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The Digital Footprint of Your Business

Digital Footprint

Every business has a digital footprint.  The question is whether or not you know what it really looks like, and whether or not it’s helping you or hurting you.  I developed the concept of digital footprint, loosely defined as everything a potential customer can find about you online, over the past decade. 

When we started a local news site in my adopted hometown of Franklin, Tennessee we started to sell advertising and sponsorships on the site to local businesses.  What we learned in the course of that effort is that many of our customers weren’t ready for us to send digital customer leads their way because their digital footprint was a total mess.

There is no point executing marketing programs if your business is not digitally ready to receive incoming leads.  You’re wasting your money.  Everything your business will do to market itself relies on having a healthy, fully-functioning digital footprint that:

  1. Makes you easy to find when potential customers discover you;
  2. Immediately, clearly tells potential customers who you are, what you do, and why you’re the right match for them;
  3. Puts potential customers in charge of how they begin building a relationship with you and your brand.

If your business has very limited time, money, and expertise – focus exclusively on getting your digital footprint right before you look beyond that to other efforts.

The Basics of Digital Footprint

Digital footprint has four main components:

  1. Major Directories
  2. Search
  3. Social Media & Email
  4. Reputation & Reviews

These all work together to form the sum total of everything available about your business online, and they become the conduits through which people find you, how you differentiate yourself from competitors and explain your value proposition to prospective customers, and how potential customers begin and maintain and relationship with your business.

As we consider each area of digital footprint, it’s important to understand how search platforms like Google decide what to display in search results.  One of the most frequent frustrations shared with me by business owners goes something like this, “I don’t understand why Google doesn’t show me first because…”  Obviously, business owners are always clear on what they do.  However, Google® and its contemporaries are not always clear about it.

Most people are familiar with the concept of a credit score.  The higher the credit score, the better a credit risk you are considered as a consumer by banks, automobile finance companies, and other potential creditors. 

Search platforms each build their own versions of a credit score, not only about your business, but about every page in your website, every post you place on social media, and details you probably wouldn’t consider significant.  And, much like credit score, these calculations are mysterious and difficult to understand.  In fact, credit scores are easy compared to the proprietary formulas employed by search platforms; they don’t tell us exactly how they do anything.

However, if you take Google® at its word, it says that it’s goal is to get searchers to the most useful information the fastest.  I spent a lot of years looking for workarounds to that; working from a hypothesis that they were lying about that and had other motives.  Only after I yielded and started building a system to best deal with their stated goal did we, as a company, make some real breakthroughs.

Some people call this score search rank or credibility score, confidence score, etc.  It goes by many names.  But it will serve you well to focus on Google®.  Google® is still the 900-pound gorilla of search, so if you do a good job on that one, you’ll see similar results from all other search engines.

For now, suffice it to say that all the best practices we’re about to share here are designed to increase your credit score with Google® and all other search engines.  We focus on the steps that give you the biggest bang for the buck first, and then keep moving from there.  If you have limited time, money, and expertise just follow the steps as far as you can.

We will go into greater depth on this topic later in the book…

Local Search & Major Directories

Going back to my early days in radio, I could always outsell the competition (newspaper, cable, outdoor, etc.) because I had superior training and a sincere desire to understand each customer’s business to get them the best results.  But the one budget I could never penetrate was the yellow pages budget.

In the pre-Google early ‘90s, when consumers needed to find something and they didn’t have a TOMA file folder full of brands in their brains, they went to the yellow pages.  Today, yellow pages isn’t even really a thing anymore, but at that time it was an impenetrable castle from the standpoint of local marketing spend for small businesses.  Every business spent between a few hundred dollars a month and even tens of thousands of dollars a month to be the most found among its competitors in the yellow pages.

The modern-day version of the yellow pages is major directories, namely these:

  1. Google My Business®
  2. Apple Maps Connect®
  3. Bing Places®
  4. Yelp!®

And, depending on your business category, there can be some supplemental directories that are equally important, such as TripAdvisor® if your business relies on travelers as customers, or HealthGrades® if you are a licensed medical professional.

There are entire businesses built around the idea of making sure you appear correctly and optimally in these directories.  Some of these companies will argue with me that there are perhaps between 70 and 300 directories that matter.  In my experience, that’s a scare tactic used by these companies to make you feel you need their services.

In reality, a business with limited time, money, and expertise can execute these directory listings on its own for free, if necessary.  However, there are some very legitimate people out there who understand these concepts and know that if you focus on these primary 4 directories you can significantly improve your “findability.”

Organic Search Performance & SEO

Google® and Bing® need to know you before they can show you.  What does it really mean for them to “know” your business?

Another common frustration expressed to me by small business owners is, “We spent $X on this stupid website and Google never shows us in search results.  Why?”

The simple answer is, they don’t know you.  The solution is often equally simple.

There are some basic, free steps required to connect the dots for search engines, and it amazes me how infrequently it gets done correctly.  Without these, the search engines just don’t have high confidence that they know you well enough to show you.

Web developers know how to build websites (hopefully).  However, it is quite common that they have no concept of SEO.  Most come from a background of either graphic design or programming.  They tend to design either for what they’d like, or what they think customers will like; almost none have a mindset to design for Google®.

We design everything twice; once for the end user, and once for Google®.  Search engines look at your website in a completely different way than end users.  Visitors to your website see the design, read the content, and hopefully engage using the mechanisms your website provides.  Search engines look at all that, PLUS they look at all the code on every page – which we refer to as the “back end” – where we can convey critical information that helps the search engine understand what each and every page of our site is about, and when it should be shown in search results.

If you’ve spent a lot of money designing and building a website and you’re frustrated that search engines aren’t showing it when you think they should, my bet is your web developer didn’t register your site with the search engine and, subsequently, the search engine doesn’t have confidence in your site as the right solution for searchers.

Once Google® knows you, you’ve got a foundation on which you can build a lot of strategy.  This is commonly referred to search engine optimization, or SEO.  How we typically approach this is to develop an understanding of the keywords people actually type into the search engine when they need what you do.

There are a lot of ways to accomplish this.  My favorite is to set up a free Google AdWords® account (you only pay money if you advertise, but you can set up the account without spending anything).  Once you’ve got that account, in the TOOLS section under PLANNING you’ll find something called KEYWORD PLANNER.  Here, you can type up to 10 words or phrases that describe what you do; you can even include your own business name and the names of competitors.  The planner will then generate a fairly exhaustive list of actual search terms people type into Google®, along with how frequently they type them, and how competitive bidding is in AdWords® around these terms.  You can also adjust the geography being considered to your primary trading area so that you’re seeing the local information most relevant to where you do business. 

You can export the whole list, and I recommend doing that.  By ranking this list of key words and phrases from most-searched to least, you’ll typically see between 3 and 18 key words and phrases that are most frequently used by your potential customers when they search for what you do.  This becomes the road map for your SEO strategy.

A small business with limited time, money, and expertise should focus on the most important key words and phrases first, and then stop if there are no more resources to allocate to SEO.

Social Media & Email

When I first started in marketing, social media didn’t exist as we know it today.  Since the late ‘90s and early ‘10s, it’s been highly disruptive.  It’s also had a very interesting life cycle.  Today, it has fragmented in ways very similar to how television fragmented with the advent of cable television.

The pandemic had some fascinating impacts on the use of social media.  In fact, it’s the first time in the history of social media that overall use fell.  It only fell 2% mind you, but any downward trend was a shock.  During quarantine, heavy use of social media fell 7%, while light use was up 15%.  The offset of the big increase in light users wasn’t enough to offset the loss of heavy users, netting the 2% decline.

Social media companies have continued to throttle business users in ways that tend to force them to spend money to reach potential customers with communication.  That became even more acute during the pandemic because most algorithms had adjusted to show users posts from friends and family on a higher priority and a lot of that increase in light users were friends and family, meaning our feeds became full of people sharing pictures of the sourdough bread they just made from scratch, rather than posts from businesses.

Social media gave us all ways to share the quarantine experience, and played an important role in helping everyone feel connected at a time when we were very isolated, physically.

Particularly with young women, social media has become a means of discovery that must be understood by marketers.  They find trends, new products, opinions from thought leaders they respect, and they are increasingly finding it a good platform to ask for referrals for services they desire.

Ignoring this channel would be perilous, but there is a way to develop priorities for your business within the constraints of time, money, and expertise to make sure your social media is positively contributing to your digital footprint.

It’s important to think of social media as three totally different things:

  1. A platform to convey information to people who follow you (meaning people who have enough of a connection to your brand that they chose to follow you – usually existing customers and those who are active prospects);
  2. An advertising platform that has very little to do with your business page and the posts you add to it;
  3. One way potential customers may choose to begin a relationship with your business.

As you develop your own marketing strategy, you may find 1 or more of these 3 things more valuable than the others.  We often do, too.

Email databases can also play an important role in driving repeat business from existing customers.  It’s funny, businesses tend to either over-use, or under-use this tool; few get it just right. 

You’ve probably signed up (or been automatically added somehow) to the email newsletter of a business.  Partly due to the nature of my profession, and partly because I do business with companies as a normal course of life, I receive a LOT of email communication from businesses.  99% of it is just clutter to me. 

It’s also very important that you are a responsible email owner.  Whenever anyone honors you with their email address, you have to take the responsibility seriously.  Without proper care and feeding, an email can become a source of great negativity on the part of a customer.

Over 2 years ago, my wife and daughter wanted to visit a trendy new fashion boutique in Nashville owned by a celebrity.  She may go unnamed here because I’m sure she personally isn’t responsible for what happened.  I was sitting in the back of the store on the token bench allotted for husbands to keep us busy while our wives shop.  I had no cell service and wanted to check some game scores, so I joined the WiFi network in the store; which required my email address.

Ever since then, twice a day like clockwork, I get an email from this store.  I have zero interest in the emails, and unsubscribed after the very first one arrived.  However, despite multiple efforts to unsubscribe I still get two daily emails from this store, every day.  It baffles me why this store would think I care enough to receive this much communication from them (let alone any), and it baffles me why they choose to continue bombarding me, even though I have made multiple attempts to unsubscribe.

I will never shop at this store again.  I have told this story over and over to other people.  I have a negative attitude about the store and its celebrity owner.

Reviews & Reputation

The last major component of Digital Footprint has to do with online reputation.  The online reputation of any business has two basic elements to monitor and manage:

  1. Cumulative Rating;
  2. Individual Reviews.

Small business owners typically feel a lack of control about online reputation, and often feel review platforms don’t treat them fairly.  This area, more than any other, tends to have a lot of emotional landmines. 

Any business will eventually get a negative review.  If you’re around long enough, it’ll eventually happen; no matter how hard to try to avoid it.  That’s frustrating, because often bad reviews blindside owners and management.  More often than not, that customer (if he or she is, in fact, a customer at all) made no complaint at the time when you could have taken action to resolve the issue.

I’ve seen business owners go down very unhealthy rabbit holes around reviews and online reputation.  Here is an application of the 80/20 rule; 20% of businesses sped too little time on reputation, but 80% spend far too much effort.  In this way, reviews often become the tail wagging the dog. 

I’m not saying ignore them; depending on your business and what you sell, reviews can make or break your business.  Some examples of business types where reviews need extra attention include restaurants, hotels, anything having to do with services for kids (moms like to caution other moms about bad experiences), and beauty services like salons and spas.  This list is not exhaustive, by any means.

And if you’re kicking back saying to yourself, “We’ve got a perfect 5.0 rating – so no issues here.”  Think again…

In a world where every claim is automatically circumspect, consumers have grown to disbelieve any perfect ratings.  They make an assumption that you’re gaming the system somehow, and that “no one can have a perfect rating.”

Believe it or not, we advise clients to set their goals around a 4.7 rating on a 5.0 scale.  Anything in the 4.3-4.9 range is ideal.  More on that later…

We’ve dedicated an entire chapter of the book to review and reputation management, where we’ll share some very specific best practices.  But to wrap up this overview, another hot topic I commonly encounter when I sit down with business owners is featured reviews, and why and how the review platforms pick the ones they highlight to users.

Review platforms don’t provide full disclosure about how they work and how they make decisions because they don’t want to make it easy for businesses to manipulate them.  In fact, they make it far easier for users to manipulate them than the businesses they review.

I get the most complaints about Yelp!®.  As of this writing, there has been rampant speculation that Yelp!® will be sold.  My own hope is that it will be sold to a large tech company who will ultimately dismantle it (intentionally, or otherwise).  I’ve never understood how Yelp!® can provide a platform that allows users fairly unfettered ability to criticize and inflict real damage on a business, and then pretend to be a trusted partner of that same business by offering advertising and marketing opportunities.  Most small businesses I talk to feel this same disconnect.  For now, it’s a necessary evil because the reviews get pulled over into the Bing and Apple platforms, both of which are relevant.

Facebook® and Google® are the two other primary review platforms, and depending on your business category (similar to directories) there are some vertical platforms that allow reviews to consider important.  Examples of these include TripAdvisor® in anything travel and hospitality related, OpenTable® in restaurants, and HealthGrades® for licensed medical professionals.

Here is another application of the 80/20 rule: 80% of consumers will either not look at reviews at all, or will only look at the aggregate rating of your business, while 20% will pay closer attention.  Depending on the business type and some other factors like overall cost of purchase, consumers may value reviews higher.  We’ll explore this further later in the book…

For most businesses, online reputation requires a one-time set-up/clean-up, and then a small checklist of ongoing monitoring and management to make sure you’re adding new reviews regularly, you’re responding to reviews properly, and potential customers who seek you out see a clear picture of how great it is to do business with your company.

Don’t Let the Internet Crowdsource Your Digital Footprint

If you need motivation to make sure you are acting on this advice, simply heed this cautionary tale.  In all the years we’ve been working to help small businesses with digital footprint, this is the worst-case scenario we’ve seen; it still shocks me today.

As a normal step in the process of developing a new customer, it is quite common for us to perform a free Digital Footprint Audit.  Essentially, our team reviews all four major components of a business’ digital footprint and reports back on what’s going well, where we know we can make immediate improvements, and what longer-term goals we can provide to optimize footprint and keep it that way.

This was the case for an equipment rental company near my adopted home town of Franklin, Tennessee.  The owner is not very digitally savvy; in 2018 he still had a flip phone, and not much use for social media or the Internet.  I won’t name it here to protect the innocent…

The business had a website that was built about 15 years prior, and hadn’t really been updated.  As a result, it had no mobile responsiveness and didn’t follow really any of the best practices we recommend.  The business had not claimed any of its major directory listings, and as a result Google®, Apple®, Microsoft®, and Yelp!® had very low confidence in the information they had about the business.  For that reason, it was not shown very often in searches (low confidence = low credit score).

It had not claimed any of its social media pages.  But someone else HAD.  In fact, it was quite the nightmare scenario.  We spoke to the owner of the business and he gave us more background on it…

Every business has its share of bad customers.  I’ve had to fire a customer or two along the way; sometimes they just don’t create win-win situations and you don’t want their business anymore.  In this case, a customer had rented construction equipment in good condition and returned it broken on several occasions, claiming he got it that way.  Our business owner had reached his limit and essentially told this customer he was no longer welcome.  Things got heated. 

Ultimately, the owner lost his cool.  Unfortunately, unknown to him, the customer had pulled out his cell phone and started recording the interaction.  That customer then left, went home, and attempted to post his video (the owner – business name emblazoned on his shirt – screaming at the guy and telling him to get off the property) all over social media. 

Seeing that the business had no Facebook® page, the scorned customer created one (yes, Facebook lets you do that).  He posted the video, which to this day is still the only thing on that page, except for about 60 comments, most of which read something like, “what a horrible man, I’ll never do business there.”  But the customer kept going…

Next, the scorned customer went to Yelp!®.  Seeing no page for the business, he created one (yes, Yelp!® lets you do that, too).  In his haste to create the page, Yelp!® attempted to pre-fill the address of the business based on what he had typed and our angry former customer quickly accepted the address, not realizing that he had accepted the correct street address, but in Nashville (rather than the suburb where the business is located – which, yes, just happens to share an exact same street address with a location in Nashville).  Now we’ve got a directory listing whose address doesn’t match the rest – a huge no-no.

The video ended up on the Yelp!® page, too.  And, even to this day, it is still the only thing on that page except for about 90 comments similar to Facebook.

Obviously, if you own this business you don’t want anyone seeing either of these pages; yet both Facebook® and Yelp® invest a lot of time and energy to ensure that their listings have high credit scores with Google® and they are frequently top organic results when you type a business name into the search engine.

Are you seeing the full scope of this mess yet?

Here we have a business whose digital footprint is now dominated by unclaimed listings and crowdsourced social media pages created by a scorned customer with a vendetta.

Honestly, we thought for sure this was a guaranteed sale for us.  We’ve got an owner with no time or expertise; certainly he’s going to want us to fix this!  Nope.  We showed him all of this and his simple reaction was, “the Internet isn’t going to make or break my business.  I don’t care.”  We were stunned…

About six months later, the city where that business is located undertook a major road expansion that created what was supposed to be 2 years of havoc in front of the business that turned into 3 years due to delays.  The business has suffered greatly, and – as of this writing – has done nothing to improve or repair its digital footprint.

The owner will ultimately look to sell, or his family will look to sell when he is gone.  Imagine the horror when any potential buyer goes to look at the digital footprint!  Imagine how much less they’ll be willing to pay.

Your digital footprint is like any other important asset of your business; your trademarks, phone number, domain name, customer list, etc.  It’s part of the good will that you transfer in a sale.  We often spend a lot of time and money fixing digital footprint issues that were easily avoidable.

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