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story.lead_photo.caption Bryan Caplan of 'Grow with Google' shares information about how local business owners can improve their search engine visibility. Caplan said that these days, 85 percent of transactions start with a web search. Photo by Helen Wilbers / Fulton Sun.

Once upon a time, the local phone book was Google, and all a local business owner had to do to improve their ranking was add an "A" or two in front of their business's name.

Getting noticed on Google is much more complicated.

That's why Bryan Caplan stopped by Fulton on Thursday to speak to Callaway Chamber of Commerce members. As a member of the "Grow with Google" program and host of YouTube channel "Bigger Better Biz," he travels the country helping business owners become more comfortable with Google.

"Google is a big black box" to most small business owners, he said. "You have to understand how things work."

Being Google-savvy is important because it's getting harder for business owners to thrive without some kind of web presence, he said.

Caplan claimed 85 percent of all transactions begin with an internet search. He also pointed to survey data showing 81 percent of people will check a business's website before considering making a purchase from the business.

Caplan covered a lot of ground in his talk, but here are a few of his tips.

Optimization

The talk took place at Tacos and Tequila in Fulton, so Caplan used the restaurant as an example throughout his talk.

Imagine someone passing through Fulton has a craving for Mexican food, so they search "Mexican food near me." There are three places where Tacos and Tequila could pop up.

It could show up in the ads at the top of the page. It could be one of the search results, or "organic listings," in the center of the page. It could pop up to the right of the page, in the "Google my Business" card — a listing showing reviews, the business's address, hours and so on.

The more times that hungry traveller sees Tacos and Tequila listed, the more likely he is to stop by. Caplan gave advice on how to make sure your business shows up early and often in the organic search results.

First, have relevant and original content. Key words such as "Mexican food" and "tacos" should be present in Tacos and Tequila's website title, page description and website content. But don't just copy and paste from someone else's website.

"If you're using redundant content, Google knows," Caplan said.

Second, organize your website well. Most websites have a navigation bar at the top or to one side; it should contain five to seven links to relevant pages (FAQ, About Us, etc.). Make sure your links aren't broken — a 404 error is a "kiss of death" for a website, Caplan said.

The Google tool g.co/searchconsole will show whether your site has any 404 problems.

Third, optimize your images. Photos directly from a phone or camera are generally much too large to put directly onto a website and will slow your page loading time. Web images should be 100-200 kB, Caplan said.

Fourth, check your site's loading time. A hungry person won't wait 30 seconds for a website to load — they want to see the menu now. The Google tool g.co/testmysite shows how quickly your website loads and gives tips about how to make it faster, Caplan said.

Finally, optimize your website for mobile viewers. Many website-building services offer this option. A mobile-optimized page won't require any zooming or scrolling side-to-side to navigate.

Ad tips

Caplan walked attendees through the basics of using ads.google.com, a simplified version of the Google AdWords ad campaign program.

He said the most effective ads will give viewers your business name and a call to action. That could be something like "Today only: BOGO tacos at Tacos and Tequila," which prompts the viewer to visit the restaurant ASAP or miss out on a free taco.

Ads should target a specific audience. Caplan worked with a yoga studio that honed in on offering yoga classes to the spouses of military service members in active duty. While the ads were seen by fewer people, those people were more likely to interact.

Ads should also never, ever link to your website's homepage.

"An ad sets an expectation that when you click, you'll go to a page related to the offer," he said.

Info cards

Those "Google my Business" info cards that pop up to the right of search results are bigger and flashier than any ad — and they're completely free.

Business owners can create a profile at google.com/business. They can then add photos, hours, a description, an address, a web address, contact information and more.

The pop-up info card will also show reviews, which can be a good thing or a bad thing. Caplan encouraged business owners to respond to negative reviews promptly, positively, professionally and through a phone call or email when possible.

Keeping your information up to date is important, not just to avoid ticking off customers but to bump you up in search results.

"Keeping your profile up to date signals you're taking your business seriously," Caplan said.

What some people might not know is through the "Google my Business" app, you can make posts directly to your info cards. Those posts could be about new items, special offers, holiday hours, etc. Caplan said Google my Business can serve as a basic website for businesses that don't have their own website yet.

"You can do the same things on Google that you can do on Facebook," marveled Marty Martin-Forman, Callaway Chamber of Commerce board member. "I thought this talk was great."

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