How to Maximize Your Online Footprint
Neglecting Your Company Website and Online Presence is Costing You Money—Here’s What to Do About It
By Douglas McColloch
Having a well-planned, well-executed company website with fresh and relevant content is the foundation of a company’s online presence, and keeping the site regularly refreshed can improve a company’s search rankings. Photo credit: Shutterstock
The COVID-19 pandemic sparked a dramatic surge in online sales beginning in 2020, and the automotive specialty-equipment sector was no exception. Online aftermarket parts sales exceeded 50% of total sales for the first time, and while in-person sales have gained traction again as the pandemic recedes and lockdowns ease, online sales still account for nearly half of total sales and are forecast to remain that way for the foreseeable future.
It’s clear, then, that maintaining your business’s online presence and website is more crucial than ever. User experience is the key to success and higher conversion rates, and neglecting your company’s online presence can hinder a customer’s ability to navigate your service and may encourage them to shop elsewhere.
Web Building 101: The Basics
At the 2021 SEMA Show, a SEMA Education seminar entitled “Why Ignoring Your Online Presence Is Costing You Money” examined this subject in detail with a survey of hundreds of aftermarket websites and suggested best practices that companies can follow to maximize their online presence. Presenters Barry Alt and Dean Heckman of Motorhead Digital, an automotive aftermarket marketing consultancy, shared analyses of websites from more than 450 restoration, performance and restyling shops. Their findings are summed up in the following recommendations.
Build an Amazing Website. “It’s the foundation for everything,” Heckman stated. “What we found in our research was how many companies didn’t realize how much their website is the pillar of their organization, so they were neglecting it, and it was costing them opportunities.”
Alt stressed the importance of a clean, streamlined, modern-looking appearance. He noted that too many aftermarket websites suffer from a cluttered and confusing home page with too many features for users to decipher at once.
“About 94% of first impressions are from people coming to your website and your design,” Alt said. It takes users only about 50 milliseconds to decide whether or not they find your site is friendly to them. Page loading speed is crucial, but even more importantly, “75% of your website’s credibility comes from its design, and 88% of consumers are unlikely to return if they can’t navigate your website.
“When we’re talking about ‘professional appearance,’ we’re also talking about content. If you’re showing an award you won at the SEMA Show 10 years ago but you’re not showing the award you won two years ago, people aren’t going to know about your products. If you’ve got builds or new products going on, you need to get them on your website.”
Alt also recommended refreshes or redesigns every three to five years to keep your company’s website up-to-date.
“Google actually knows when you update your website, and if you don’t update a lot, it can negatively affect your search rankings,” he said.
“Think of your website as a perishable commodity,” Heckman added. “It can go stale quickly, so make sure you keep refreshing it with lots of fresh content.”
Build a Mobile-Ready Website. With the ubiquity of affordable smartphones and the explosion of e-commerce apps, the need for mobile-readiness has never been greater.
“We found that 40% of the sites we looked at were not mobile-ready,” Alt said. “If someone’s at a car show and they’re looking at a build and want to know more about the products on it, they’re not going to wait until they get home to do their research. They’re going to take out their phone and search for it.”
“Sometimes, mobile is the first point of entry [for potential online sales] and we don’t realize it,” Heckman emphasized. “If that first experience is negative, it’s a lot harder to advocate for your brand.”
Additionally, Alt pointed out that Google uses numerous metrics for determining website rankings, and mobile-device accessibility is one of them. The quarantines and lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic caught many companies flat-footed in that regard, as users spent less time at their work PCs and more time on their personal devices.
“In the course of our survey, we found that a lot of shops realized that they had completely overlooked the mobile experience,” Heckman said.
The rules for designing your mobile site are the same as for a site accessed by PC.
“A quality mobile-ready website conveys a professional image and helps users find information quickly and easily on a mobile device,” Alt said.
“Users shouldn’t have to click more than once or twice to find your basic contact information, especially when you’re trying to attract new customers,” Heckman added.
Finally, Alt noted that 83% of the U.S. population accesses the web via phones, tablets or other mobile devices. That figure is even higher for the 18–49 age demographic, where some 95% of users access the web via mobile devices.
Make Sure Your Site Complies With Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) Guidelines. This may seem unimportant at first, but Alt stressed that you need to consider users who may have vision impairments such as color-blindness or physical impairments such as arthritis, which can make operating a mouse difficult.
“It’s kind of hidden behind the scenes, but it’s absolutely huge,” Alt said, adding that failure to factor in ADA compliance can leave businesses exposed to potentially costly litigation. “There are all sorts of ways to design an ADA-compliant website,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s the right thing to do.” (See “In The Crosshairs” on p. 126 for more on this.)
Make Sure Your Site’s Data Is Secured and Protected. “About five years ago, Google said that every website needs to be Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protected,” Alt said. “Because websites have forums, contact information and personal data, Google wants people to feel comfortable sharing their information with you.”
Motorhead Digital’s survey of the aftermarket revealed that 40% of websites did not have an SSL security certificate installed.
“If your website isn’t secure, it’ll show up in a Google search—and there are people out there who, when they see that, will run, not walk, away from those websites,” Alt warned. “It’s super easy to get an SSL certificate installed to your website these days, and it’s another factor that helps you rank higher in searches.”
“This is not something you want to write off the top of your head,” he said. “There are companies that specialize in writing privacy policies, and they’re not that expensive.”
This is important because the notice will provide information to users about features that are not readily visible to the user.
Optimizing Your Outreach
Digital Motorhead’s industry survey showed that some 40% of aftermarket companies have failed to obtain Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) certification for their websites. This is a huge red flag for consumers and a barrier to generating online business. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com
Once you’ve taken all of those steps, you need to keep driving traffic to your website. There are many ways to do so, and many of them are low or no cost.
Get Your Site in Front of Eyeballs. “Visibility and awareness are key,” Alt said, pointing to Google My Business, YouTube, social-media sites such as Facebook, online forums and industry associations such as SEMA or PRI as opportunities to gain online exposure for little to no cost.
“These are our digital footprint fundamentals,” he said.
One reason to engage such fundamentals is to populate the web with “citations,” or listings. A citation is an online mention of the name, address and phone number of a local business, along with links, photos or other digital assets. Citations can include mentions in business directories, websites and apps, and social platforms. They can help users discover your business, and they can improve your search-engine rankings.
Google is particularly attuned to citations that appear on the larger aggregator sites such as Yelp and YouTube, but for specialty-equipment companies, so-called “niche” citations on car-centric sites such as AutoBlog, Motor Trend, Hemmings Motor News and others can be just as valuable in gaining traction on search engines.
“Google’s job is to make your experience with them better,” Alt explained. “When people are doing searches, they want to find what they’re looking for as quickly as they can—and to find the right thing as quickly as they can.”
Citations are also ranked based on relevance, which makes those so-called “niche” citations on third-party automotive sites such as SEMA even more valuable to a specialty-equipment company.
Make Sure Your Customers Can Find You. According to Alt, three of the most important online resources available to any business looking to maximize its digital outreach are Google My Business, YouTube and LinkedIn.
“Google My Business is the Mack Daddy of all citations,” Alt exclaimed. It’s a free marketing opportunity that can improve your SEO ranking. It’s completely customizable, and it’s entirely free.
“If you have a business location, you already have a Google My Business page whether you know it or not, so the first thing you need to do is to claim the page, then optimize the heck out of it,” Alt said. “It’s a must for local businesses—particularly those in industrial areas that aren’t located on a main street where people can easily find you.”
Alt also noted that a Google My Business page can be customized with photos, videos and even links users can click to purchase products and merchandise.
While Google matters in the search realm, YouTube represents the greatest opportunity to improve your rankings. It’s the second-most-popular site online. It gives you access to millions of potential clients worldwide, and you can create and customize your own channel. You can even convert your free YouTube channel to a so-called “brand channel” for business purposes. In any event, YouTube brings huge SEO juice, Alt emphasized.
“Because it’s such a huge opportunity for search, when you upload videos, you want to think carefully about the title for your video and the description of it, because those are the things that will affect where it lands in search,” he said. “If you’re not on YouTube, you might want to look into it. Video at this point trends much higher than strictly text-based information.”
Finally, LinkedIn is not just a job site anymore.
“Professionals live there, and they have money,” Alt said. “There are 10 million C-level executives on LinkedIn, and more than one out of three U.S. adults use the site. If you’re selling a high-value build or high-dollar products, LinkedIn is where the money is.”
As with Google My Business and YouTube, it’s another free site that allows interacting with Facebook and the use of hashtags.
Marketing Strategy and Tactics
A mobile-ready version of your company’s site should also be considered essential. Mobile-ready sites are increasingly becoming the initial point of entry for potential customers, so building a website with cross-platform compatibility is key to optimize sales. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com
Know Where Your Customer Lives Online. “Talk to your customers and find out where they live online,” Alt said. “Are they on Facebook? Are they on Instagram? Understand where they live, what their hobbies are, what their income level is, whether or not they own a house, things like that.”
Once you’ve gained greater clarity into your customer, you can start to devise a marketing strategy, Alt said. Organic marketing can be as simple as an Instagram or a Facebook post, so it’s important to determine ahead of time where you’re going to post content; when and how often you’re going to post; and what you’re going to represent online. Do you want to post a build in your shop, spotlight a new product, or maybe show your staff talking with customers? Once that’s figured out, you can move on to tactics. What tools are you going to use?
In addition to leveraging a company’s social-media pages, there are many non-
organic tools that can help, including Google Analytics, Google My Business and Google Ad Words, which can provide a platform to post content or to automate posts across the internet. Using Google Ads, for instance, your posts can enable you to show up in searches—not only your business but for terms related to what you offer. Google sometimes offers first-time advertisers a credit for placing additional ads, which can help companies on a budget.
Blogs Are Still Essential. Motorhead Digital’s survey showed that businesses that incorporate regular blog posts can increase monthly sales leads by as much as 67%.
“Blogs can educate your prospects as well as current customers, and sites with up-to-date blogs rank higher in search engines,” Alt said. “Blogs can also build and control your online identity.”
Surprisingly, 88% of the surveyed aftermarket companies didn’t have a blog or any related content (e.g., short-form articles) posted to their websites, which represents a wasted opportunity to expand a company’s online footprint.
“Blogs are huge,” Alt emphasized. “You can use them to talk about projects in your shop, or new products you are working on, or how your shop operates every day.”
For those who don’t feel they have the time, Alt reminded that there are people who specialize in producing this kind of content. All you have to do is sit down with them and let them know how often you want to post and what the titles of the posts should be.
Email Marketing Isn’t Dead. “Email marketing is still one of the best ways to build a relationship with your market,” Alt said, pointing out that fewer than 75% of companies use email as a marketing tool. “For every dollar spent, the average return is $42, and it has a 40% better conversion rate than Facebook or Twitter.”
Summing up, an up-to-date-website that is loaded with fresh and engaging content; a clear and coherent online marketing strategy; and a robust social-media presence should all be considered absolute must-haves for any business. As Alt noted, some 3.6 billion people—nearly half of the planet’s population—use social media every day, and sites such as LinkedIn and YouTube provide companies with a platform for what is essentially free advertising.
To boost your search rankings and keep users activated, post consistently and keep your profiles up to date. Interact and respond to customers and prospects, and choose the platforms your customers are hanging out on.
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