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I am wearing a hairdresser’s cape with my name on, in a salon with my name over the door, getting styling tips from a man called Andrew Hill who, at least according to Google’s UK search engine, is more popular than I am.
In an online search on Google for “Andrew Hill”, the Andrew Hill Salon in the small Devon market town of Newton Abbot, outranks both me and – more surprisingly – the late African-American jazz pianist with a global fan-base.
The hairdressing salon’s search engine pre-eminence has puzzled me for a while so I have come to Devon to work out how a small business, or even an individual, should go about pushing theirbrand up the Google rankings.
Forget the fuss in Europe over the “right to be forgotten” by search engines, I am on a mission to discover the secret of being found online, a more pressing concern for the average business or ambitious professional.
It seems a little odd that a West Country salon should be so intent on promoting itself online, given that hairdressing is one of the few services that cannot be carried out remotely over the internet.
“‘Why wouldn’t you do it?’ is my attitude,” says Mr Hill, a self-confessed “techno-cretin”, who counts former politician Ann Widdecombe among regular customers.
His salon’s website dates from about 12 years ago, when consultant Ross Kernick, a friend who used to work for the owner of the Yellow Pages brand, tried unsuccessfully to secure the obvious domain names andrewhill.com and andrewhill.co.uk before settling for andrewhillsalon.com.
The primary objective at the time was clearly not to top Google’s ranking among people with the same name; I am the first Andrew Hill to book an appointment. But from the outset Mr Hill wanted his salon to feature near the top of searches for hairdressers in the same town or county.
There are about 25 hairdressers in the Newton Abbot area, more than one for every 1,000 inhabitants. The competition is fierce, according to Mr Hill and his staff. At one recent regular meeting with his team, Mr Hill asked what they would do if celebrity hairdresser Trevor Sorbie opened up opposite the Italianate Victorian villa where his business is based. “Try harder, I suppose,” one employee replied. “So why don’t we start trying harder now?” said Mr Hill.
Before going to meet Mr Hill in Devon, I asked search engine consultants and the Financial Times’s in-house web team to analyse his website in order to give me some pointers about how to increase my own online clout.
They speculated that he might want to expand beyond his original base, or add his brand to a range of hair products – as indeed Mr Sorbie has. But Mr Hill himself says he has no such global ambitions.
Still, his business projects an image online that is bigger than his salon.
How? Links from outside sites are one reason why the site performs strongly. Another is the richness of material on the WordPress-based website. Short YouTube videos, including a blow dry masterclass and Mr Hill’s tongue-in-cheek Christmas makeover of an ill-kempt neighbour, keep visitors interested.
“The longer you keep someone on the website, the more likely they are to buy your services,” points out his search-engine adviser Mr Kernick, now director of Hoot Media, a web consultancy.
Sam Silverwood-Cope of Intelligent Positioning, a search technology company, compared my search engine performance and that of the salon.
He says that while outside links remain important in promoting websites on Google, the search group keeps changing its algorithms in order to penalise companies that buy “black hat” links from sites that are not genuine – a tactic the salon has avoided – and to reward quality over quantity.
A more important factor explaining my relatively unattractive search-engine profile is a lack of “social shares”, such as “likes” on Facebook or “plus-ones” on Google’s own Google+ social network.
The salon’s Facebook page has collected more than 1,800 “likes”; mine is a largely neglected private page. Thanks to the quirks of FT.com, my work is also divided between two FT pages, one linked to my regular columns and management articles, the other to my posts on the FT’s Business Blog. “You’re splitting your link juice,” remarked one of my colleagues.
So what could I do better? I could set up as many social media accounts as possible using the anchor text I want to promote – “Andrew Hill” in this case – and try to accumulate as many likes as possible on those sites.
Mr Silverwood-Cope also recommends enhancing my FT.com columnist page, which at the moment is a “mere portal to the more interesting stuff”, he reckons.
Obsessing only about where “Andrew Hill” ranks is, however, not the best use of my time – or the salon’s – unless I plan to take up hairdressing in the West Country, or the other Andrew Hill starts a sideline writing about management. With my personal brand established, I would be better off trying to advance up the Google search results for “management columnist”.
As for the more popular Andrew Hill, his local rivals do sometimes rank higher on the search terms for hairdressers in Devon and Newton Abbot, but it is questionable whether the benefit of being first would outweigh the investment needed to stay there, according to Mr Kernick.
In any case, Mr Hill’s online success would count for little if he abandoned more traditional marketing. In fact, one of the few marketing channels the salon has downgraded is the Yellow Pages telephone directory, where what was once an expensive display advertisement for the salon is now a single line of tiny text and a phone number.
But while a third of the salon’s new clients now come via Google’s search engine, and about a quarter book online – some travelling from as far afield as Derbyshire in the English Midlands, or even France – a larger percentage book appointments because of recommendations from existing customers.
Loyalty cards and client coaching sessions – complete with champagne, canapés and goody bags – are also effective tools. And, for all its online awareness, when the salon really wants to provide a personal touch, it still puts an old-fashioned letter in the post.
Further reading: Improve your customer’s web presence to boost your sales
It was once enough for hairdressers merely to learn how to style hair and run what was in effect a local shop. But the digital revolution has reached the salon too, assisted by suppliers of salon products and online companies, Andrew Hill writes.
Sam Delany, the Andrew Hill Salon’s business manager, this week visited Google’s UK headquarters in London to attend a “Go Digital with Google” workshop, organised by L’Oréal Professionel, an arm of the French beauty products company, with input from Hibu, the directories and internet services company. Mr Hill recently took part in another L’Oréal workshop that gathered 18 to 20 salon owners to analyse their own websites and discuss best practice.
L’Oréal believes it has a role not only to offer cutting and colouring coaching, specific to its own products, but also to fill gaps in salon owners’ business expertise.
Such courses are not pure philanthropy, just as a hairdresser’s chat with a customer sometimes presages the sale of additional products.
At this week’s three-hour workshop, a Google manager shared web tips on topics such as “how to play search trends and make the most of free business listing opportunities”, before pitching Google services, such as the Google AdWords paid advertising platform, to attendees.
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