Make Your Web Site A Holiday Hot Spot

The holiday shopping season is almost here. While most small retail business owners and managers know they would like a bigger piece of the online holiday sales action this season, many do not know what they should be doing about it. No need to despair: Quick action now can make it happen.

Emarketer.com – an electronic commerce statistical resource – estimates that 50 percent of all retail businesses in the country will be selling online this holiday season. How do you get prospective customers to visit your site in this increasingly competitive environment? The simple answer is: Search engines and electronic marketing.

Position Yourself at the Top

According to Forrester Research, fifty-seven percent of Internet shoppers locate the sites they visit by using search engines, and 38 percent do so by reading e-mail marketing messages.

Submit your site to as many search engines as possible. To do this, explore the Internet to locate the search engines that you would like to submit your site to, then submit your site’s address (URL) to each. To get a directory of search engines and learn about this process, visit DirectoryGuide.com or SearchEngineWatch.com.

Next, make sure your site is at or near the top of a search engine list when customers type in keywords related to your site. To get in position at the top, you must learn how to use keywords, meta tags and gateway pages. You may purchase keywords from search engines (try GoTo.com) or have a submission service take care of positioning for you (example: HyperBanner.net.)

If you don’t already have an electronic customer mailing list, collect addresses by requesting them from surfers who visit your site or who sign up for your site’s holiday contests or giveaways. Use this list to announce holiday promotions (offer gift certificates or redeemable “bonus points” for repeat customers) or to introduce new products and services. Send out a free newsletter about your products, and/or a survey on your customers’ product usage and future needs.

Entice Customers to Stay

Once your site is listed with search engines, entice customers to stay at your site long enough to buy. Display your holiday merchandise (decorations, food, or gift items such as toys, books and music) as prominently as possible. Consider joining an electronic mall, adding a special holiday section to your Web site, or renaming an existing section as a holiday section. People in the market for gifts will be more inclined to visit “Bill’s Gift World: Your E-Holiday MegaMart” than “Bill’s Toys and Books.”

Another good way to keep shoppers at your site is to use banner ads, which are graphical online ads, usually small and rectangular. After you design and create your own ads for your site, identify other high-traffic sites that you’d like to place your ads on.

To do this, you can use an ad network or agency that buys and distributes space on the Web (examples: DoubleClick.net, Flycast.com) and/or participate in a banner exchange program (examples: HyperBanner.net, LinkExchange.com, or visit GoTo.com and key in “banner exchange.”) Exchange programs allow smaller sites to leverage the power of the Web by displaying one another’s ads in a cooperative fashion. Most exchange programs are free to join, but many also offer for-fee services for the advanced online marketer.

Prepare For Pitfalls

Higher-than-expected traffic and insufficient preparation are the root causes of most e-commerce holiday customer complaints. Heavy site traffic can slow download times and lose sales. It can even cause your site to shut down. Your technical staff must be prepared to handle overload issues.

Now is the time to ask about your site’s traffic-handling capabilities. Find out how much traffic your host can handle and whether you can buy more capacity if you need it. Does your host have a plan to handle increased volumes of holiday traffic? If so, what is it – adding more equipment or staff, adding more lines, beefing up connectivity? Does your host offer compensation for “down time?”

Once the holiday orders are coming in, monitor your server logs for incomplete transactions during peak traffic. Establish a baseline for abandoned transactions so you can determine if performance problems are affecting your ordering process.

Don’t forget that good old-fashioned customer service goes a long way. If your server or your host’s server is unavailable or slow, make sure your users see a message indicating that your server is overburdened, and give an estimated time for when the problem should be fixed. Tell them in the message that if they come back and make a purchase, and they mention that they tried to visit when the system was down, you will give them a bonus for their patience. And then make sure you provide them with that bonus.

Timing, Timing, Timing

Finally, remember that timing is everything. Holiday promotions and activities should be put in place now, since October is the start of the shopping season.

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