Growing up, Amber Schaub often heard her mother use the term “ruffle butts” to describe the style of diaper covers that she now sells online.
But the first-time entrepreneur doesn’t only code her website with the keywords “ruffle butts” to help consumers find her company’s website from a search engine like Google or Bing. She also marks phrases such as “frilly diapers” and “baby bloomers” as keywords. And she includes them in her product descriptions.
The reason: Her target customers—consumers and retail stores nationwide—refer to the diaper covers in different ways.
“We try to focus on our niche instead of going after generic keywords like ‘infant clothing’ or ‘newborn gifts,’ ” says the 32-year-old, who tapped her savings to launch RuffleButts.com in late 2007. The Charlotte, N.C., business is now profitable, has about a dozen employees and last year posted sales of $2.5 million, she adds.
For many entrepreneurs, the ability to be found online by consumers or other businesses is critical for success. But when just starting out, paying to advertise a company website may be too costly. As an alternative, experts recommend using free methods to attract visitors.
For instance, you can improve a site’s visibility in search-engine results, a process known as search-engine optimization, or SEO, by tagging specific terms as so-called keywords in the coding of a website. And you can work to secure referrals in the form of links from other sites.
Keep in mind that the job may require some trial and error. You may find that some keywords are more effective at driving traffic than others. What’s more, terms that are popular for describing a product or service can go out of style over time.
“You test [your strategy] out, get feedback and you modify,” says Bala Iyer, an associate professor of information technology at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass.
While participating in craft fairs, Danielle Spurge of Boston says she listens to how shoppers talk about the handmade necklaces she sells to identify the terms people would most likely enter in an online search. She also asks friends and family how they would go about searching the Web for the kind of charms she sells online.
In addition, Ms. Spurge says she adjusts the keyword tags for her website based on fashion trends. For example, after recently reading a magazine article about neon-colored items being hot, she marked search terms like “neon necklaces” as keywords since she sells necklaces with neon colors.
“I’ll change things probably once or twice a week,” says Ms. Spurge, 24, who started her business, called the Merriweather Council, after graduating from college in 2010. It became profitable within six months, she adds.
Be patient. It can take several months for a new website to show up high in search engines’ results pages, says Eli Goodman, an analyst for Internet research firm ComScore. Search engines will rank a website based on a host of metrics, including the number of other websites that link to it and the popularity of those sites, in order to provide users with the most relevant results possible, he says.
Don’t try to game search engines, such as by tagging your site with keywords that are popular but have nothing to do with your business. Your rankings could suffer as a result, warns Mr. Goodman.
Search engines aren’t the only way to attract visitors to your website. Ari Taube, founder of Mini Pops, a wholesale snack-food business in Stoughton, Mass., says about 40% of his site’s traffic comes from the business’s Facebook and Twitter pages as well as from websites and blogs about cooking and food trends.
The 36-year-old knows because he uses Google Analytics, one of several free online tools for analyzing Web traffic. Others include Direct.ComScore.com, SiteMeter.com and GetClicky.com.
Mr. Taube started Mini Pops after getting laid off from a financial-planner job in mid-2008. The business became profitable earlier this year and today has four part-time employees, he says.
In February, Mr. Taube sent samples of his product—an air-popped sorghum grain similar to popcorn—to a food writer and TV personality in California, known as Hungry Girl. Soon after, a mention of his business landed in Hungry Girl’s e-newsletter with a link to his website. Mr. Taube says his site saw 10,000 visitors the day the blurb ran, up from the 125 or so visitors it normally receives per day.
“It’s very difficult for someone to just stumble on your website,” he says, “but when you have other people linking to you, who themselves have a following, that’s how you get new visitors.”