Today, it’s near impossible for a retailer to thrive in any economy if they’re not competitive on the Internet and dedicated to staying that way.  What really surprises me is the rate of speed at which new innovation occurs in this space and the consistently new and great ideas that Google, Bing and a raft of others unfailingly seem to come up with month after month, year after year.

According to a consumer tracking study by BIA/Kelsey (View Wave Vll) conducted by ConStat, nearly all consumers (97 percent) use online media when researching products and services in their local area. On top of that consumers have become a lot more sophisticated in the ways they search, not to mention the fact that have more devices, smartphones and tablets on which to develop their technique. Mobility itself has provided more time for shopping and exploring. Now it can be done anywhere and anyplace. It’s become an integral part of the shopping experience in 2012 and we’ve just really getting started.

We recently talked about this subject on TalkFloor with John Simonson, president of Webstream Dynamics. He says many retailers in our business certainly see the handwriting on the wall and realize they need to shift a percentage of their ad dollars from traditional media to one online platform or another. It’s just they don’t know exactly where to start.

“They hear about social media, blogs, and online sales and to make it even more mystifying, because they have a website they’re fair game to receive tons of emails from dozens of website marketing and optimization companies.” What to do? How to know what works and what doesn’t and what to spend? For many it just gets even more confusing.

Where to start? Simonson says focus should first be placed on the store’s website, making sure it’s an effective, consumer-friendly selling tool for the store that helps enhance the company’s brand and ultimately drive customers through the front door. If the site is not up to date, if it doesn’t operate correctly, if it doesn’t offer what consumers need, why then asks Simonson, would you buy pay-per-click advertising on a search engine, Facebook or any of the social media. Why point these resources to a site that’s not going to help convert the average tire-kicker into an in-store shopper?

Knowing how to tell an effective, productive and competitive site from a second-rate one is not always easy.  Says Simonson, “You get what you pay for. There are a lot of components that go into a quality site and they cost money.” The question is, he says, “How much of your marketing budget do you want to spend on the website itself and then how much do want to allocate to marketing the site once it’s up and running?” An element he says that’s as important if not more important that the website itself.

A major decision for most retailers is a very basic one: Do I go with a formatted site, a site that’s standard for all members of a particular buying or mill affiliate group or companies, or do I pay more and get a site that’s unique to me, from a developer that offers only this option? With the formatted options there are areas where content is unique to each dealer, including information about their location, their staff and their specials, but for the most part all of other areas are basically the same: The layout, the graphics and the descriptions.

The custom option is just that, a site made specifically for one retailer, designed and built to his individual needs. The graphics, the look, the feel, the keywords, the content, the title page, the Meta description, the FCO/SEO optimization are all unique for that one retailer.

“There is information describing hardwood, laminate, carpet and all of the industry’s basic product groups everywhere on the Internet,” says Simonson. “The big search engines, especially Google and Bing, the two largest, remove duplicate content. That means that with formatted sites, all of the product pages are the same from site to site and are removed and not recognized by the search engines. They don’t enter the equation in a consumer search. “

“A custom site,” he adds, “with descriptions unique to that site, are recognized by the engines and that helps that retailer’s site move up the search engine’s priority list.”  Simonson says, “If you are really serious about getting to page one on Google where the action is, and you want to cover the variety of products that you offer, you really need custom pages.”

Custom and unique product pages on a retailer’s site are a necessity but that really only gets you in the door, according to Simonson. The next hurdle, he says, is making the site attractive to consumers and providing answers to the question: “Why should I buy a particular product from you?”

Not to be forgotten: Marketing the site is as important or more important than the site itself, according to Simonson. Lots of factors need to be considered in the marketing mix. One is the specific local market areas or cities where the store’s prime potential customers live. Retailers can bid on search engine keywords in only the areas they serve, and usually do it at a very affordable cost. Social media, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube not to mention blogging and forums, are also something one might consider. The difficult part with these venues is holding back on bragging about yourself. The search engines pretty much disregard that. However, getting your followers and your customers to rave about you really helps search engine rankings.

Deciding on the right Internet presence for most retailers has been a progression and a series of trying one thing and then another until they get a positive response, and often not sure whether it’s the best possible response they could have gotten. By its nature, something new and unknown is wrought with pitfalls. As with most unfamiliar, mysterious and potentially expensive things, finding a guide who is knowledgeable, conversant with the language of the Internet and on top of that a techie and a code writer of the first order, and one who knows the marketplace and the consumer, is a find that can save a lot of time and money. If you’re in this for the long haul, you may want to check out Webstream Dynamics’ John Simonson.