This post was originally written by Carrie Royce and prepared for the Texas Self Storage Association (TXSSA.org). Red Nova Labs (parent company of StorageAhead) contributes advice pieces on marketing self storage.

It seems like old news that more than 80 percent of North American consumers go online to check out potential purchases, competitive pricing, consumer ratings and other factors before they spend. Nowadays it just makes sense; if a person has a computer or mobile phone, why look anywhere else? The Internet can serve up timely, inclusive information and word-of-mouth guidance almost instantly.

It’s just as appealing from a company’s perspective. On the Internet, business owners can reach a much wider and more diverse audience at a fraction of the time and cost of traditional advertising. What’s more, web campaign effectiveness is far easier to measure. For those reasons online marketing tactics (advertising, optimization and social networking) are now considered  fundamental  to any respectable strategy.

This is especially true today for brick-and-mortar stores that serve a local community—like  self storage .

Consider this: of the 80 percent of users who research companies online, at least 40 percent are evaluating nearby businesses. And the number is growing. That’s why online search giants Google and Bing, and even traditional directories like yellow pages, are eagerly improving their local search platforms. Just this month, in fact, Google released Instant search for Google Places to serve up relevant local results at faster speeds.

sites like yelp and yp can help your local search rankings

It has never been so important for storage operators to develop a strong web presence. Local search is a  game   changer  and those who are becoming masterful local search marketers will reap more rental occupancy. It’s all about being found on the map and relating with prospects via clear communication—online and in person. A local search optimized web presence is the key. If you don’t have it, you’re simply not serious about getting rentals.

“We’re all depending more and more on our Internet-acquired customers, particularly because the cost of acquiring those customers is cheaper than with conventional yellow pages or other types of traditional marketing,” said George Watson, founder and president of Steelecreek Self Storage in Addison, Texas. “We all need to be focused on using the Internet effectively to draw self storage leads.”

Unfortunately, becoming a masterful local search marketer isn’t as easy as it sounds.

On one hand, you have the option of paid search engine marketing ( SEM ), which is costly and complicated. It’s practically a full-time job if you do it well, and a single click in a competitive metro area can cost $5. Positive return on investment requires careful planning, setup and monitoring of each cost-per-click (CPC) and cost-per-impression (CPI) campaign. Just ask Paul Glover, President of Storage Choice self storage properties:

“The Internet in general – and Google specifically – is where all of our advertisement dollars are going,” Glover said. “So it’s important we get the most bang for our buck. What I’ve learned is that I can spend  a lot  of money on pay-per-click campaigns. To be honest with you, even now after I managed it for two years, I don’t understand all the little things that you can do to boost your ratings, or wherever you’re lined up on Google.”

On the other hand, you have the option of organic campaigning ( SEO ), which is theoretically no-cost. SEO encompasses all of the “unpaid” techniques used to improve a website’s natural appearance in search engines; mainly: content, architecture, code, meta data, keyword use, inbound links and social networking.

The fact of the matter is, optimizing for local search is anything but free. It’s a time-consuming, tedious, ongoing process that needs to be carefully thought out and executed. Still, given the high clickthrough and conversion rates of first-page organic search traffic, it’s worth the effort: the ROI is  exponentially  higher than paid search.

“The importance of quality SEO is customers,” Taylor said. “The public self storage companies tell us that they’re getting somewhere between 25 and 50 percent of their customers off the Internet, and some of the mid-sized operators are getting 15 to 25 percent or more. In order to be competitive, all self storage operators have to be focused on how they can optimize their website and get their fair share of the Internet customers.”

If you lack a sound SEO strategy, that can be difficult to impossible in the competitive storage industry. That’s why it’s critical to learn how this type of searching works—especially when shopping for web marketing help. It will enable you to gain the best possible presence for your business, and position you to keep up with changes and developments as they occur. It’s simply the nature of the web: early adopters disproportionately reap the rewards.

organic SEO results are best for local search

“What I’ve learned is, if you can get somebody that really knows Google and the Internet, do it  now ,” Glover said.

The challenge facing self storage operators isn’t where to find help, but how to gauge whether that help is legitimate, effective and fairly priced. With thousands of web and search engine marketing firms out there eager to take your money, it can be difficult to cut through the clutter of claims. Companies that promise guaranteed results can confuse a person trying to decide what steps to take. SEOs have a bad rap for a good reason: probably seven out of ten are amateurs. Web technology develops so fast that even the majority of the self-proclaimed specialists don’t know everything and have little practice and confidence with the latest developments of the industry.

“Search engines are constantly evolving and changing how they rank websites,” said Tom Cox, Web Visibility Manager of WebWorks for Self Storage, based in Kansas City. “That’s why it’s critical [for vendors] to have a staff that is aware and responsive to those changes. The goal is to make sure clients’ websites are growing in terms of leads, traffic and SEO ranking—all while being  transparent  so clients recognize the value they are getting.”

How to find the right SEO & web marketing company for your storage facility

Whether you own a single self storage store or a large corporation with several regional or national locations, here are a few must-have characteristics that you should look for when deciding which SEO firm to choose:

INTEGRITY. Be wary of firms offering guaranteed top placements in the organic results, or who claim to have a connection with a big search engine. No marketing firm has a friends-with-benefits relationship with Google or any other search engine. No one can  guarantee  results.

ETHICS. Some SEO firms use “black hat” techniques to provide results quicker than acceptable “white hat” methods will. Regrettably, those sneaky techniques are prohibited by search engines; the results are rarely long-lasting, and if you caught you could get blacklisted indefinitely.

PRAGMATISM. If a firm offers SEO services for a price that seems too good to be true, it probably is. Good SEO firms employ multiple people ranging from web designers to content writers to linkbuilders. The work it takes to create an effective SEO campaign is just too broad for one person.

EXPERIENCE. A good SEO firm will have a portfolio that displays a history of  quantifiable  successes.

Experience is what most appealed to both Paul Glover and Tracy Taylor as they shopped for web marketing help.

“More than anything, I was looking for expertise,” Glover said. “I wanted to feel confident that [the firm] would not just drive paid clicks my way, but that they were numerous quality clicks. I want the most qualified activity possible for the dollars I’m spending.”

Taylor put quite a bit of elbow grease into it.

“I started off by going to websites of our competitors – the public companies and other major self storage websites – to study their website design, keywords, links, flexibility and optimization. I actually printed every page I could, including the company history and minor pages. I Scotch-taped them onto the wall and carefully studied them.

“In the end, it all boiled down to referrals—from each of the companies who were offering to sell us their service,” Taylor said. “I checked to see where their customers were showing up on Google. And I studied the web pages of those various referrals.

“We choose a web manager whose customers ranked the highest on Google – often on the front page – and who had the best-looking websites. Those are the two things I was looking for: who can design a great website, and where their customers ranked.”

Taylor’s approach was smart—both to ensure great results and to avoid overspending. Before engaging in any discussion with a web service provider, it’s wise to do a bit of reconnaissance. A few observations and analytical snapshots will tell you if a company is worth talking to.

When you’re ready to chat, take a prepared set of questions to keep from getting side-tracked. If you sense that you’re being “buzz worded” into feeling technically inexpert, it’s not a good fit. Remember: it will be the vendor’s job to communicate regularly and clearly with you on your level as well as to provide quantifiable results.

Find an ethical company committed to endurance and realistic expectations. It’ll pay off in the long run.

One last word to the wise storage marketer:

Stay focused on the prospective renter, not on search. Websites and local search are not a panacea. You still have to nurture the lead and close the rental via likable, skilled managers. And no matter how search engines change in the future, human users will always determine the results.

Major sources for this story include SEOmoz.com, SearchEngineLand.com SMX West 2011 conference, SonicSEO.com, MarketingPilgrim.com, DigitalJournal.com and storEDGE.com.

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