Sales people make fantastic study

Many websites are treated as "bolt-ons" to an existing mail order business: an electronic order form. They should really be treated as a fully-fledged, cost-effective, integrated channel capable of handling thirty-forty percent of total sales. The web can even be a low-cost, measurable channel for acquiring brand new customers. You can pay for banners and ads (pay-per-click) or you can get your site linked to by armies of organised affiliates. This article explains how to win customers without paying for them.

What's the most popular application on the Web? Search engines. What's the most popular search engine? Google, by a country mile. Plus, Google's database is currently used by other search vehicles like Yahoo! and AOL. Applying an 80:20 rule, doing well in Google is a basic minimum requirement for getting new customers online.

Where does your brand name come if typed into Google? What about your products? What about a generic description of your products? (You know, the kind of thing people might actually type into Google.) Potential new customers are not going to key in Acme Active Wear - unless they know you. Nor will they enter "robust all-weather clothing", that charming tagline the Directors came up with. Most likely, folk on the web will type in "waterproof fleeces". Try this out with your product range and send me the answers!

To do well in Google, you simply execute three mantras: visibility, relevance and popularity. Visibility is about basic mechanics.

Getting your site seen and indexed. Google works by sending out little "robots" that spider around the Internet, examining pages, titles, headers, links, file names, content and the HTML underneath it. What robots can read gets indexed. Many e-commerce websites cannot be read at all, because products and their descriptions are hidden deep inside databases. Stuff in images, Flash and frames is also difficult to read. Meta tags come into play here. These are special HTML tags containing instructions about what Google should look out for: your site's description (which it adds to the database, your key words (which it cross-references for relevance) and marching orders (such as follow all the links, stop here, index this page). Basic textual content is also scanned.

You can see exactly what Google has read on your site by studying your entry or by looking at the cached (stored) version of your page. Make sure your site is visible and indexable.

Next, all this must be relevant. Relevance is about all the elements of your site pointing in the same direction, with the same context and keywords. Simply put, if all your pages talk about "power tools" all over the place, then Google will regard your site as relevant to power tools. The relevance check is designed to weed out cynical and cheap masquerading.

The thorniest aspect to relevance is getting those all important generic propositions (keywords) right. Keywords should be in the HTML meta tags of your site - as well as throughout its content - and should be used to identify your generic proposition. For example, "tesco" would be specific, and "supermarket" would be generic. Doing well in generic searches is obviously harder and you could be up against some tough competition in a saturated market: especially for popular search terms, such as "computer", "clothes", "jewellery" etc.

Your products and page-by-page content is compared - almost mechanically - to those keywords. The more relevant it is, the higher you come in Google when those keywords are entered.

Choosing the right keywords is, of course, an entirely different matter. Inputs to this include your overall brand strategy and values, what customers are likely to enter in searches, what space your competition is after, what is achievable. Keyword strategy is quantitative and qualitative, creative and analytical. Ultimately, however, this is the virtual market sector you will occupy.

When you have got this mixture of visibility and relevance right, your site will be well-armed for those Google robots. ITS London sells tools and accessories for builders. Individual products (drills, routers etc) are listed directly, often ahead of the original suppliers like Bosch. More strategically, ITS has acquired excellent rankings for the generic search "power tools".

Next, you need to become popular. As a starting point, you can see how popular you are on the Internet by looking at your (or anybody else's) "page rank": (download the Google toolbar if you can't see it). This a measure of popularity, calculated largely on the number of people who link to your site. This page rank will effect how often Google visits you. For a mail order company, anything north of 6/10 will you give real competitive advantage in securing good rankings for your keywords and products.

The challenge is get people to link to you. Webmasters do not exactly volunteer to give free links: especially to commercial organisations. There has to be a "what's in it for me." Bona fide affiliates are a great way of doing this: they provide a link, generating traffic and you offer them a modest commission. I don't mean the type brought by affiliate marketing organisations like Tradedoubler: this brings traffic, but does not enhance your link popularity. People will link to your site voluntarily if it has meaningful, beneficial, informative content - especially where it is valued by a specific community of interest. Alternatively, get people to want to link to you for other reasons: you've got a good game, a survey or a vote, or perhaps even a "web log" (a new format for immediate web publishing) of personal or customer experiences.

All these "viral" devices, if well designed, will encourage web users to link to your site, which will boost your popularity and, in turn, get your site better and more frequently indexed. There's a big caveat here: the content must, of course, be relevant in Google's eyes.

A strong example is all the content carried by Anything Left-Handed on the trials and tribulations of being a southpaw: consequently, all sorts of people and charities link to its website. Try typing in "left handed" and see what happens. Seek any kind of left-handed product, and they come up tops - even if they don't stock it!

My final point is measurability. The web has unprecedented levels of accountability, making it easy for marketers to analyse and track, monitor the return on investment. You can see how you're doing: just type in your products and keywords and see where you are. Looking at your website log files (visible in packages like Webtrends and Deep Metrix), you can track the number of visitors, where the referrals come from, which search terms are bringing in those valuable customers.

If you work on the visibility, relevance and popularity of your website, the number of visitors to your site will increase exponentially. Over time, you will develop a presence for your brand that is unassailable by your competitors and keeps you at the top of the pile and increases sales. My final point is measurability. The web has unprecedented levels of accountability, making it easy for marketers to analyse and track, monitor the return on investment. You can see how you're doing: just type in your products and keywords and see where you are. Looking at your website log files (visible in packages like Webtrends and Deep Metrix), you can track the number of visitors, where the referrals come from, which search terms are bringing in those valuable customers. If you work on the visibility, relevance and popularity of your website, the number of visitors to your site will increase exponentially. Over time, you will develop a presence for your brand that is unassailable by your competitors and keeps you at the top of the pile and increases sales.