A couple of months back, I wrote about Yodle’s recent finding that around half of small businesses still don’t have a website. This statistic, I wrote, has barely changed in the past several years. I used this as a starting point for a discussion of how little progress we’ve made on the long road toward full adoption of online presence management by the small business community.
I haven’t changed my mind about any of that, but I still find it instructive to turn the question on its head. Do small businesses actually need a website? The question takes on new meaning in a world where communication on the open web has been largely overtaken by closed circuit channels like Facebook, Tumblr, and Pinterest. These forums aren’t entirely shut off from the outside world, but they do encourage participants to stay inside their fiefdoms. For instance, a perfectly legitimate sales funnel on Facebook would have the consumer search for a local business using Graph Search, visit the appropriate Facebook page, gather the needed contact info, visit the store, and complete the purchase, never needing to visit the business website nor caring if such a website exists. Local search is just one of the many types of social interaction users can engage in without ever having to leave the network.
Now think how strongly such closed circuits are reinforced by mobile search behavior. Contrary to the current wisdom that your website must be mobile-optimized, as a small business you might find that most if not all of the consumer traffic that reaches you via mobile devices begins and ends with the search app of choice, mobile websites never entering the equation. The typical use case for mobile shopping is one where the minimum information required to get me to my goal is all I need or want. If Google Maps gives me that, I won’t bother to click the link to the business website, no matter how responsive or mobile-friendly it may be. We know from Google’s encroachment on organic search real estate that such closed-loop searches are becoming a strong tendency in desktop search; on mobile they are the default.
Of course, many businesses will still find a website to be a useful way to do things social sites and mobile listings can’t do. You can summarize this approach by saying that the website exists to provide features that don’t fit well in any third party data model. Post your store’s inventory; tell your origin story; share an events calendar; provide testimonials from satisfied customers. Those sorts of things are best done on your website, but they really only apply to a subset of potential customers who need or want a deeper dive. Many customers will use Yelp star ratings and the like as a proxy for the type of qualitative marketing information websites are designed to provide. The website should be there to appeal to those customers who do want more, but should definitely not stand in the way of ensuring your business is easily found and well represented on third party sites.
In this context, it may be best to think of the website as a central connection point for third party representations of a business – a node in a broader network. It’s the richest online repository of compelling information about your business, but it probably isn’t your primary means of attracting customers. Rather, customers who find you via Google Maps or Facebook may need to refer to your website in the event a third party search doesn’t provide enough information to make a buying decision. The website serves as a last stage effort to win business that hasn’t already been secured via local search.
Online presence management then becomes a matter of taking ownership of business profiles on third party sites: claiming your listing on Google, Yelp, Bing, and other popular search services and apps; establishing a presence on Facebook and other social sites relevant for your line of business; and using those outposts – local branch locations in the digital geography – to engage with customers in the places where they already hang out, rather than hoping they’ll come to you or trying to compete for search traffic with massive nationwide directories or with Google itself. Your website may conveniently act as a meeting point for all of these third party profiles, but you only really need to drive traffic to your website if you depend on it to transact business. If you’re after foot traffic, not clicks, you want to give the customer the shortest path to your door.
Damian Rollison is vice president of product and technology at Universal Business Listing, a company dedicated to promoting online visibility for local businesses. He holds degrees from University of California, Berkeley and the University of Virginia, where he worked at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. He can be reached via Twitter.