Booksellers Attract Customers Through Free Online Search Tools

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

When Pete Mulvihill joined the staff of Green Apple Books in San Francisco 25 years ago, he spent $5,000 to $6,000 a month to place a full-size ad in the local Yellow Pages, knowing it was the best way to help customers find the indie bookstore.

Today, Mulvihill spends a few minutes a week managing Green Apple’s Google My Business profile while an employee updates the store’s Yelp page. Both services are free.

“All that money has either been saved or put to other uses. Social media and Google have replaced that when looking for a bookstore,” said Mulvihill, who co-owns the store with Kevin Hunsanger and Kevin Ryan. “It’s a massive savings in advertising.”

Search engines are the primary way customers find local businesses.Managing profiles on Google My Business, Yelp, Bing Places, Facebook Pages, and Apple Maps is the best way to reach consumers searching for local business information, said Joe Morsello, director of marketing and communications for the Local Search Association.

“Simply put, consumers rely on their phones and computers to find, engage with, and select local businesses. Being listed on these various sites gives businesses a better chance of showing up in related online searches. Our data shows that in the past week, 80 percent of consumers turned to a search engine to find local business information,” Morsello said. “If any business ignores the sites people use for these searches, then they are likely missing out on sales.”

Typing “Green Apple Books” into Google yields not just the traditional listing, but the store’s Google profile: an eye-catching box on the right side of the page that features photos, a map, a description of the store, the address, hours, and links to 435 customer reviews with an average rating of 4.7 stars out of five.

What’s more, Mulvihill has replied to them all. “It’s just good manners. If somebody takes the time to say nice things about my store, it’s nice to thank them,” he said.

Mulvihill said he also values the not-so-great feedback so he can learn what’s bugging people. For instance, one shopper who gave an otherwise glowing review — “one of San Francisco’s finest bookstores” — complained she was only able to unload three of the 300 used books she brought to sell.

Pete Mulvihill of Green Apple Books uses Google My Business to help customers find his store.
Pete Mulvihill of Green Apple Books uses Google My Business to help customers find his store.

Mulvihill replied: “Thanks for the four-star review. Sorry we couldn’t use more of your books. We see hundreds more each day than we can use, alas.”

Mulvihill, a board member of the American Booksellers Association, said logging in once a week to update his Google profile is a “best practice” every bookseller should be following. “You’ve got to be where they’re going. Everyone does Facebook and Twitter, but they forget where people start, which is Google,” he said.

Green Apple was selected to try out a new Google My Business feature called Posts for a year before it was rolled out widely this summer. Featuring a mix of elements found on Instagram and Twitter, Google Posts lets businesses put up photos and text to promote events or just grab attention. A recent Post by Green Apple aimed for humor: “Put on some pants and come discover your next great read. We’re open late every day.”

“It’s one more easy thing you can do to make your store stand out,” Mulvihill said. “They tell me we get 2,000 to 3,000 views on those a week.”

Google provides an array of analytics to businesses that sign up for its free service, including details about whether shoppers seek directions or place a call to the store after finding it on search.

It also reveals the ZIP Code where the search originates, which has been a revelation for Jonathan Shotwell, co-owner of Books & Mortar in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “A third of the people who come to our store are from out of state,” he said.

It confirmed what he’d been hearing anecdotally from customers, who told him that his robust Google profile spurred them to stop by when they came to the city on a visit.

Books & Mortar attracts out-of-town customers with its Google My Business profile.
Books & Mortar attracts out-of-town customers with its Google My Business profile.

“I can’t tell you how many times someone has come into the store and said, ‘I was just Googling best bookstores.’ People are looking for the small indie in town,” he said. “What our Google page does is let people know the kind of store we are from photos and location.”

Google reports that businesses that add photos to their listings receive 42 percent more requests for driving directions and 35 percent more clicks through to their websites than businesses that don’t.

Like most booksellers, Shotwell has limited free time, so he focuses his efforts on Google and ensuring his store shows up on Apple’s maps app.

“The only one we really prioritized was Google. We also made sure we showed up on an iPhone. Being able to search on a smart phone was our number-one priority,” he said. “We want to make sure if people are traveling, we’d show up. That was a driving force. People are on their phones and in apps.”

Focusing on mobile is smart, noted the Local Search Association’s Morsello. “Consumers use mobile devices more than desktop computers to find local business information. The great thing about claiming business profiles on the key sites is that it helps with both desktop and mobile search,” he said. “However, because of a recent change to Google’s search algorithm, in order for a business website to show up more prominently on search engines, it must be mobile-friendly.”

Google has a tool to check if your site is mobile friendly.

Just over half of local retailers have not claimed their Google My Business profile, while 66 percent haven’t claimed a Yelp listing and eight in 10 are not using Bing, according to the Local Search Association.

Suzanna Hermans, co-owner of Oblong Books & Music in Millerton and Rhinebeck, New York, said she makes it a habit to put herself in the place of a consumer. “I Google businesses all the time. If they don’t have their store hours, I am angry,” she said. “You have to populate your page and keep it up to date.”

She ensures that Oblong’s Google profile for each store is accurate and reflects the current hours, updated for holidays or special events. “It’s so easy. I only update pictures once a year,” she said. “It’s really simple.”

Google provides extensive advice for small businesses that want to use Google My Business, including tips about ensuring information is consistent in all social profiles.

If a bookstore has a tech-savvy staff member, tapping into that talent is a good way to keep online profiles up to date, said Jenny Siegel, manager of Anderson’s Book Shop in Larchmont, New York.

A part-time employee who is talented with computers manages Anderson’s social media and search profiles. Ignoring those sites isn’t an option, Siegel said. “You have got to have something on Yelp, and you have to have something on Google. You have to have a presence,” she said. “If it brings in one new person, it’s worth it. There is really no investment except for taking some pictures and filling out the information. There’s no downside.”