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5 Free Ways for Small Businesses to Establish an Internet Presence

09/26/2013 06:29 pm ET | Updated Nov 26, 2013

When I leaked internal Bank of America emails related to force-placed insurance on the internet, I thought I knew the internet. I now know my rudimentary understanding of Google and search engine optimization techniques didn't even scratch the surface. I didn't really get what SEO was all about, and the search results for my name weren't favorable. In looking for ways to fix my online reputation so I could get another job, I discovered how the internet works.

This is how I fell into the science of SEO...

We live in an age in which jockeying for position in search results has become a big business. As a small business, you may wonder what this means to you and your business. If you're not internet savvy, it'll be very difficult for customers to find you, and your revenues will suffer. You may not be a huge corporation, but even as a small business, your internet presence is an important tool to drive both customers and revenue.

Before spending money on an SEO or internet marketing consultant, make sure you complete these five steps to establishing an internet presence:

1- Register on Yelp and Google

The very first thing you need to do after obtaining a business phone number and address is register your business on Yelp and Google. There's no point in having a business if people can't find you on their mapping software and business rating networks. It takes less time to register on these services than it does to fill out a job application, it's free, and it provides a free and long-lasting benefit.

2 - Create Social Media Accounts (Facebook, Twitter, etc)

Create an account for your business on all social media networks. Even if you don't plan on using them immediately, it's always better to reserve the name while you can. It's like the old saying about any news being good news -- on the internet, every link counts toward your business, and there's no better place to build links than on your social media accounts. You should have at least a Facebook page (for company updates), Twitter (for customer outreach), Google+ (for company updates), Pinterest (for promo photos), Instagram (for promo photos), and LinkedIn (for client and employee acquisition). Appearing on all social media accounts builds a strong link base for your small business, allowing you to begin competing for market share against corporate behemoths.

3 - Engage Customers

Once you have your social networking accounts set up, start engaging with your customers. Update pictures, specials, events, product launches, and community outreach services. If a customer posts a bad review, contact them to make good on their bad experience. Everything on the internet is archived, and your reputation begins the moment you open for business. Set a quality standard to build your customer loyalty base without adding additional expenses to your budget.

4 - Network with Peers

Customers (and potential customers) aren't the only people using the internet. By regularly utilizing these social media accounts (10 minutes per day on each platform), you'll begin to build a buzz within industry insiders. Many of my consulting clients have come through chance encounters on social media, and you never know where an online conversation may lead. Even leaving comments on blogs and reviewing products on retail sites helps build your presence and expertise. No fancy college degree is required to lend a voice to forums and discussion boards.

5 - Build a Website

Once you have everything else in place, it's time to build a basic website. Hosting services aren't technically free, but you can find templates by checking the source code of any popular website you enjoy. Having this research under your belt will help you ask better questions and make a more informed decision if you decide to hire an internet consultant. By the time your website goes live, you'll have everything in place to fully service your online customers and ease the transition of your small business to the digital realm.

Brian Penny is a former business analyst at Bank of America turned whistleblower and freelance writer. He's a frequent contributor to Mainstreet, Lifehack, and HardcoreDroid and an affiliate of Manduka and Tazo. He documents his experiences working with Anonymous, practicing yoga, and fighting the banks on his blog.