Having a website used to be enough. But the rise of social media platforms and multiple online review websites has redefined what it means to have an Internet presence.

Today’s consumers are online more than ever before, and their purchasing habits — even for major purchases like travel and lodging — have adjusted accordingly.

From desktop computers and laptops to mobile devices and tablets, the traditional buying cycle has been replaced with customers expecting to engage directly with brands and businesses in a multitude of places — places they choose.

“It’s about being available wherever your customers are,” said Roger Laurendeau, CEO of The Web Guys, a web design and Internet marketing agency in Carmel, Ind. “Sure you have a website, but you may just have missed out on acquiring a customer because they found a negative review on a Yelp listing you didn’t know you had, or because they looked for you on Facebook or Google and couldn’t find you.”

Creating and managing a thorough Internet presence in our digital age is critical for every business and should include the following components:

  • A quality website
  • A strong search marketing strategy
  • Social media management
  • Good reviews and online reputation management

A Great First Impression – Your Website

It all starts with a professionally designed and functional website. In 2009, fewer than half of small businesses had a website. Five years later, the lack of a website is a near death wish to any business.

Far cheaper than traditional print advertising, a quality website delivers a big bang for its small buck: It allows a business the convenience and flexibility of meeting its customers where they want, when they want.

In recent years, the conversation has shifted from traditional desktop computers to building websites that also work well on smaller screens such as smartphones and tablets. A recent JiWire study showed that 52% of travelers booking online used a mobile device to do so.

“To have a website is one thing,” said Laurendeau, “but the importance of having a website that is mobile friendly has increased dramatically.”

A mobile website differs slightly from a desktop website in that the text, buttons, pictures and graphics are larger and rearranged on the screen to allow for simplified navigation on a smaller screen.

Last year, CNET reported that global mobile traffic now accounts for more than 15% of all Internet traffic worldwide, with experts forecasting that mobile traffic will outpace traffic from desktop computers by late 2014.

Having a mobile-friendly website ensures a quality user experience. For customers of independent car rental companies, this means they can easily find rates, fleet options, contact information and other details.

“A website that isn’t mobile friendly is no longer acceptable,” said Laurendeau. “Consumers will get quickly frustrated and hit the back button to find a company that cares about their users’ experience.”

Harnessing Search Traffic – Search Engines

The principles of search engine optimization are based on the understanding of how search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo crawl the Web.

In fact, more than 200 factors determine a website’s relevancy in regard to user input. There are many reasons to pay attention to your website’s placements on the search engines for common keyword search phrases.

“Having a website means little if no one can find it,” said Laurendeau. “When you control one of the top three spots, customers searching for a service you offer, like van rentals, will see your site as relevant to their need, and they will make their way to your website from there.”

On-page factors, such as keyword count, metadata and site speed are still important, but off-page factors — such as brand mentions, social signals and syndicated reviews — have become crucial in defining a website’s success.

Unfortunately, the benefits of SEO are rarely immediate. “SEO is a process; it is not an event,” Laurendeau said. “It takes time for the search engines to fully index an optimized website, and they even give preference to older websites.”

Shane Tyson, owner of Courtesy Car Rental and Sales in Newport, Minn., noted his SEO efforts took time but made a substantial difference. “Once everything kicked in, we experienced a 300 to 500% revenue increase,” he said.

Socialites Do It Better – Social Platforms

These days, the most popular form of engagement online comes from social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+. Like SEO, returns from the implementation of a dedicated social media strategy won’t come overnight.

It takes time to nurture and grow a community of followers that will ultimately share what you have to offer with others and build buzz around your brand.

The rewards are great for companies that persevere, but to succeed means giving attention to these platforms multiple times per day. Loyal followers will share your business with their networks, bringing in more followers to help grow your customer base exponentially.

“We’ve seen company executives start social media and abandon their efforts,” said Laurendeau. “Empty or inactive profiles negatively impact how customers view companies, but a company that engages with its customers can build long-term relationships that can mutually benefit both parties.”

Sticks and Stones – Reviews and Reputation Management

In recent years, perhaps the most impressive shift digital marketers have noted is a power shift to consumers in the form of online reviews. Online reviews loom large in the eyes of the decision-making online and offline buyer.

Hundreds of review sites like Yelp, Angie’s List and Google+ allow customers to interact and leave feedback about their experiences, both positive and negative.

In 2012, Search Engine Land’s annual online Local Consumer Review Survey found that more than 72% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations.

“It surprises me how many rental companies don’t search for themselves at least once a month,” said Laurendeau. “Your company name, phone number and address are three things you should search for once a month. If you see discrepancies, then you have problems to address.”

Many online review sites create skeleton listings that are often filled with incorrect contact information. Business owners should sign up and take control of these listings to update the information on a regular basis, to receive automatic notifications whenever a review is left, and to have an opportunity to publicly respond to bad reviews.

As negative reviews are often impossible to remove, a well-mannered public response can show other potential customers viewing negative reviews that the company works to remedy its mistakes. It is critical how one responds in these public forums. Be calm, professional and polite even when the review writer isn’t.

More Than Just “Likes” – The Internet as an Ecosystem

Between building a professional website, managing social media platforms and monitoring online reviews, it’s clear why independent car rental companies have trouble keeping up. It’s become a full-time job, and it can be easy to get lost in the game of winning fans and followers.

Rather than winning the Google wars or obtaining the most Facebook “likes,” independent car rental companies should seek to extend their current marketing practices by carefully analyzing their local market and providing opportunities for meaningful engagement with their customers.

“Every dollar is important to the independent car company,” Laurendeau said. “Work with someone you trust and who is staying up-to-date on digital trends to ensure a proper ROI.”

Author’s Note: A version of this story first appeared on Auto Rental News (www.autorentalnews.com).

About the Author

Chad Frazell sits on the board of directors of The Web Guys, a web design and Internet marketing agency in Carmel, Ind., that works with independent car rental companies to connect and engage with customers online.