You may not believe that the Internet is critical to your success, but if you’re not on the Web, you’re ignoring a vast pool of potential customers
By Reed Richardson

It’s increasingly clear that the Internet is reshaping the face of commerce both in the US and internationally. Small businesses are not only not immune from the effects of the Internet, they are often in the forefront of making the Internet work to their advantage. However, many small business owners remain hesitant to create an Internet presence for their companies or to expand what they already have, because they fear the technical issues involved.

We offer the following questions for small business owners to consider when evaluating their firm’s Internet presence in 2007.

Does my small business really need a web site?
According to most experts the answer is a resounding yes. No matter what size your business is, or what industry you’re in—even if you never plan to handle any transactions online—the value of a web site as a marketing tool vastly outweighs the cost of creating and maintaining the site.

In the U.S., recent Pew surveys found that 73 percent of American adults currently use the Internet, with almost 42 percent of American households now possessing broadband (high speed) Internet access. Mary Madden, a researcher at the Pew Internet and American Life Project, notes that 32 percent of adults say the Internet has profoundly changed the way they shop and gather information. “Many people begin their shopping with a visit to Google or another search portal,” she says. “More and more people look at online phone directories before they pull out the Yellow Pages.” And, of course, Internet use by young people, especially teenagers, is even higher than that of adults. Today’s children and teens will become tomorrow’s consumers, likely to consider the Internet an integral part of seeking out product information, locating businesses, and even purchasing products or services. This means that if your business doesn’t have a presence on the Internet, you may end up overlooked by potential consumers, including many from outside the geographical area in which you normally operate and advertise.

How difficult is it to create a web site?
Getting your business onto the Internet is surprisingly easy. There are a large number of web hosting companies, firms that create and operate web sites from their servers for a monthly or periodic fee. Working with a web hosting company eliminates the technical hassles of purchasing your own Internet server, connecting it to the Internet, and keeping it in working order.

These firms will handle the otherwise technical aspects of obtaining a domain name (Internet address) for your company’s site, putting together email accounts, and establishing the site architecture. Most web hosting companies will walk you through the construction of your web site by asking you what you’d like to see appear on it. According to Kevin Kilroy, chairman of web hosting firm Dotster (, Dotster’s web site creation process is simple: “We provide the small business owner with direct contact with a human being who takes him or her through the design process.” Kilroy says that Dotster listens to what the small business owner wants and suggests additional options based on the business’s type of operations, and then creates a variety of sample web sites that are sent to the small business owner for alteration or approval. “The whole process can be done with a phone call or two and can take as little as 24 hours,” Kilroy says

Do I need to have an e-commerce web site?
While e-commerce— buying and selling merchandise online—is a major buzzword, and surely a growing trend, not all businesses are suited for e-commerce, and not all need e-commerce capabilities to have a successful web presence. Professional organizations, for example, may benefit from having a web site that simply outlines the services offered and the professionals available, gives office hours, and lists contact information. A service-oriented firm, on the other hand, might offer a way for online visitors to schedule an appointment. Businesses that do sell products, on the other hand, can make use of the e-commerce options provided by web hosting companies, which include secured online transactions, billing and shipping notification, and customer feedback.

What should I consider when selecting a web hosting company?
First and foremost, you want a financially stable company with a reliable track record. If the web host’s servers crash or the company goes bankrupt, your site will go down as well. So start by seeking out firms with a track record, who are willing to refer you to satisfied clients. Larger firms like 1&1, Dotster, Yahoo, and iPower have created a permanent presence in the industry. Ebay, through its ProStores group (, now offers an affordable but robust ecommerce package for small business customers as well.

A web host’s email package is a vital consideration. Most web hosts will offer a certain number of email accounts at the web site’s domain name. The more email options the better. Does the web host offer an auto-respond function? Can emails be forwarded to your other email accounts? Are the web site’s email accounts accessible on the web? Can you access them with your current office software? It’s a good idea to get more email accounts than you think you will need. That way, if your company hires new people, they can be added without having to renegotiate your web hosting agreement.

Since most small business owners don’t have the technical knowledge to create their own web site, it’s important to choose a company that will help you build your site. Make sure to ask exactly how much assistance the web host will offer you when putting up the web site in the first place.

Keeping a web site current is important, the web host should make it easy for you to add or delete information, or change the site’s appearance whenever necessary. Be sure to inquire about how you can change your web site once it’s up and running.

You will also want to know how much bandwidth your web site will be given. Bandwidth (or data transfer) is the amount of data that can be transferred between your web site and anyone who accesses it. Every time someone goes to your web site and looks at your web page, a certain amount of data is exchanged between the servers holding your site and the computer of the user who views it. You want to make certain that your monthly fee includes enough bandwidth to permit normal traffic on your web site. Normally bandwidth use in excess of the specified amount results in extra charges. Be very skeptical of web hosting companies that claim to offer “unlimited bandwidth” and ask for specific numbers. Most good web hosts also allow you to keep track of your web site’s usage. Make sure that the web host lets you see statistics showing how many people are visiting the site, where they come from, and what they are looking at on the site. Such statistics useful in evaluating what elements of your web site are attracting consumers, and what your geographical reach may be.

Since your web site will be stored on the web hosting company’s servers, you will be purchasing a certain amount of storage space. If your site is basically an advertisement of your business, offering just information will be information about what you do and how to contact you—basically, a billboard on the Internet—then you will need very little space indeed, say five megabytes (MB) or less. If, on the other hand, you intend to conduct some sort of ecommerce on your web site, you will need more space to store photos, graphics and data. Few small business web sites, however, need more than 100MB of storage space.

What information should I put on my web site?
Since your web site may be the first exposure a consumer has to your business, you want to keep your website as professional as possible while making it absolutely clear exactly what your business does. “Generally speaking, there should be an ‘About Us’ section that will tell visitors what it is that you do, the history of your company, and why you are qualified to provide whatever service you do,” says Dotster’s Kilroy. “That’s a minimum.” Kilroy also suggests a Frequently Asked Questions section or “FAQ” which answers general questions about your company and its policies. Equally important is providing contact information. “You wouldn’t believe the number of company web sites that tell you everything about the company, but leave no easy way to contact them,” says management consultant Peggy Morrow. “It’s very frustrating for potential consumers.
And frustrating people that may want to do business won’t win you any new clients.” So make sure that your web site at least features your business address and telephone or fax numbers. Email is another great option, which provides web site visitors the chance to communicate directly from the site. If you offer email contact information on your site, make certain you have someone check the incoming email at regularly. “Unanswered email— just like an unreturned phone call—is a surefire way of irritating a customer,” Morrow warns.

How often should my business’s web site be updated?
Internet users have become accustomed to up-to-the-minute news and information, so it’s a good idea to keep your web site as current as possible. Not every web site needs to be updated every day, but you want to make certain that all the information you have on it is accurate. When aspects of your business change, make sure that your web site reflects those changes as soon as possible. This includes people who join or leave the company, changes in client-relevant company policies, events sponsored by your firm, or even vacation dates. Even if your business isn’t a whirlwind of change, it’s probably a good thing to alter your web site’s appearance every so often, or add company news and information that can be updated weekly or monthly. “We are in a world where everything continues to move forward, “says Dotster’s Kilroy. “So to remain static is to become less attractive.”