Getting Started in This Business – SEO or Getting the Word Out


Tarrytown LighthouseI am encouraged each day when I see the number of people who have taken the time to visit and read my blog.  I will do my best to continue providing useful information to my readers.  I also want to thank PhotoBookPress.com for their very flattering blog post about the book I did with them.

So far I have talked getting yourself online, getting paid, getting “stuff” your customers  and keeping your customers happy.  In this installment I will talk a little about getting yourself noticed when people are looking for your products or services.

Most internet users find what they are looking for through one of two mechanisms, references from “friends” or search engines.  I will focus on search engines.  There are a lot of search engines out there, among the better known ones are Bing, Ask.com, Yahoo and that little newcomer, Google.  Regardless of which search engine you prefer, they all work basically the same way.

The value of a search engine comes from its ability to convert your search request into a list of websites that might match it.  In order to do that, they have “crawlers” that are constantly out there finding content.  Crawlers are software tools that go from website to website taking in the content of each page and adding key characteristics to the search engine’s database.  That provides the raw material from which the search engine produces your search results.  Where search engines differ is in the algorithms they use to store the data about the website, the mechanisms they use for search and retrieval of those data and how they understand your search request.

The details of how a search engine works are very proprietary to its owner.  In most cases, there is not one single person who has all the detailed knowledge.  Because of that, anyone who claims to know everything about how a given search engine works is either: lying, delusional or looking for a very expensive lawsuit to be filed.  Most of the search engines also make periodic minor changes to their algorithms to improve performance and/or discourage people from trying to cheat their way to a higher position in the search results.

What is publicly known is the data elements available to a search engine.  Based on experience and some good guesses, it is possible to determine which of these is more important.  Search Engine Optimization (or SEO) is a serious business.  There are many companies out there that will try and sell you their services to improve your search engine placements.  I am not a big fan of these services.  Several years ago I was working at a small business that had a website.  I got called one day by one of these services offering me a month free and the ability to cancel at any time.  I figured for fun why not.  As soon as I got off the phone I did some searches for our business on various engines and captured the results.  Shortly before the month was over, I repeated the process and got pretty much the same results.  A lot of factors can influence positioning in a search result, so minor fluctuations are to be expected.  Since I saw no appreciable change, I cancelled the service.

Assuming that you are using a hosted solution for your online store, your hosting company probably provides you with information about SEO.  Having clear concise text on your pages is one important step, but only the beginning.  The remainder of the data the crawler will look for is in your site/page meta data.  As you may recall from an earlier post, meta data are descriptors about your site that while not always visible in the browser are visible to the crawler (and if you know how to look in your browser you can find them).  Don’t assume because there is a title on your page, or a description, that it is the same as populating the meta tag.  As an example, when you see a search result for pages, it will usually have some text from the page.  If you look at my Galleries page you will see that there is no descriptive text on that page.  If you do a Google search for John Feist Photography galleries, you will find several listings.  The one referring to my galleries page has a description.  This came from the page descriptor meta tag.  My hosting company, PhotoShelter.com, provides several tools that make optimization easier.  First on the design page for each of the pages on my site, they indicate which data fields correspond to meta tags used by search engines.  The other major tool is a SEO rater.  This tool asks a few questions and then looks at the site to produce a number from 0 to 100 as an indication of how well the site is search optimized.  When the results are presented, the various categories used are displayed along with indications where improvements could be made.

Aside from providing text where there is none, careful use of meta tags allows you to get more keywords about your site or page into the search engine.  Don’t just repeat the text from your page in the meta text.  Many of the search engines have algorithms to find and devalue those.  The same applies to the old “trick” of putting lots of invisible words on the page to fool the search engines.

There has been a lot written about SEO.  One guide that I found to be quite useful came from Google.  This is a .pdf that is freely available and provides a lot of good information about how to optimize your site for their engine.

If your site has more than a few pages, you can submit a site map to the search engines.  Each search engine has its own tools for creating these maps.  In most cases, you might need to ask a techie friend for some help in putting them together as most assume you have certain technical skills.  There is another reason for submitting a site map.  Most search engines will have their crawler revisit your site when they get a new or revised site map to be sure that their data are up to date.

Finally, having done all the work, you probably want to know if your site is being visited along with a host of other data about visitors to your site.  Your hosting company many provide some of those data.  Google provides a free set of webmaster tools to help you with this.  The key is setting up for Google Analytics (part of the webmaster tools).  Again, this may take a little time and could require some techie help, but not much.  The basic process is to register your site and prove that it is yours.  From there, you get a bit of code to embed as a meta tag.  Most hosting services have existing options to facilitate this.  Once that is in place, every time someone goes to your site, the data are added to the Google analytics database where you can view and analyze them.  As with site maps, there are other hosting resources (free) for tracking site traffic.  Unlike site maps where it makes sense to submit them to a number of engines, you only need one tracking service.

As I said at the start, SEO is a big complicated topic.  You can find tons of material online.  I hope that the above gives you a basic understanding and helps you to increase your visibility and sales.

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Getting Started in this Business – Getting Paid


In my last post I talked about websites and what it takes to get them started.  Having a website is important, but if you are opening an online business, the website is just the start.

Your website must do a lot of jobs.  First it tells the online world that you are there and what your business is.  Don’t underestimate the information aspect of your site.  People want to get some idea of who they are dealing with before they will trust you enough to buy something from you.  In addition to splashing your name and product(s) all over your site, you need to let them know who you are and how they can contact you.  Be sure to check your business email very regularly.  Customers who send email expect quick replies. In today’s world, believe it or not, email is probably a more important customer service tool than the phone.

Let’s assume that a potential customer has come to your site/store and decided to buy.  Assuming you have a site set up with products, prices and some type of shopping cart, your customer can browse through your store and put their choices into their shopping cart.  Ultimately, there will come a time when they need to check out and pay for their purchases.  That’s where things can get a bit more complicated.

You typically have two mechanisms for accepting payment.  I’m going to be cavalier and assume that you will only be accepting online payments.  The simplest mechanism for accepting payments is PayPal.  You can set up an account with PayPal for free and most hosted sites will give you a mechanism that will let you link to PayPal payments.  The down side to this arrangement include:

  • You have no control over the look and feel of the PayPal payments site
  • Your customer actually goes away from your site into PayPal’s site to make their payment
  • PayPal will also post ads etc. to your customer

The other payment mechanism is for you to accept payment directly.  Again, it sounds simple.  In actuality, the mechanisms really are.  The “gotcha” has to do with how the process works.  Accepting payment by credit card directly involves three components:  a front end (in this case your website), an interface or gateway and finally a merchant bank that will actually handle the credit card transactions.  Most hosting services have existing arrangements with gateways and merchant banks.  The benefit to that is that all connections have been built and tested.

Getting set up with the gateway and merchant bank take time.  You have to go through an application process that includes credit checks and identity verification.  The other gotcha is that the banking industry has set up security standards for websites that accept credit card payments (PCI).  The standards are all documented, long and detailed.  One of the requirements for PCI compliance is for your merchant bank to go to your website and validate that you are in compliance.  Again, why go through all the trouble of building your own,which can take a lot of time, when your service provider should already be compliant.  Once you are approved, you need to do some simple setup so that the gateway knows your account information.

Either way, you need to get an approval for any transaction with a credit card.  The merchant bank or PayPal will handle that.  If you are using a service provider website, it should handle both accepted and rejected transactions.  At the end of the business day (as defined by the service provider),  all of the transactions are gathered (batched) and processed.  Once they are processed, you get paid, normally within a day or two.

The bottom line is that you need to have a payment received and approved.  Once you have that, you can give your customer their goods or services.  It’s no different than swiping a card at a brick and mortar retail establishment.

I opted for the gateway and merchant bank.  My hosting company had a relationship with several gateway providers who in turn hooked me up with the merchant bank.  The process was not difficult, it just took time.

How do you actually get your money?  The merchant bank will deposit your funds directly into your bank account via ACH.  (If you don’t know what ACH is, just accept that it is a direct deposit mechanism between banks).  Since I wasn’t interested in the PayPal option I didn’t research it in detail.  They pay to your PayPal account and then you get to transfer the funds to your bank or spend directly through PayPal.

In all cases, nothing comes for free.  PayPal, the gateway and merchant bank will all take something from your transactions for payment.  Most will also have monthly minimums, batch fees etc.  Payment is either taken before funds are delivered or directly from your bank or PayPal account if the fee is not transaction based.

Do your homework!  Get the full picture on what all the costs will be.  Do your best to come up with realistic estimates of what your business volume will be, both in terms of number of transactions and amount of money.  Once you have them, set up best, worst and most likely scenarios and see what you can expect, both gross and net.  Remember, you will need to track both as the charges you pay to the providers are normally deductible business expenses.  Check with your tax adviser to be sure.

And speaking of tax advisers… Most states charge sales tax.  The rules around if you need to charge sales tax on what and to whom can get complicated.  Talk to your tax adviser to understand if you have to pay sales tax, if so on what and what the tax amount is.  The distributed nature of this business can also confuse some of these questions especially when your fulfillment or distribution is in a different tax jurisdiction than you are.

I’ll talk more about these aspects in the next post, when I look at fulfillment.

Getting Started In This Business – An Online Identity


I’ve learned a lot  starting up this online business and thought I’d use a few posts to share what I have learned.  I am by no means an expert on starting a web based business, but I am happy to share what I know.

Starting an online business is no different than starting any other business.  You need to have a business plan that lays out what your business will be, who your customers and suppliers are, how your customers will get their purchases, what your costs are and how you actually intend to make money.  Don’t underestimate doing this!  There are libraries full of documentation about why businesses fail.  Two of the biggest reasons are that the owner didn’t understand the business well enough and the business was under capitalized.  There are plenty of resources out there to help you create your business plan.  These range from books (either printed on paper or eReader) to workshops, classes and mentoring organizations like SCORE.  Take your time creating your plan.  Get inputs from people you trust who have knowledge, information or experience that you don’t.  Remember the most important thing to know is what you don’t know!  What follows should help with the online part of your business plan.

In order to have a web business you need an address.  You are probably familiar with many such addresses like Amazon.com, Google.com, etc. (mine is JohnFeistPhotography.com).   Addresses are made up of two parts, your name and then your domain.  Domains can be .com, .net, .biz, etc. Each name/domain pair (from here on I’ll call these pairs domains) can be owned separately.  Large companies tend to own all the possible domains as well as permutations on the primary name to avoid consumer confusion and possible fraud or identity theft.  Each domain has a cost associated with it, so you decide how many variations you want to pay for.  You only need one.  Try to get the name that matches your business name.  You don’t have to, but it helps!  I could have used JoesBarberShop.com if it was available to host JohnFeistPhotography, but that would just cost me visits when people couldn’t find me.

Internet names are managed and controlled globally by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (aka ICANN).  There are many services out there to help you get your domain.  These services are acting as vendors interfacing with ICANN for you.  Don’t bother trying to work directly with ICANN, it’s not worth the trouble.  I have worked with GoDaddy.com to get domains for several years and found them to be very good.  Remember, you pay annually for your domains.  Most services will give you multi-year options.  You can Google Domain Registration to get a long list of services.  Remember, if necessary, it is pretty easy to transfer a domain from one hosting/registration company to another.

Unless you are opening a web hosting/programming business, take advantage of existing services.  I’ve been involved in programming and IT since before there was an internet.  Could I have done all the work to build my site myself? Yes.  Did I? No.  There is a subtle trap to building your own…you have to do it and then maintain it.  It’s the maintaining that turns into a black hole.   Those tasks can eat up a lot of time better spent developing your actual business.  How many brick and mortar startups do you know where the owner built the building or fitted out the store rather than hire someone to do it?  There are a number of other reasons for not building your site from scratch, but I’ll deal with them in a later posting.

A few hints about services to acquire your domain and then host your site:

  • Before committing to a service take a look at what types of sites they offer.  Remember there is a big difference between a sales site and an information only (brochure ware) site.  The service should have templates and options easily available.  If you can’t find something you like, look elsewhere.
  • Again, unless you are looking to build your site from scratch, be open to the templates that are offered.  Good hosting companies have experience with a variety of sites and will likely offer templates (layouts, color schemes, etc.) that are known to work well for a particular type of business.  In my case, it was very important to show the pictures looking their best.  If I were opening a sporting goods site, I’d probably have some very different priorities.  This ties back to know what you don’t know and listen to those with the experience and knowledge.  Before I went with PhotoShelter, I built some prototype layouts and got input from family and friends.  Then I saw what PhotoShelter offered and dropped them in favor of the PhotoShelter offerings.  I could have used my own, but why spend the time when they had really good offering on the shelf.
  • Look at the total cost for hosting.  There are often hidden costs and benefits.  I didn’t go with the cheapest hosting site possible when I set up my store.  The hosting service I chose (PhotoShelter.com) is a service dedicated to photographers and has a good reputation.  I actually went to look at how others have set up their sites and found most of the good ones hosted on PhotoShelter.  Other items to look for are how much space do you get, how much volume is included in the price, what services are included.  More on the last one in anohter posting.
  • VERY IMPORTANT  find out what support options are available.  Most of the big hosters (Google, Yahoo, etc.) talk about their community, online support, etc.  I prefer working with an outfit where I can call and talk to someone if I have a question or problem.  Believe me it makes a difference.  Both GoDaddy and PhotoShelter have very good support people available when I call.

One final word on custom built sites.  True custom built sites are very expensive and can take a long time to build.  The people who do this work tend to be highly skilled and very expensive.  Designers and implementation are two different skill sets so you may have to pay for both.  Many of these professionals also charge you whenever you want to make a change either during the initial build or after the site is up.  Beware of the trap of having family or friends who will do it “for the experience” or because their mother told them to.  I know many cases where the low cost turned into a web site that either never got finished, or lacked significant functionality, or looked like it was built by someone’s “teen age nephew”.  If you really want a custom built web site, wait until your business can afford to pay for it, after the business is up and running.

You will also need an eMail address.  Most hosting companies will give you an email box with your domain.  If it is just you in the business, that’s all you need.  Sure you can go with a free account from Google, Yahoo, etc., but remember you are also trying to project an image.  How would you react to a business with an email address like XYZSupply@gmail.com?  A sneaky hint… you get an option when setting up an email account to make it the default destination for a domain.  That means that email sent to your domain but not to an existing mailbox will go there.  When I set up JohnFeistPhotography’s email, I created info@JohnFeistPhotography.com as a real mailbox.  I also set as the default.  that way, any mail sent to john@JohnFeistPhotography.com or Sales@JohnFeistPhotography.com, etc. will come to my one mailbox!

If you are sure about your name and are able to get it (e.g. MyBusinessName.com) go ahead and get it.  It should cost under $20.  Most services will offer you options about privacy, certification and retention.  Read what they are offering and decide if it is right for you.  You can always change things later.  Remember this will be your business, not the site for your daughter’s Girl Scout cookies.  In most cases these costs are considered to be deductible business expenses.  Don’t take my word for that, check with your tax professional.

Don’t start committing to hosting and related services until you have everything ready to go.  Once you commit, there are typically monthly costs.  Some hosts offer a free trial period.  Use the free time to build and fine tune the site, once you are ready.  Building the actual site via exiting templates on a hosted service is much faster than starting from scratch.  The time consuming activities are typically:

  • Loading products.  I have about 800 images on my site.  I had to select and load them, but more on such fun activities in a subsequent post.
  • Fine tuning wording and layout of what goes where in your site
  • Deciding on logos, images and other decoration for your site

It took me an afternoon to do the basic set up on JohnFeistPhotography.com.  Uploading the images took several hours.  I had selected the initial images before starting.  It took me another week or so to get everything right about the images, their descriptions, prices, etc.  Adding this blog to the site took about five minutes on PhotoShelter, plus the time to do some setup on WordPress which hosts the blog.

That’s enough for one topic.  I’d love to hear back if you have questions, comments or suggestions.  I’ll post the next increment in a week or so.