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Wake up, small biz: Learn to speak internet

Get searchable, get on Facebook - or lose your customers

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Blog Today I wanted to buy a metal business card case I could carry around in my pocket. I asked Google Maps politely if it knew where in Edmonton I could find such a widget, preferably on the way home. Google didn't have the faintest clue where I could get such a thing, no matter how delicately I phrased the request.

I eventually switched to Google proper, asked Bing and even tried twitter. I only ever really came up with three viable results, all of which were at least 15 km in the wrong direction, and I had no intention of wasting two hours (and $20 of gas) trekking across the bridge in rush hour to pick up a few $10 cases.

In a city of one million people, less than a handful of companies spoke enough internet to have relevant search results on Google, and none of them have figured out how to integrate with Google Maps. Local businesses desperately need a lesson in Internet Presence Management (IPM).

IPM encompasses the totality of a company (or individual's) online presence. Far more than simple Search Engine Optimization (SEO), it covers the existence (or lack thereof) of an online catalogue of goods and services, social media usage, and various flavours of astroturfing. While it is traditional for IT types to deride and disparage all aspects of IPM, it has become absolutely essential to the survival of the modern business.

Gaming Google isn't enough; its influence is all too often overstated. IT types like to make jokes about people who believe that the internet is a little blue "e", but the joke strikes closer to home than we might like.

Social media sites have become the internet for many people. Corporate presence on Facebook is the be-all and end-all of corporate discoverability to a certain segment of the population. Even if you have your own webpage, they'll only ever find that page if it is linked to in some fashion through Facebook.

Twitter, Reddit and others have become product search and feedback appliances for millions. Unsure which widget or bobbin to buy, they punch the contenders into the social media search boxes and see what the hive mind has to say. App stores too are an important avenue of corporate visibility. Being the first in your market to figure out how to make an app for that can give you a slight edge and a sense of novelty. Being among the last enables only irrelevance and eventual doom.

For marketing to succeed they need access to the raw materials necessary to the craft: accurate and adequate information. What does your company offer? What products do they sell? Which products sell well, and which sell poorly? Which products are overstocked, which suppliers are experiencing troubles? Metrics and statistics are vital to doing the job right.

Getting the information out of the various databases it lives in and then presenting it in a readable fashion is the tech end of things. There are various enterprise metrics applications to help with this, but someone still has to get the data out of whatever systems you are using and into the ERP, CRM and Analytics suites.

Tagging content is another huge hurdle. How searchable is your website? Punching LOHAN into The Register's search bar, is roughly as useful to me as using the tags feature, and both get me the info I am seeking. Asking Dell's search for the replacement fan I need is significantly less helpful.

Here again IT is needed. The data exists, but presenting it to the internal site search - not to mention Google and other web properties - in a fashion they can understand is a challenge. Using warm bodies to tag things manually may solve the problem in the short term, but long term solutions must be automated if they are to succeed.

This all must be considered against the backdrop of the rise of a generation of individuals for whom instant gratification is the norm. The average person doesn't want to shop in your store. They don't want to wander aimlessly through malls and "make a day of it" shopping for $100 worth of kitsch.

Consumers are starting to wise up to the fact that their time is simply more valuable than that. "Buy local" falls down when local businesses simply haven't a clue what IPM is.

Especially when "at least one of everything" companies like Amazon most certainly do. ®

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