There is little doubt that, to some extent, every business must become an online business. That is, every business needs an online presence of some kind, because the Internet isn’t just becoming the primary means by which we inform our buying decisions – it already is. According to a report released by Cisco in January 2013, online ratings and comments are the most significant factor in consumer buying decisions. And the vast majority of shoppers – whether buying a service or product online or in person – do research online first.
So, whether businesses conduct the majority of their transactions online or not, staying ahead of the curve is essential. Here are the five most significant trends to follow.
According to Cisco, there will be more mobile devices on earth than people by the end of 2013. People are doing more of their computing on the fly and this has changed their needs in several ways. Apps, for one, are becoming more central to the way we use mobile devices. Although all of these devices contain Web browsers, most users rely on custom apps to get necessary information such as a business’s nearest location, the highest-ranked Italian restaurant nearby, and so on. Websites also need to be optimized for a range of devices. Finally, shareable content and advertising aimed at these devices must be similarly optimized. All of these changes can be summed up in one question: How can online businesses adapt to and leverage the mobile computing trend? In general, today’s companies must have bankable answers to this question.
Social media is here to stay, and that means that businesses have a new platform for relationship building and communicating with their customers. Maintaining an online social presence has become as important as having a website, as social media acts as an independent network within the Web. But while the early days in social media were pretty fuzzy for businesses, some very palpable benefits have emerged here in recent years. Social media provides a way for companies to interact with customers, engage them, generate buzz, get feedback and even address negative publicity before it gets out of control. An increasing number of companies are even using it for hiring. (For more on that, see How I Used Twitter to Land a Tech Job.)
While we’re on the topic of social media, there is also the impact it has had on shopping habits. According to a 2011 report by IBM, up to 84 percent of consumers rely on their social networks when researching new products. Amazon’s strategy of using customer data to compile lists of correlations of what other users viewed or bought in a certain session was one of the initial forays into this area, and it proved to be a powerful one. Now, the idea of democratic shopping has become even more important thanks to the integration of social media. Social couponing, following sites on social media to qualify for exclusive product offerings and buying products suggested by social media peers are all social shopping trends that online businesses are striving to get in on. (Learn more about social shopping in Do You Know? Social Media Vs. Social Discovery.)
Perhaps the most important trend in online business lies in analytics. The depth and precision of online analytics has vastly increased over the years, and that rich data can be mined to give online businesses more insight than ever before. Companies can now can find out what visitors to their site are looking at, what they are skipping, when they are leaving and much, much more. This mining has increasingly become more complex as systems have become able to process big data, which still holds the key to untold riches for companies looking to better target and serve their customers.
Regardless of the mania surrounding the term, search engine optimization is a real concern for online businesses. Although search algorithms are getting better at shaking out sites that attempt to game search engines, search engines don’t exactly go out of their way to help legitimate businesses that aren’t search savvy. For this reason, many businesses have to learn the rules of SEO in order to make sure they get the PageRank they deserve.
Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done because SEO is an ever-evolving process. Most recently, Google authorship has become the new frontier for online publishers to conquer. Having a social media presence has also become increasingly important. (For more, check out 3 SEO Tactics That Google Loves.)
Segmentation Over Aggregation
Early in online business, every site sought to be a portal or an aggregator, but this trend has shifted toward creating focused sites aimed at serving one specific market. The reasoning behind this shift is that a single site can’t beat the existing aggregators but, if properly tweaked for SEO, can score higher in its particular market. This has resulted in sites being formed in specific verticals, rather than tacking more sections onto existing sites. This move was somewhat foreshadowed by offline business moves in the ’80s and ’90s, in which many overweight conglomerations were broken down into smaller businesses that could focus on being the best in their specific fields.
Online business is far from mature, and may never mature as new capabilities continue to be added to the Internet. The challenge for businesses is to not be left behind by these trends. In practice, this means paying attention to new opportunities and putting the time and resources into making the most of them. But then, that’s hardly unique to the Internet; that’s just what successful businesses do to stay on top.