Top of the list: Search engine specialist helps companies get all-important attention online

How do you sell an enthusiast’s BBQ smoker — a large, $10,000 unit meant for those who want to leave a brisket cooking overnight for just the right texture — to a random customer in Singapore?

Winning the race to the top of a Google search.

James Mahlmann, who founded a Toms River-based company that helps businesses do that, said it’s easy to find proof: Search for some combination of the words “smoker cookers.” His client of 25 years, Lang BBQ Smokers, won’t require much scrolling down to find.

“When the owner of Lang was looking for someone to help him, what he told me was: ‘I know how to build a smoker and cook meat; what you know is search engines. I’ll pay you, because I don’t want to pay an advertiser,’” he said.

In one success story that speaks to the potential of the ever-present internet search to turn small business into big business, Mahlmann’s work with the Georgia-based Lang has about 65,000 visitors every month landing on the niche company’s website. The company now sells its products in 180 countries.

“They used to close their factory around this time of the year because there was nothing going on,” he said. “Now, they’re cranking them out every day of the week. If you bought a model today, you couldn’t get it for at least six months, that’s how backed up they are.”

Although Lang is based out of Georgia, most of the clients of Mahlmann’s NetCetra LLC are based in Ocean, Monmouth and Middlesex counties.

Regardless of where a company is based, or the share of sales that are done via e-commerce, Mahlmann says firms that offer search engine-related services have an attractive value proposition to offer businesses.

“Even if you’re not in e-commerce directly, if you want to play in this field of business, even in your backyard, you have to be on Google,” he said. “Even if you’re trying to do business regionally, if you want to compete — you have to get visibility online.”

Prepare to meet — although, perhaps you have already — one of the most common phrases punched into search engines: Where is (insert type of business here) near me?

Mahlmann said coming as the answer to that inquiry is not just for big businesses. If you’ve got a tech partner doing the indexing and visibility work required, a business of any size can be the first option a potential customer sees.

And it might have to be that customers find a business that way, as COVID’s impact on foot traffic and other trends solidify the search engine’s dominion.

Most businesses don’t need much convincing. That’s a far cry from the way a small to midsized business owner felt about anything internet-related when NetCetra was getting its start in the mid-1990s, Mahlmann said.

“When the need for an internet presence first came around, people started saying, ‘Oh, I’ll just use my niece or nephew for this, because they can build a website for a couple hundred dollars and I’ll get what I need instead of paying you $3,000,’” he explained. “But, what happened was, all of a sudden, someone wanted to change their website, then that niece or nephew wasn’t there anymore. They want to make money, too.”

For the small businesses that embraced the potential of search engines from the get-go … they’re now smoking the competition.

Those not quite there yet: Start now, Mahlmann will tell you. It’s going to take awhile.

“It’s going to take three to six months to get visibility in a county as a regionally focused business,” he said. “Statewide, it’s another six months. Nationwide is a tough haul.”

Password protection

John Kalli, CEO of Trinity Worldwide Technologies, works with companies that might have anywhere from five to 50 computers.

John Kalli. (Trinity Worldwide Technologies)

Technology firms tasked with protecting their local clients from cyberthreats have a tendency to measure the size of their clients in the amount of hackable devices they have on hand. And no amount of computers is too small to cause a massive business disruption.

That’s why Kalli is the way he is: He’s a password evangelist.

Especially for the small business without an information technology department or someone on staff trained in that role, Kalli said employees and their company heads — those tasked with making a policy of it — need to ensure they’re making good passwords, and making those passwords different across logins. Password managing tools that can generate long passwords and keep track of them for you can help with that.

About 90% of hacks occur as a result of compromised passwords, he said.

“But people are still to this day resistant to changing their passwords, or they think a complicated password will totally protect them — but it really doesn’t,” he said. “As an example, an 8-character complex password can be cracked in less than 15 minutes these days.”

The power of computers and password cracking software is just that good these days, he added. Adding more characters to a password does help.

“So, what we (have) clients do is use a passphrase, like a sentence or partial sentence, that’s at least 16 characters long, or even 20 to 25,” he said. “When you’re typing a sentence using punctuation and maybe a misspelling here or there, that’s much more protective than an 8-character password you think you’re being clever in coming up with.”

Kalli referred to a hack from 2012 that compromised the passwords of 6.5 million LinkedIn users. If you look at the Top 20 passwords exposed in that breach and compare them to the 20 most popular passwords used today, Kalli said, the difference would be minuscule.

“So, that shows me that people aren’t making changes or taking this seriously,” he said. “But, really, it’s one of the easiest and best ways to protect yourself as a small or midsized business.”

And, he added, the best part? It doesn’t cost any money.