We are still working on learning the ins and outs of search engine and index placement, selection of keywords/phrases, and other tools to make our website more visible on the Internet. This stuff can make you pretty crazy at times. Internet promotion specialists can be hired to help, or, if you have the time or inclination, you can learn a great deal on your own.
Getting your website to come up on the first page in a search for your book store name is one thing - it's pretty easy to make this happen - but getting the same result when keywords such as "used & rare books" or "Civil War books" or "used book stores 'my hometown'" are entered is another story altogether.
There is also something called the "sandbox effect" in Google rankings. Relatively new and/or infrequently updated websites are placed in a sort of holding area and not ranked - in other words, over time and with regular updating, your site will earn its ranking. If this is true, it seems fair enough.
I have said this before, but it bears repeating: Whoever has the best books wins. If you have books that are in demand, the customer will hunt you down! If you answer customer queries promptly and courteously, fill orders in a timely way, provide photos when asked, package books with exceptional care, you will be rare book dealers indeed, and your customers will appreciate you. Although there are large numbers of competing booksellers now, we keep hearing from customers that there are comparatively few that offer reliability and a pleasant buying experience. This is the ace in your pocket: Keep improving your knowledge base, your books, and your customer service and delivery - and stay the course.
Speaking of shipping, we experimented for about a month last summer with free Media Mail shipping to US customers. This didn't seem to increase sales, however, so we returned to our regular rates. In November, we tried it again. Abebooks had launched an optional free shipping program for sellers; at first, we thought it was crazy, but after looking at the bigger picture, we considered that it might help combat Abebooks' "one-dollar booksellers" who count almost exclusively on shipping charges for profits. Perhaps if free shipping was offered for an extended period of time, it would lead to some stabilization of book prices. I'm not sure if this is true, but after we designated ourselves as free shippers, our sales seemed to perk up considerably. And, since we were offering free shipping on Abebooks, we felt an obligation to match it on our own website. Still, I don't think that this has greatly increased sales for us on Old Scrolls, but it appears to have boosted somewhat on Abebooks. I say "appears" because there are so many factors that can influence sales. At any rate, it hasn't had a negative affect on our income because higher sales have offset higher shipping costs. Also, many buyers choose Priority Mail or are buying from outside the U.S. where International rates apply anyway.
It is important to note that adding interesting content to your website will help drive traffic to your website. Although I have not eked out enough spare time to work on doing this as I had hoped over the past year (blame one full-time job at our local college, book store operations, and part-time writing assignments for BookThink!), we have recently added an "Authors of the Past" feature. We plan to continue this feature and add other informative articles on a regular basis. Also, we change our featured books on the home page (with digital photos) monthly to keep things fresh, and we update our inventory daily. Many books in our inventory now have photos, and, if they don't, we provide them for customers who request them. Several customers have told us that it was the photo that sold the book when they visited our site.
Most of our advertising has been via distribution of business cards, word of mouth, and satisfied repeat customers. We received some limited exposure on our local PBS website and TV station early in the year after we donated several books to their fund-raising auction. We also donated books and bought advertising space for a Braddock Bay Raptor Research Center/Cummings Nature Center fund-raising dinner event. We have worked at getting links on some area sites and recently succeeded with a large private college in our area. My thinking is to put your name and money where there are likely to be folks who read, also where you will feel good about the money being spent whether or not it results in additional sales.
The website has been easy to maintain, and we have been capable of accomplishing most of the changes and additions on our own. Lance at Chrislands has been most helpful whenever we have needed it. These are some of the services they provide:
However, no matter who hosts your website, staying out of the sandbox and improving your ranking will be mostly up to you.
If you aleady have a website, here are some additional free tools for checking your performance:
Overall, we feel that launching our website was a good business decision, and maintaining it has been a very satisfying experience.
One final thought: Looking back at our sales record on the site, I see that our best month (by far) was in April, when our book shop was featured in a Bookseller Profile on BookThink. So you booksellers out there may want to get going on submitting your Bookseller Profile to Craig Stark or consider using his advertising services!
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Yes, I still need profiles! Write me at email@example.com for a template.]
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