Writing Content for Small Businesses Online

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There are creative ways that a small business may use to help visitors find them online, engage those visitors and customers, and keep them coming back. The Small Business Administration has an article that describes some ways that many businesses can use to promote their business in 15 Foolproof Ideas for Promoting Your Company. The article offers ideas like holding contests or publishing a newsletter, offering demonstrations and seminars, and more. Many of those ideas can work well in an online setting.

When you create content for an eCommerce site, it can also help to think about more than just how you may present the products or goods you offer on your pages. Many eCommerce sites on the web break products down into categories and provide very little beyond listing those products and brief descriptions about them.

Understanding how people may search for what you have to offer can be essential, especially if you hope to have visitors find you through search engines. It can be a key to finding creative ways to bring people to your site who might be interested in what you have to offer.

Different Intents Behind Searches

It can be helpful to understand that when people search, they often have different purposes in mind. When someone from one of the major search engines writes about these different purposes, they often refer to them as “user intent.”

Some people may want to learn about a topic, buy something, or learn how to do something for free. Since many visitors may arrive at a website through a search engine, it helps to know about different types of queries that a searcher may use to find your site. So, an important way of thinking about queries is to consider the intent behind them.

A convenient way of breaking down queries into different types is described in a paper written by search engineer Andrei Broder, who classifies the intent behind queries down into navigational, transactional, and informational, in the paper A taxonomy of web search (pdf)

Informational Queries – The web is much more than just a commercial space filled with marketing and commerce. It’s a medium where people can communicate with each other, share ideas, learn about a world of topics, find and offer advice, and explore other countries, cultures, and communities. Many people who do go online with some commercial intent do so to save money rather than spend it, often looking for ways to do things themselves. People who may want to buy something may be looking for information that can help them make an informed decision before deciding to make a purchase.

Navigational Queries – A navigational query is one in which a searcher is attempting to find a specific page or site that they have visited before or have assumed likely exists on the Web. For example, if I want to visit the pages of the American Psychological Association, I might type [apa] into a search box, hoping that the top search result might be the home page for the organization. The major commercial search engines have even been trying to help people who perform navigation type queries by associating certain query terms with sites that may be ideal destinations for those queries. The search engines may even offer additional links under a listing for those sites, referred to as site links or quick links, which may help lead searchers to pages within a site that they may be interested in ending up at on those sites.

Transactional Queries – Transactional queries are ones in which a searcher may not have a specific site in mind. Still, they want to perform or complete some task online, such as accessing and searching a database about a topic, being entertained interactively, downloading a video, making a purchase, or interacting with the site or others in some way. If you offer goods or services to consumers or other businesses, you’ll want to be found by the people looking for what you have to offer and who want to interact with you.

An Example – Bill’s Blues

I really enjoy blues music, and I’ve always thought that it would be fun to start a website that sells both modern CDs of old and new blues music, as well as vinyl recordings of old blues songs.

While the site would have a shopping area where people can buy new CDs and older records, I would want to be seen as the place to learn about blues music, blues musicians, blues instruments (even though I don’t sell them) blues history.

One thing I might consider having would be a Blues Hall of Fame, where I include biographies, photos, snippets of recordings, interviews, and links to CDs and collectible vinyl (imagine starting with something like the Wikipedia entry on Robert Johnson and adding pictures, snippets of songs, interviews with people who knew him, and more).

I’d also create a history section, where I would have a page for each year from the early 1900s to the present and talk about the great performances, the top-selling songs, the best venues, the greatest dramas. I’d include links to items I have for sale on those pages and to the Hall of Fame members in my other information section. The focus in this history section would be on sharing information and making this the place for people who love blues music and for people who don’t know yet that they love blues music.

I would also want to share my knowledge of guitars, banjos, harmonicas, drums, horns, and other instruments that have been used to make blues music. Some musicians only played certain brands and models of instruments. So, I would want to mention those and maybe point to some recordings (which I sell) where people can hear those instruments. I’d also point to the Hall of Fame Entries for those performers, the history section, or both.

In building Bill’s Blues, I’m aiming at having an online music shop. I’m also creating an authoritative site on one type of music that may get linked to by lots and lots of people, visited by school children and college professors, music fans and musicians, and many other people. If I create the engaging and informative site I envision, it may also be mentioned in books, newspapers, and magazines.

I’m aiming at receiving visitors from some of the transactional search queries that I mentioned above from my sales pages. I expect to have visitors show up at my site for many informational searches. I’d even expect to get some of those navigational searches when someone wants to buy one of my CDs. They remember they can get to the sales page by searching for some of the terms delivered to my pages originally, such as my Robert Johnson page.

The site gives me the chance to share my love of music, provides me with income, and maybe even allows me to hire some folks who love blues music as much as me and like to write to create some of the informational pages that help others find the site.

Chances are also good that most visitors who come to my site will be there because of the hall of fame, the history pages, and the instrument gallery. They may buy to thank me for my efforts. They may buy because they love the music as much as I do. They may buy because this is the only place they can get some of this music. If I do things right, when people think of blues music on the web, they’ll think of Bill’s Blues.

I need to be credible as a merchant. I need to provide shipping information and an easy way to find and purchase what they are looking for. I have to show my products off compellingly and persuasively. But I don’t care if they came to the site with the intent of learning, and listening, instead of buying. My articles and essays and images and snippets of the song aren’t fluff – they’re part of the experience that makes my place the one to go to when they want the blues.

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30 thoughts on “Writing Content for Small Businesses Online”

  1. Good post on some shoestring ways to promote your business online. I have found document sharing sites to be good at getting attention for you message.

    If you have good articles, how-to information or promotional materials, setting up free accounts on http://www.scribd.com , http://www.slideshare.net/ and http://www.docstoc.com and publishing your material on these sites can gain valuable exposure for your business for free.

    I have one document on scribed that has been viewed over 125,000 times in about 2 years. Not bad for free publicity.

  2. Very good stuff here Bill. Another thought I have with respect to e-comm sites is to identify the hierarchy of products and hierarchy of search keywords. Oftentimes an e-commerce site might have specific products they are optimizing for (re-writing manufacturer’s descriptions to target long-tail search, etc.) but in many cases they neglect the slightly more general category level. Buyer’s Guides, comparison charts, etc. can all help beef up the content (and linkability) of a more general category level page.

  3. Thanks, People Finder.

    I really like your suggestion about using document sharing sites as another way of gaining visibility for a business or organization, and thank you for providing some links to some very good resources for doing so. Thanks too, for sharing the success of your approach with your document on scribed. The Web does lend itself to marketing on a shoestring for those who are creative and willing to take advantage of legitimate opportunities online.

  4. Hi Jon,

    Thank you, too. Understanding how products might fit into categories and concepts that are helpful and useful to anticipated visitors is an important step in developing an information architecture of a web site. Going beyond just listing products in fairly broad categories can be helpful for visitors and search engines.

    I like to take a look at the audiences that a site is being built for and the tasks or information that they may be interested in accomplishing or finding, and organize a site and include ways to make it easier for those visitors to meet their needs. As you note, things like Buyers Guides and comparison charts can be appropriate and very helpful for some sites when there are choices that might make it difficult for visitors to understand easily.

    For example, if your site sells 20 different brands of compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs), why not include a comparison chart that shows ratings, life expectancy information, and prices for the different brands, as well as information about the best uses for those kinds of bulbs. That might attract a lot more attention and visits than just individual product descriptions and listings for each, even with a general category page just for CFLs.

  5. William, I wanted to ask you a question.

    Microsoft offers a service:

    I was wondering what do you think and how accurate according to you is this service. I am personally into online business and found it to be really, really inaccurate in predicting commercial intent. Some of the how-to phrases I tested had a HUGE commercial intent but according to AdLab their commercial intent was 0.2 out of 1.0…which is ridiculous.

    Thanks for the sites People Finder, I am conducting a test on Ezine Articles to see how good traffic they bring, Scribd is in my next testing list 🙂


  6. Seriously, after reading about the Blues site you have in mind, I really want to see that! I have been slowly learning about some of the older blues artists, but I feel it’s a bit difficult to get a good perspective on the history. Right now, I’ve been listening to Muddy Waters and trying to find more.

  7. Hi Josh,

    I consider myself very fortunate to have seen Muddy Waters perform live. It was one of the greatest concerts I’ve ever seen, in a theatre that only held a few hundred people, with a band that included Johnny Winter, James Cotton and Pinetop Perkins. I may just start that site up one of these days. If you like Muddy Waters, you might like Howlin’ Wolf who was a contemporary of Muddy Waters and also played the Chicago Blues.

  8. Hi Artur,

    Thanks. I agree with you. Being open and transparent, providing useful and helpful information, showing that you are concerned about and care for the people who visit your site – those are the kinds of things that can help you build a real relationship with the people who visit your site.

  9. Good post on the search behaviors. About the discussion on offering free documents.
    Offering free content, documents and so on makes people come back. Every time they come back, they have more trust to what you offer and in the long run it’s easier to convince potential returning customer to buy something.
    Just my 2 cents

  10. Hi Finder Mind,

    It’s an interesting idea, but I’ve wondered about a few of the results that I’ve seen as well. The paper that seems to be behind their approach can be found at:

    Detecting Online Commercial Intention (OCI)

    It is supposed to be able to identify whether or not a query or a web page involves a commercial or “transactional” intent. If a query includes the words “how to” that might be a flag to a system like this that it was more informational than commercial, based upon some previous research on informational, navigational, and transactional queries. See the 11th page in the following paper, where the researchers involved consider “how to” as “question words” (along with “ways to”, “what is” and others) indicating that a searcher is looking for information rather than looking to perform some kind of transaction:

    Determining the informational, navigational, and transactional intent of Web queries (pdf)

  11. I love that you’re discussing this topic. I’ve also found lately that a lot of the old direct marketing techniques work well too. Suck them in and get them to read the first line of copy. Then it’s all gravy.

  12. We are working very hard on building customer interaction and communication with our most recent website launch. I think there is more of a “TRUST” factor that is required to convert browsers into customers than many realize. It is much easier to give something away, i.e. a how to or guide, and then ask for money later after the customer trusts you. Thanks for the sites listed, we will give them a try.

  13. I remember an e-commerce site our company did recently sold fireplaces online and there were additional pages about different types of fireplace as well as how to install them etc. FAQs on websites often have the same effect as they can generate discussion and visitors who will the proceed to the shopping area. A latest news RSS feed is also beneficial – keeping content new and relevant.

    It’s not enough for small businesses to be just e-commerce, content is just as important.

  14. Hi Big Picture Web,

    Thanks. Creating content that is interesting, engaging, helpful and informative is a step towards showing that you care as much about what you offer as the people who visit you and may be interested in it as well. Building positive relationships with people goes far beyond marketing.

    Hi Rob,

    Yes, trust can be very important when it comes to visitors deciding that they want to do business with you, especially in an online setting where what you present and what you let people experience on your site is the first step towards building a relationship with them.

    Hi Adam,

    It can be really helpful to visitors to provide pages that help people understand things like the differences between the products that you offer, the ways that those might be used or installed. I’m somewhat hesitant about putting that kind of information in a FAQ page because I’m not sure that people will visit and read a page labeled “FAQ.” Give a visitor a choice on a site that sells kitchen cabinets between a link using the anchor text “FAQ” or “Helpful Tips on Installing Kitchen Cabinets,” I think people might be more likely to click on the link about installing cabinets. An “FAQ” might be about many other things such as shipping or ordering, but if visitors want to know what kinds of challenges they might face if they want to buy and install cabinets on their own, they will be more confident that the second set of anchor text will help answer their questions about installation.

    Hi Risa,

    Thank you.

  15. Ok, you take the blues site and I will take the jazz site. I will start writing about Bix now. But I have more of a connection with folk music having learned guitar from a musician who was active in that scene in the sixties, and I was involved with it in the eighties. I liked the way you took us through your site idea; it was a great way of demonstrating how a site owner should consider what his site should/could become to meet his needs while providing a relevant site for search.

  16. Hi Frank,

    Thanks. It would be a lot of fun to develop that site. Finding something that you enjoy and are passionate about, and being able to make a living from it really makes a difference. If you do start a jazz or folk related site, let me know. 🙂

    I probably should do more examples – some topics lend themselves really well to examples. A large percentage of searches at search engines are informational, so providing content that can meet people’s informational needs as well as transactional needs can be a good approach. It can help your site been seen as an authoritative site as well as one where people can find answers to questions they might have.

  17. wow this is really good article and maybe I can use it when I’m writing on my blog but my blog don’t have anything to sell. Anyway this is really good guide.

  18. Hi newbiesblogger,

    Thank you for your kind words. Many sites are noncommercial, and their goals are to share ideas, information, different perspectives, personal thoughts. Thinking about who your audience might be, and how the content on your site might be expanded to help address their needs, while meeting also your objectives is a similar concept even if you aren’t selling anything on your pages.

  19. Hi,

    Very good post.
    I hope neofit people follow yours content to do the best in the internet.

  20. Pingback: Small Business – All 2010 Nominees » SEMMYS.org
  21. That’s pretty much what I was thinking on the topic of SEO, although search engines themselves have to really quickly start changing… BUT my main concern is which business model is going to thrive in the next 10 years online – the mega-giants like Amazon that sell everything, or more niche-specific ones like Bill’s Blues? What is going to brand itself better in people’s minds… my bet is specifics. I always make the relation to the automobile market which has been out there for pretty much a century and from what I see is that car brands that are more specific can afford for higher prices and make bigger profits, rather than generic “everything for everyone” brands like Ford for example. But I just might be wrong. 🙂

  22. Hi RD,

    I think that there’s room for both types of business models on the Web. The larger sites provide a level of convenience that sites focused upon smaller niches may not provide, but the sites that focus more narrowly can provide a level of expertise and the ability to provide details and change to match changing tastes that the larger sites may not be able to address.

  23. Thanks for the great insight! The blues site does sound pretty awesome, but thanks for taking the time to point out that we’re really supposed to give our users a great experience. The more you cater to your visitors and their needs, the more successful you will be. Anyone can slap a product online and ask visitors to crack open their wallets, but the true entrepreneurs understand that it goes way beyond that!

  24. Hi Nicole,

    Thank you. If you can provide a great user experience, you stand a much better chance of people staying around on your pages, ordering, and returning in the future. Same as in the world offline.

  25. I think too many people are creating websites and content for Search Engines still – often at the expense of user experience.

    This seems counter-intuitive, as getting a whole load of traffic and then having a terrible website which converts poorly will be of little use, especially compared to a well converting website built with users in mind.

  26. Hi Jonathan,

    It’s possible, and not difficult, to create pages that provide great experiences for all visitors, search engines and people as well.

    An important starting point of SEO involves understanding the language that your visitors might use to find your pages, and might expect to see on those pages. Rather than stuffing any potentially popular keywords in content on your pages, write your pages to that audience using those words, and it’s a lot easier to create pages that people and search engines both like.

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