S. businesses with a bar code in their window. Yes, I know, sounds hokie, but that’s what it is.

The bar code is intended as a way for mobile phone users to scan and find out more about the business. What kind of information? You know, reviews, history, menus, etc.

Google is inviting other local businesses to participate by nominating themselves as a Favorite Place. Well, you join the Google Local Business Center, which you should have done already anyway. Then, if you get a lot of people searching for you at Google, you’ll get your own decal.

Apart from the silliness, it can be another reputation enhancer for the right businesses. But I’m wondering how many people will actually use the decals with their mobile phones?