As Google launches Google Instant, should SMEs be investing in bricks and mortar not SEO?

Five or ten years ago, if you were starting a small retail business, the web was a great option. You could just about create a website on your home PC with the right software package and some patience.

It was also relatively easy to optimise your own website and publish it to the search engines.

If your site was any good, it would soon float to the first page of the relevant Alta Vista, Yahoo and (later) Google searches and people would then begin to find your site.

However, a decade ago, not everybody was used to looking online. Only some clients were finding a site and buying from you.
Consequently you could start up a small retail website cheaply and easily and quickly start to see some orders coming in. This made it a great way to start out and to dip your toe into the retail-water.
But in the present day, the web is an expensive and scary place to start. Most who start there will fail.
Where to begin
These days, you can still get some software and rustle up a site on your own if you have the time, patience and are somewhat computer literate. You can easily negotiate your way around and find somebody to host your site. You might even be able to find out how to publish your site to the search engines. But nobody will find it unless you have expert help at site optimisation.
The algorithms search engines use to decide whether your site will be on page one or page 1,000 are so complicated and sophisticated that even people who study SEO or websites professionally are not sure how they all work.

It’s made even more difficult as Google can change its algorithms at an unregulated drop of a hat and therefore you could find your website at page 50 instead of page five without knowing why.
So in order to maintain any kind of presence (though still not reliably), you have to pay professionals to get your site anywhere near the first few pages of a Google search.
There are good companies out there who will optimise your website so that when relevant words or phrases like engagement rings or designer clothing are searched for you are at the top of the rankings.

Realistically you can expect to pay at least £75,000 per year for optimisation, called Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), to get anywhere on Google and this might get you to page five to 10 of the relevant search.

I shudder to think how much it costs those who reside in the top slot.

It could mean, suddenly, your nice little homemade web business is not looking like such an economical way to start your business venture.

Instant solution?
Google has recently launched ‘Google Instant’, a new feature which starts to display results as soon as you start typing the phrase you wish to search for.

According to some, this will make it even harder for small and medium sized businesses to ‘get a look in’ on search results. It also means that it may be a harder and more expensive task for those companies who rely on their websites to bring them all or most of their customers.

Fewer unique key words in searches could do more harm than good for many SMEs based online.
Online to offline
You could start an ebay shop as an alternative. However, if you want to keep eating, I bet you will not be able to make enough money doing only that as a start-up.
Our high streets are overrun with empty retail premises where previous businesses have failed. Even in Cambridge, which has weathered the recession exceptionally well, there are empty shops.

If you are lucky and do some clever negotiating you should be able to get a brilliant high street location in a prominent city for about £25,000 per year. This is far less than a website in an equivalently good ‘position’ on Google could cost you.

In a nice little busy town, it might cost you more like £10,000-£15,000 per year or even less to rent a small shop. In the middle of a busy village it may be even less.

And because of the economic climate, I believe businesses are entitled to optional break clauses within approximately two years meaning you don’t need to be too afraid of making a contractual commitment.
On a high street location, you will definitely get people who walk past your shop. This is a more predictable way for people who may or may not find your website. If you find your business niche and make it look lovely for your customers, fingers crossed, those customers will come and buy from you.
As a hangover from the cheaper days, there is still a feeling that if you start a website, it’s a low-cost and easy way to success. But this is not really the case anymore. Those days are over. And if nobody is finding you on the popular search engines, you are not going to make any sales.
If it were me…
I started my business 14 years ago in my spare room with a self-coded website because it cost me little. But if I was starting up a small retail business these days I would still code a homemade website and do my best flinging in a few meta-tags. I would then publish it to the search-engines.

But knowing I would not be able to afford SEO companies, I would be doing the website as well as, not instead of, a shop.

I would be focussing my attentions on a small independent retail outlet somewhere nice where I had beaten the landlord down to a good price.