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11 Posts authored by: SBC Team
SBC Team

Mobile Device Security

Posted by SBC Team Oct 14, 2015

Mobile-Device-Security-Thumb.gifWith the proliferation of mobile tablets and smartphones, business opportunities abound. But the more the mobile lifestyle takes hold, the greater your need as a small business owner to increase your mobile protection. Get the background you need – and the tips you need to move forward – in our new infographic, “Mobile Device Security.”


Click here to view the infographic.  


You can also download a PDF version for
printing by clicking here.


Video Replay of the Live Google Hangout: How Small Businesses Can Take Advantage of the Biggest Technology Developments

 

 

Welcome to the Small Business Social Series sponsored by Bank of America. The panel discusses top technology trends and how small businesses can take advantage of them at a relatively low cost and with low effort. Topics include smart ways to manage your customers and your transactions, big data, and leveraging mobile tools.

 

The panel is moderated by Carol Roth and you will hear from:

  • David Solis, National Sales Executive, Bank of America Small Business
  • Jason Teichman, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Web.com
  • Steve Strauss, Small business columnist, USA Today

 

 

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White-in-article.jpgby Cindy Waxer.

 

As the president of Author Marketing Experts Inc., Penny Sansevieri has a way with words, especially when it comes to web design. “Our website was so bad,” recalls Sansevieri, “it looked like a dog had designed it after a tequila bender.”

 

But all that’s changed since Sansevieri overhauled the San Diego-based marketing and publicity firm’s online brand more than a year ago. Today, visitors to www.amarketingexpert.com can find compelling content, and a vastly-improved user interface.

 

Sansevieri joins a growing number of small business owners who are recognizing the power of a well-crafted website. In fact, according to a September 2011 survey of small business owners by ORC International, an Infogroup company, when asked to rank the importance of marketing techniques in an effort to grow one’s business, 32.6 percent of respondents ranked “company website” as the “most important” strategy while a mere 9.1 percent similarly listed Facebook.

 

“A company’s website is one of the main building blocks of a small business’s marketing plan,” says Lourdes Balepogi, president of Miami agency Chispa Marketing.

 

Fortunately, it’s easier than you think to create a website that promotes your products, draws traffic, and ultimately drives revenue. The best part: Small business owners need no longer invest thousands of dollars in marketing agency fees and high-tech bells and whistles to attract eyeballs. Rather, by following the eight simple steps below, you can ensure your website doesn’t go to the dogs, intoxicated or otherwise.

 

  1. Make it action-packed. According to Sansevieri, adding brief and straight-forward video clips to AME’s website that explain the firm’s services helped “change our conversion rates drastically.” Long gone are the site’s meandering “tire kickers.” Instead, Sansevieri says video clips draw “a lot of traffic” from “really serious buyers”—a change that’s helped AME boost its online conversion rates to nearly two percent.

  2. Plan ahead. Before you start tearing down your existing website for a new-and-improved version, take the time to figure out what you wish to accomplish. Warns Balepogi, “Small business owners often spend money on a [web design] vendor that makes them all these great promises when they really don’t have any idea what they’re signing up for.”

 

  1. Go mobile. As of December 2010, 302.9 million Americans reported that they own a mobile device, according to the wireless telecommunications trade group CTIA. Yet many small business websites aren’t optimized for mobile devices. That’s a huge mistake, says Kevin Zicherman, president of Brick&Mobile, a Toronto-based mobile web provider. “Most small business websites are built in Flash which doesn’t work on an iPhone. So if I’m a customer visiting a website and it’s a Flash site, it’s literally a blank screen,” warns Zicherman. A firm specializing in mobile web optimization such as Brick&Mobile, however, can ensure a website is built for a small screen, features the right search words for a high search engine ranking, and delivers the best end-user experience possible.

  2. Cross-promote for maximum impact. Many small businesses lay claim to a website, a Twitter feed, and a Facebook profile. The trick, however, is “you’ve got to integrate them,” says Sansevieri. “You really want to use your website as a hub and link your Twitter account, Facebook page and blog together so that it’s all part of the same family.” Balepogi agrees. “Social media is an effective way to communicate and can easily be integrated into your website,” she says.

 

  1. Add a personal touch. Whether it’s complementing your website with a blog, or putting yourself front and center in every online video, a personal touch is critical to winning over website visitors. Says Sansevieri, who stars in AME’s own videos, “A blog really personalizes your website. In a world where we’re being inundated with so much stuff, we still really want to feel connected with the people we’re doing business with.”

   

  1. Showcase your customers. Rather than post customer testimonials that always “seem very fake,” Jonathan Kay, Ambassador of Buzz at Grasshopper, “thought it would be awesome if we took a page and just highlighted our customers for who they are.” Today, many of the Needham, Mass.-based virtual phone system provider’s clients are profiled on the site’s ‘Happy Customers’ page—a feature that he says has boosted the site’s conversion rate.

 

  1. Update often. From new product launches to emerging market trends, it’s easy for a website to fall behind the times. That’s all the more reason to update your online presence on a regular basis. “I have someone on my team make sure that every time our firm is mentioned in the news, it’s put up on our website immediately,” says Sansevieri.

   

  1. Know your audience. Video might spell success for AME’s bookish customers but, in the case of Grasshopper, Kay says, “we found that while some people spent more time on the page, the bounce[-off] rate was pretty high.” So today the 20-second videos are gone, replaced by a few clean—and motionless—illustrations.

by Reed Richardson

 

Small businesses are, by their nature, more nimble and quick to react than their large, corporate counterparts. Often, entrepreneurs exploit this inherent advantage by adapting new technology to level the playing field and remain competitive. But for every advantage that comes with early adoption, there is also a cost. And right now, many small business owners are engaging in just such an internal debate about whether or not they can justify buying an iPad for their small businesses.

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“Everywhere I go, lots of small business folks want to know more about that,” explains Susan Maus, owner of an online marketing business from Minneapolis. Maus, who bought her iPad last fall as a replacement for a recently departed MacBook, says she uses her iPad for everything from taking notes during a meeting to complex sales presentations. So far, she has no regrets about the move. “But just because it’s been a good fit for me, doesn’t mean it will work for every kind of small business,” says Maus. “It really depends on the individual.”

 

So, to help gauge how well your small business situation might match up with the iPad’s capabilities, we’ve put together three broad small business profiles below.

 

Scenario One – Mobile, customer-facing, sales-oriented entrepreneur

For entrepreneurs who spend all day hopping in and out of sales calls or conducting off-site meetings with existing clients, their small business profile would best align with what the iPad does well. Its light, portable nature, WiFi or 3G connectivity options, 10-hour battery life, and arresting visual appeal can all be big advantages for entrepreneurs who rarely, if ever, sit down behind a desk.

 

“If you’re mainly a Web surfer, note-taker, social-networker and emailer, and a consumer of photos, videos, books, periodicals and music—this could be for you,” noted Wall Street Journal tech editor Walt Mossberg in his original online iPad review from 2010. “If you need to create or edit giant spreadsheets or long documents, or you have elaborate systems for organizing email, or need to perform video chats, the iPad isn’t going to cut it as your go-to device.”

 

The recently released iPad 2 offers a number of upgrades from the original version—it weighs less, has a faster processor, and now includes front and rear-facing cameras for video chatting—but it still carries a base price of only $499. However, these new features haven’t fundamentally changed the first iPad’s business functionality equation. In other words, if much of your business day involves on-the-go networking or the consumption of content by yourself or with customers, it’s worth taking a hard look at purchasing an iPad.

 

 

“The iPad really shines as a presentation tool,” Maus says, but she then adds a caveat. “But I don’t do a lot of ‘work’ on it.” When it comes to writing text and manipulating pictures to create a Powerpoint slideshow, Maus acknowledges that she prefers to use the old fashioned keyboard interface on her trusty desktop computer. Then, once it’s complete, she transfers it onto her iPad and hits the road.

 

So, even if you can’t wait to stop lugging around a bulky, shoulder-straining notebook computer or are ready to junk that desktop tower, you’d be wise to wait before ditching them altogether. That’s because Maus’ experience is pretty typical for iPad users, who find that doing anything more than 30 minutes of light content creation on the iPad often becomes tedious or difficult because of its lack of a dedicated keyboard and USB port as well as its inability to run multiple programs simultaneously. (Apple does offer iPad-specific apps of all three of its iWork office software tools—Pages, Numbers, and Keynote—at $9.99 each.)

 

Scenario Two – Home office-based, online retail business owner

While there are a number of true entrepreneurial nomads, many small business owners are something of a hybrid, spending significant amounts of time both sitting at a desk (either at home or in an off-site office) and out and about interacting with customers and vendors. Often, the duality of this daily ritual comes from the wearing of two executive hats—business manager and head salesperson—and it can create two distinctly different sets of expectations for business computing. As such, finding a device that can satisfy both can be difficult.

 

The iPad does have some clear advantages for this business owner profile. Its sleek design, light weight, easy interface, and Web focus can give it the versatility of a smartphone on steroids (albeit one that doesn’t allow you to make standard phone calls). All this makes it easier to dash out the door for that quick business lunch or unexpected client meeting. And if you want to close a sale while you’re out, just outfit the iPad with an app like Square or Intuit’s GoPayment, which lets you accept credit card payments. (Both apps charge a per-swipe fee equal to roughly 2.7% of the transaction; GoPayment also adds a flat 15-cent surcharge for each swipe.)

 

Plus, because of the iPad’s cloud computing-based architecture, which doesn’t require you to store as much data on the actual device, when you do leave the office you can feel more secure that the entirety of your business’s data isn’t leaving with you. For any small business owner who’s ever left their laptop in a cab or spilled coffee all over a keyboard, this is welcome news. However, to ensure constant access to all of your business’s data through the Internet you might want to pay the extra $130 for a 3G version of the iPad, lest you be at the mercy of finding the nearest WiFi location.

 

Still, many of the iPad’s advantages begin to lose their luster in a more traditional office setting, where multitasking capability and multipurpose versatility are paramount. For Leanne Havelock, a self-described Mac person who runs her own copywriting agency, Four Letter Word Media, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the iPad’s office limitations caused her to rethink its purchase. “As a small business person, I’m just not convinced,” she explained last fall on the My Own Boss blog.

 

When the iPad 2 came out this past spring, she was again tempted to buy one. “But to really use an iPad in my office, I still would have had to get a iPad dock and keyboard,” she says. Adding those items to the setup cost, Havelock notes, would have pushed the price past that of many netbooks and come within a few hundred dollars of a true laptop like the smaller version of the MacBook Air, which features far more robust computing power, a larger, 11.6-inch screen, two built-in USB ports, and a dedicated keyboard, despite being only one-third of an inch thicker and one pound heavier than the iPad. In the end, Havelock decided to continue with her current laptop and iPhone combination. “I like the iPad a lot, but I’d much rather reinvest those dollars into my business right now. That will give me a better return for my money.”

 

Scenario Three – Office-based professional or factory-based production supervisor

Small business owners who remain tethered to their place of business all day may not think an iPad could bring much of value to their company. After all, power is readily available, connectivity isn’t a concern, and a desktop or laptop computer is always a short walk away if it isn’t already within arm’s reach. However, there are various ways to make use of the iPad’s capabilities to enhance your company’s productivity and reputation.

 

For example, online marketing expert Maus points out that if customers come to your place of business often, there still might be an opportunity to use an iPad as a presentation tool. “My brother-in-law, who is an eye surgeon, uses his iPad to review retinal photos with his patients,” she explains. Thanks to its portability and easy to manipulate, high-definition touchscreen, he can carry his iPad right into an exam room and then easily zoom in on specific areas of the photos while discussing medical procedures, improving communication between him and his patients while saving him time.

 

Other similar uses for the iPad run the gamut from using it as a convenient production line portal for accessing technical and repair manuals to making it a point-of-sale device (again, as a credit-card swipe station) on a retail shop floor. Not coincidentally, Apple has subtly increased its marketing push for iPad’s business use, launching its Joint Venture program this past March. Starting at $499 annually, the package promises Apple support technicians will setup and sync up to five Apple systems (one each of Macs, iPhones, and iPads) and train you and your employees to use them more efficiently to help your business. Given Apple’s slow but steady market penetration into big business, MacWorld’s David Chartier notes in this article on Joint Venture’s details that “It’s only logical that the company is making a serious effort to help small-to-medium sized businesses integrate its core products into their everyday operations.”

 

To be sure, the iPad isn’t right for every business. On the one hand, it can be a wise investment toward boosting your business’s impact and improving its productivity if its capabilities match your company’s needs. Then again, you might want to consider a final argument against purchasing one for you business—it simply makes it far too easy to fritter the hours away checking social media sites, watching videos, and playing games. For entrepreneurs who are already pressed for time and money, that could be a deal-breaker. Of course, that is also a good argument in favor of buying one for personal use…

 

 

More Resources

 


iPad 2 Image Courtesy of Apple

by Erin McDermott.

 

What small business owner hasn’t wished that their tall pile of tasks could be finished with just the push of a button? Well, if that wish hasn’t quite come true for every beleaguered owner, it’s not for lack of trying by the exploding App (application) universe, with its hundreds of thousands of offerings aimed at the one in four Americans who now own a smartphone. Among the apps are thousands that claim to be the business, finance, and productivity solution to your most onerous entrepreneurial chores.  

 

But which options really work for small businesses? With an eye on tight budgets, demand for information anytime and anywhere, and practical tools that won’t sit idle among the Angry Birds, here are 12 easy apps that entrepreneurs and non-Jetsons say Mobile-phone-apps-Pull-Quote.pngmade their mountains of work more manageable.

 

Work Anywhere

With DropBox you can sync files across all of your computers. Drop a folder on your laptop into the app’s icon, and you’ll be able to view it for free on your iPhone, BlackBerry or Android-based phone—or by logging on to the DropBox website. There’s no charge for up to 2GB of data, but after that plans start at $9.99 a month for 50GB. It’s also an easy way to back up data. For teams, it’s a good place to share all of a company’s documents quickly and easily.

 

For Rebecca Geffert and Jane Cormier, co-owners of Boardsports School & Shop, managing kiteboard and windsurfing lessons and instructors across four locations in the San Francisco Bay Area can be hectic. But Google Calendar makes scheduling easier (and free), with real-time updates accessible to all staffers, while keeping the owners’ personal schedules available to each other, Geffert says.    

 

Communicating

Kim Barrington Narisetti has learned to run her publishing company, Urban Crayon Press from a parking space at her daughters’ Maryland grade school. Her no-cost app solution: Skype Video, for meetings with people in different time zones. “My illustrators are in Paris and New Delhi and one of my authors is in Switzerland, so I find that it is indispensable on the BlackBerry,” she says, hands-free of course. The app also offers free voice phone calls to other Skype users.

For wider discussions, there’s the Campfire app, a secure real-time group-chat website that can break out into several lines of discussion to aid collaboration. It’s ideal for teams with remote workers and people in the field, where everyone—even clients—can chime in to ask questions and help solve problems, whether through an office-bound PC or on the go via their mobile phone. Plans start at $12 per month for 12 chatters.

 

Follow Your Money

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It’s arguably the most popular small-business option: apps linked to your bank account. Todd Barket, co-owner of Unionmade Goods, a year-old men’s fashion boutique in San Francisco’s Mission District, regularly clicks in to monitor his bottom line. “I’m always looking to see what sales were, as well as what checks have cleared,” he says. Check with your bank—chances are they have just such an app.

 

And just because you’re away from the cash register, doesn’t mean your small business can’t take plastic. Square allows anyone—from Girl Scout cookie-sellers to taxi drivers—with an iPhone, iPad, or an Android-based operating system to accept credit cards, using a small, complimentary device that hooks up to a cell phone via the headphone jack. Downloading the app is free and it handles all major credit cards, but it does charge a processing fee of 2.75% plus 15 cents for swiped transactions, and 3.5% for those purchases that are keyed-in.

 

Paper and the Paper-less Trail

As brilliant as smartphones claim to be, for some reason many don’t address certain basics—such as the need to print when you absolutely have to have a physical document. For the iPhone and iPad, PrintNShare ($8.99 on iTunes) connects directly to any printer, allows you to view and store documents on the device, and has built-in email that allows you to send attachments.

 

Does a tattered envelope stuffed with receipts make your accountant shudder? Shoeboxed can ease that pain. Mail your expense receipts via their prepaid envelopes, or snap a photo of your tabs with their free app. Everything is then organized and made available for review online, making you ready for tax season. Shoeboxed plans start at $9.99 a month. The apps for ProOnGo also keep track of your spending, but they add useful tools like a built-in GPS to track your mileage and a platform to total billable hours by client. It’s good on the iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry, with plans starting at $27 a month for five users.

 

If you’re running your business from the road, Invoice Now ($1.99 on iTunes) is the on-the-go way to ensure billings are going out and cash keeps coming in. Create a customized, professional invoice—featuring your business’ logo—with a few clicks and a PDF is emailed to your clients (with your home office copied). The software also builds an accessible history as you bill and receive.  

 

Road Warriors

It’s a travel assistant in your pocket: TripIt keeps track of itineraries and reservations in one spot. Just forward TripIt all the details as you make plans—car, plane, train, taxi, hotel, whatever—and everything is assembled in the order you’ll need to know it. The itinerary is accessible from the TripIt app, their website, or your calendar software. For individuals, the service is free. For companies that need to know the comings and goings of several employees in the field, there are business options that start at $29 a month for up to 10 users.

 

Need cheap wheels quick? Ayo Omojola recommends ZipCar, where a rental reservation is just an app away. The MBA candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School says the car-sharing service has been useful to him in his role as co-founder of the startup Juncanoo, which helps cultural institutions embrace their mobile side. After an annual fee of $60, ZipCar’s sporty cars are available in most major U.S. cities and on more than 100 college campuses nationwide for rates that start at $7 per hour, including fuel and insurance costs.

How to find and utilize outside help to get your website up and running

By Christopher Freeburn

While creating a website for your business is an increasingly easy task, many small business owners lack the time or technical inclination to do it themselves. Others wish to create elaborate websites that would stretch the talents of even relatively web-savvy amateurs; still more simply seek to avoid the generic template look of many web-hosting firm-created websites. In these cases, hiring a website designer can be a good option for the small business owner.

Getting it right is important. Your company's website is likely to be the first way that many customers encounter your business. Don't forget that a substantial number of consumers begin their product research online. (For more on this, see Part I of our Website Best Practices series on Search Engine Optimization.) So if your business's website doesn't measure up to those of your competitors, is confusing, outdated, or doesn't provide an adequate amount of information, you will only have succeeded in alienating potential customers, who will quickly click away from your website. A poorly designed and implemented site can sabotage potential sales by instilling a negative view of your business in the minds of customers just as effectively as a run-down storefront can discourage walk-in customers.

"As people have grown used to the Internet, they have also become more discerning," says Boston-based data security expert Jim Mott. "Their expectations have grown higher because there are so many high-quality websites out there." Those high quality websites, ones that are well-laid out, loaded with useful information, and have visual appeal are the standard against which your company's website will be judged.

Finding the right designer
The best place to find a web designer is, unsurprisingly, the Internet. You can use the major search engine websites to identify designers in your area. Also take a good look at websites you find particularly effective. Website designers often receive some sort of credit on sites they have designed, but if not identified, don't be afraid to call up the company whose website you like and ask who they used. This tactic also lets you get a feel for the client experience and answer some key questions: How responsive were the web designers to the small business's input? How long did the process take? How many bugs have been encountered since the launch? And, perhaps most important: How much did it cost?

When selecting a designer, be sure to ask for a list of websites he or she has designed. Good designers will have a portfolio of clients whose websites you can examine and whom you can contact for a reference. "Like any other service professional, a good web designer should be happy to refer you to other satisfied clients," says Mott. "Any reluctance to do so is a warning sign." Be sure that the web designer you choose has experience with the sort of website you are looking to construct. "If you want your website to allow online sales or have embedded videos, make sure the designer you choose has worked on websites with those capacities," Mott says. Be sure to check out your competitors to see what their websites offer and who designed them.

Here are some additional tips for working with website designers:

1. Know what you want. To identify the elements your website needs, first examine your competition's websites. What do other similar businesses offer? Detailed product catalogs? Online ordering or sales? Links to informational videos on YouTube that help customers better use the products? Think about what your business does and how you'd like the site to appear. The website of an antiques dealer should have a different appearance from that of a lawyer, dentist, or small manufacturer. A good web designer will understand this, but will still need your input. Create a detailed list of the elements you think the website needs and talk them over with the web designer. Make sure that the designer understands what you want.

2. Provide information. The more information a web designer has to work with, the better the ultimate result will be. Be sure to provide the designer with your company's marketing and promotional materials, including high-resolution photos and artwork, catalogs, brochures, advertisements, and news articles in which your business is mentioned. Such materials allow the website designer to make sure the website complements your other marketing efforts by maintaining design continuity.

3. Stay involved. Don't simply pass the project off to the designer. Even if you have created a detailed list of elements you want to see in the website, it is best to keep the process collaborative. The more communication between you and the designer, the better the website will ultimately look and the more it will function the way you want.

4. Keep control. While it will be necessary for the website designer to have access to the site during the design, and perhaps for ongoing maintenance, make sure that you retain administrative control of the website. That means making certain that the website's domain name is registered to your company, that the web hosting account (the account with the company that will keep the website on its servers) is in your business's name, and that you have the master password to the website and any email or ecommerce accounts.

5. Backup all data. Your website should be backed up on your company's own computers, so that it can be easily restored in the event of a disruption at the web hosting company. Your business's website is your property and it is important to make certain that you have access to its materials at your convenience.

This article is the third in a series to focus on website best practices for small businesses. Be sure to check out Part I on search engine optimization and Part II on how to use social networking to enhance your business's online profile.
Website Best Practices, Part I: Search Engine Optimization
What a small business owner needs to know about search engine optimization

by Reed Richardson

For small business owners looking to make their company's website work more effectively and bring in more customers, the journey will inevitably lead to the term "search engine optimization," or SEO, for short. SEO, strictly defined, is the technical fine-tuning of one's website so that it ranks higher in online searches, which can provide a potentially lucrative benefit to most small businesses since roughly four out of five online transactions begin with someone typing terms into a search engine.

But few of these searchers ever click past the first or second results page, so businesses that ignore SEO do so at their own peril. Then again, bringing in an expensive tech consultant still won't magically guarantee landing on that first results page, since even the savviest SEO experts are essentially making educated guesses as to how the complex algorithms at Google, Yahoo, Bing, and other online search engines work.

So, what's a budding entrepreneur whose company is low on capital to do? Pocket the cash you were going to use to hire that IT expert and instead take a few, fairly simple steps in the following three categories to put your website on the right track toward SEO success.

1. Content is king
Perhaps the foremost thing small business owners should keep in mind when search-engine optimizing their own website is to apply the same general principle used in the rest of their business: give the customer something of value worth looking for. On a website, this valuable content is typically words and pictures. (Fancy applications, like pop-up Flash video introductions, should be avoided because search engines don't index them very well.) As a result, one of the most basic and effective SEO techniques simply involves putting interesting, informative content on your website (articles, recommendations, company history, product explanations, blog posts, etc.). In addition, you should be populating that interesting content with between a half-dozen to two dozen carefully chosen keywords. These keywords are just that, key words or phrases that potential customers would likely type into an online search engine when looking for your company's products or services.
Some of these keywords may be obvious, but small business owners are often surprised by what exactly leads people to their website. So, to get a better idea of the real navigation habits of your website visitors, it's worth investigating which keywords best match your company in the online world. Google, which still dominates the marketplace thanks to the fact that it's used in two-thirds of all online searches, has two free applications that can help in this. The first, its AdWords keywords tool (https://adwords.google.com/select/KeywordToolExternal), is geared more toward prospective online advertisers but it can still offer some valuable insight, while the second is a more straightforward search-based keyword tool (http://www.google.com/sktool/#).

There are also external companies like Wordtracker and Keyword Discovery that, for a small fee starting at around $60 to $70 a month, will help you hone in on the most effective SEO keywords for your business and let you do the rest. (Both Wordtracker and Keyword Discovery currently offer free trials as well.) After you've chosen what look like a handful of on-target keywords, conduct a trial run with them embedded into your website's content, checking the results over time with a rank-tracker tool. (SEOmoz offers a free service that lets you track up to five rankings a day here: http://seomoz.org/rank-tracker.) You will probably find that you still need to tweak your keywords a bit to optimize your results.

If a few keywords on a webpage can be an effective page-rank booster, even more keywords should vault your website to the top of the heap, right? Wrong. Search engines like Google, wary that egregious keyword-stuffing will skew their results, actually punish those websites that engage in this kind of online babbling by lowering their rankings or banning them from the results altogether. Plus, if a business starts contorting its website to simply appease a search engine rather than to woo potential customers, chances are it'll be doing more harm than good in the long run anyway.

As a helpful guide, some SEO experts advise a ratio of one keyword or phrase per paragraph, which works out to roughly three to five percent of all text. Still, striking just the right keyword balance-enough to boost your page ranking but not so much as to make your text unreadable or anger the search engine gods-is a bit of an art, so trial and error is to be expected. (For a good primer on keyword integration into a small business website's text, go here: http://searchengineguide.com/stone-reuning/11-ways-you-can-maximize-keyword-exposur.php.)

 


2. Links are lifelines
Though keywords and content play an important role in SEO, a recent survey by the online research firm SEOmoz.org found that attributes associated with external links comprised the top three and four out of the top five ranking factors in determining overall page ranking. (See the survey results here: http://www.seomoz.org/article/search-ranking-factors#overview.) In essence, Google and other search engines interpret lots of external links pointing to your website as kind of an online proxy for your business's legitimacy and reputation, so small business owners cannot overlook link-building when optimizing their website. And to hit a real SEO home run regarding backlinks to your website, you should use, and encourage others to use, your chosen keywords as the clickable "anchor text" for the link. (For instance, Google would get way more bang for their SEO buck with a link to their website that reads: "To find something on the Internet, try Google's online search engine," instead of: For the best in online searching, check out Google's website here.)

"Links are like doors," explained Thomas Petty, CEO of the Bay Area Search Engine Academy, in a recent SmallBusinessComputing.com article on SEO link building. "The more you have, the more likely someone is likely to walk through them." (To read the whole article, go here: http://smallbusinesscomputing.com/biztools/article.php/3851486/SEO-Tips-for-Small-Business-How-to-Get-Good-Links.htm.)

And while building a bunch of these doors through random, guerilla-style posts elsewhere on the Internet may seem like an easy and harmless way to handle this, it isn't actually going to do much for your page ranking, because search engines also evaluate the quality of the source doing the linking.

Instead, a good place to start link-building involves enrolling your business in each of the major search engine's local business directories-Google Places, Bing Local, Yahoo Local-as well as other popular online business listings like SuperPages, YellowBook, Citysearch, and Yelp. By joining these free directories, you'll get greater exposure to customers in your geographical area plus more links from sources with sterling reputations, all without shelling out a dime. And don't forget to include more niche professional associations on this list; whether they be an industry-specific trade organization or a collegiate alumni group, if they can provide a solid spot for a link, take advantage. But to make the most of these steps, make sure your website is already geographically keyword-rich, which means having your business's physical address listed somewhere on every page of your website.

After you've accomplished that, it's time to activate a more long-term, link-building strategy, one that seeks out and places links at locations online where your potential customers might already be gathering. For example, posting worthwhile comments-be sure to include your company's web address, of course-on industry or business-related blogs can be a great way to get well-trafficked links. Or, joining in the comments related to a pertinent news story on your local newspaper or TV station's website can likewise lend your business and its website better search engine ranking. And social networking sites offer a plethora of linking opportunities for small business owners. But beware, just throwing a shameless marketing pitch, apropos of nothing, onto a blog, Facebook page, or news story's comments section will quickly earn your business a reputation as little more than a spammer and your page rankings could suffer accordingly.

3. Coding pays off
This last SEO area to focus on-coding-involves the more technical aspects of your website and is the area least noticed by potential customers, but ignoring it would still be a mistake. That's because implementing a few, fairly easy infrastructure tactics can return some noticeable dividends in terms of page ranking. For example, the fourth-highest page-ranking factor found in the recent SEOmoz survey was the simple act of including keywords in the title tag of every webpage. (To see an example of a simple, yet well-executed title tag, click on the survey again here http://seomoz.org/article/search-ranking-factors# and look to the very top of your browser's view frame. There, you'll see "Search Engine Ranking Factors ı SEOmoz," a title tag that includes a highly searchable phrase and the business's name.) By ensuring every page on your website has keywords inserted into the HTML title tags and that each one also has a distinct, page-specific title tag, you'll be making significant SEO progress.

Another relatively painless SEO must-do besides embedding keywords into your title tags involves enrolling your website in Google Analytics (http://google.com/analytics/). This free program lets you track where your business's online visitors come from and how they move in and around your website once they get there. Armed with this information, you can then begin to tweak your site to better attract potential customers via searches as well as enhance your website's "stickiness," or how well you keep visitors engaged on your site before leaving. What's more, just as you want your website's language and images to be engaging and easily navigable to these potential customers, so too should you verify that your website's technical language is fully understood by the search engines. To stay on top of this, it's recommended you periodically check for HTML coding hiccups and errors by plugging your web address into a free online verification tool like the one from W3C here: http://validator.w3.org/.

Finally, savvy small business owners must scour their websites for any other content that isn't easily interpreted by a search engine-like images and videos-and then tag or convert that information into text so that it contributes to your SEO efforts. Any photos on your website, for instance, should be tagged with HTML "alt text" that will give a search engine an idea of what's there. (For tips on how to write SEO-friendly alt text, check out: http://photographers-seo.com/seo/image/seo/image/5-things-writing-photo-alt-text/.) Likewise, a video tutorial embedded on your website that explains how one of your products work should be accompanied by either a text transcription or an instruction manual so those details can help your page ranking.

Undertaking a SEO campaign can seem daunting to a small business owner, particularly one who doesn't claim much technical aptitude. But by following a few simple rules and taking a handful of relatively easy steps, an entrepreneur can go a long way toward boosting their website's page ranking with a short amount of time and money.

This article is the first in a series to focus on website best practices for small businesses. Be sure to check in soon for Part II, on how to use Social Networking to enhance your business's online profile.
SBC Team

Business Tech

Posted by SBC Team Jul 2, 2009
These five high-tech products make a lot of low-tech sense

By Max Berry

 

It seems that there is always some new gadget to buy, some new breakthrough that you, the small business owner, supposedly can't live without. It can be hard to separate the essential business tools from the latest tech novelties. Here, to help you make some sense of the deluge, are five innovations that will truly put your business on the cutting edge.

 


1. Looking for an ultra-thin laptop at a reasonable price? The folks at MSI Computer have granted your wish. The MSI X-Slim X340 Notebook ($899; see us.msi.com for retail information) weighs in it a svelte 2.86 pounds and is only .78 inches thick at its widest point, making it ideal for easy travel. It is also the first notebook to utilize the Intel ULV CPU, which requires just 1/6th the power of a standard mobile CPU. The LCD monitor offers HD resolution and you'll have 320 GB of storage at your disposal. And did we mention it costs less than $900?

 


2. For office work on the go, Brookstone's Laptop Essentials Kit ($50, Brookstone.com) provides all the standard accessories of your desktop computer in a zippered travel case. The kit includes a USB numeric keypad, retractable optical mouse, and gooseneck USB light. Earbuds with an integrated microphone allow you to use Skype and other Internet-based phone services and a retractable high-speed Internet cable will help you log on even when doing business in a place without wireless access. A four-port USB hub is also included for additional peripherals, so you can utilize all the gadgets and accessories standard to your office no matter how far from home your business takes you.

 


3. Metal staples are flimsy, eco-offensive, and often lead to annoying nicks and scratches. Get rid of them altogether with an E3 Living Staple Free Stapler ($6.95; e3living.com). The contraption may sound like a contradiction in terms, but the staple free stapler punches out tiny strips of paper and uses them to sew together as many as five sheets. In addition to the environmental benefits and low likelihood of personal injury offered by E3 Living's product, you'll also save money on staples and have an easier time recycling paper since there are no metal scraps to deal with. If you're looking to fasten more than five sheets of paper, might we recommend jumbo sizes paper clips or reusable binding clasps?

 


4. If you're a serious techy, chances are you already have an iPhone. Why not soup it up with some applications designed with the small business owner in mind? PC2Me allows you to connect remotely to your Windows desktop and costs $29.95 for the year. QuickBooks Online gives you access to your QuickBooks data. The monthly cost of $9.95 covers you and your accountant. The Splurge app keeps your spending in line by tracking and organizing expenses while Billing Manager, free from Intuit, is great for easy invoicing on the go. Doing business internationally? TokTok Translator provides quick translation between Chinese, Japanese, English, French, Dutch, German, Italian, Spanish, and Arabic, among other languages. And, naturally, you'll want to stay abreast of all the latest gadgets to help your run your business. Get All The Tech is a preconfigured RSS reader that sends you feeds from tech sites like Engadget, Gizmodo, Slashdot, Techcrunch, and Wired.

 


5. It might not be a gadget, per se, but YouTube is an excellent technological resource for marketing your business. Simply transferring your local television spot to the web might be a good idea for your own web site, but YouTube presents a different kind of challenge-and opportunity. If you're a craftsman, make a video of yourself at work, documenting your process from beginning to end. Stone Brewery, of Escondido, California, has posted a dozen or so videos on YouTube offering an inside look at their brewing process-a craft beer aficionado's dream. Just remember that the site is a community of users looking to be entertained, not pitched to. Feature your product or service in a quirky way, like Orem, Utah's Blendtec did by producing a series of videos in which the high-powered blender manufacturer put its product to the test by attempting to blend odd items like glow sticks and hockey pucks. It all adds up to an innovative marketing scheme and-best of all-it's free. Participate in the site's discussion forums and comment on other videos to start getting your name out there. And don't forget to include your e-mail address and URL in your video. YouTube can bring people who wouldn't normally hear about your business directly to your door, or at least your inbox.
SBC Team

Play It Safe

Posted by SBC Team Sep 30, 2008
How to Protect Your Customers' Confidential Info

 

By Christopher Freeburn

 


Customer data may well be your business's most critical asset. Unfortunately, there are plenty of thieves who would like to gain access to it. Identity and credit card theft are burgeoning problems. Customers' names, addresses, and credit information are valuable commodities that thieves not only steal, but actually trade among themselves. Today's profusion of computer technology and online connectivity has proven not only a boon for business, but for thieves as well. Protecting your company's information is as vital as locking your office doors.

 


The World Wide Web of Hackers
There's almost no way to isolate your business from the Internet these days. Even the smallest businesses usually have web sites and email is now virtually a business requirement. That usually means that the computers you use for business are likely connected, either directly or through your company network, to the Internet. While there is no question that the Internet has been a huge boost to small business, it comes with serious security risks.

 


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The Internet connection that brings the world to your business's front door can also let unscrupulous thieves dive right into your company hard drives and gain access to vital customer and business data. "The best way to prevent that is to make sure that your company network and computers have a robust firewall and use the latest Internet security software available," says Cambridge, Massachusetts-based computer security expert Dan Smith. "This applies even if you outsource your company's online services to a web hosting company." If you don't know how to enable your firewall and security software properly, hire a network or computer expert to do it for you. "Your firewall is the first and best line of defense in keeping unwanted people out of your system," Smith explains. "If you don't pay enough attention to it you can find your network crippled and your data stolen."

 


A wide variety of Internet Security software packages are available for small businesses. Additionally, personal computers and network servers come with some form of internal firewalls that will work in concert with third-party Internet security software. Most of these programs feature an automatic update feature that allows the software to contact its manufacturer online and check for software updates. Since the battle between hackers and security software is never-ending, keeping the update feature active is crucial to receiving updates meant to combat the latest threats.

 


Isolate Data
Your company data can be threatened not only from the outside, but also from within your business as well. Last January, news organizations reported the story of a Florida architectural firm whose office manager, erroneously believing she was about to be fired, deleted seven years worth of company records, including millions of dollars worth of blueprints and drawings from the firm's computer. The company was able to recover much of the data, but only at great expense. In order to prevent accidental or deliberate loss or theft of data, it is a good idea to restrict access to the company network-or at least to the most sensitive data-to a few trusted, high-level employees. Most network software packages offer a variety of different password-based levels of access to the network and its assets.

 

Make sure that employees guard their individual passwords and that the passwords of employees who depart the business are deleted immediately.

 


Shredding to Security
Keeping your company's critical data secure often means more than simply keeping your computers free from hackers and the office doors securely locked. Too many companies forget that documents tossed out with the trash become instantly vulnerable to thieves or competitors.

 


There is no privacy in garbage, according to a 1998 Supreme Court ruling, which means anyone can grab a garbage bag from your firm left at the curb and legally sift through it. That means your competitors can legally acquire sensitive information about your business if you aren't careful enough to properly dispose of it. It also means that identify thieves might glean enough personal information regarding your customers to open credit cards accounts in their names, causing them substantial financial harm.

 


In order to protect your company and your customers, you should consider creating a formal company policy regarding document disposal. And then make certain that all employees understand and follow through with its implementation.

 


Any paper that contains customer names, account numbers, or billing information should be shredded. The same is true of company documents that provide employee names, social security numbers, payroll, medical insurance, home addresses, or salary information. But you should also be shredding any documents containing information valuable to your competitors. Sales numbers, financial analysis, marketing plans or reports, web site usage figures - all of these could be of potential interest to competing companies. Legal documents as well. In practice it's a good idea to shred any document that sheds light on your company's internal practices or arrangements.

 


Document shredder machines are available in a wide range of sizes and prices, with small units running under $60, making it easy for a small business to have several such machines where needed. Traditional shredders rend documents into narrow vertical strips. Newer cross-cut shredders slice the documents two ways, rendering them into confetti that is almost impossible to reconstruct.

 


Wireless Vulnerability
Once upon a time, connecting the computers in a small office meant running wires all over the place. Today, setting up a wireless network for a small or home-based business can take little more than a few hours work. But for all their convenience, wireless networks face a serious downside: security. Your wireless router broadcasts your network's data indiscriminately over a certain area (anywhere from a 100 to 300-feet radius from the router). Any computer equipped with a wireless network card within that area can receive the signals and access your network.

 


"The number of businesses that forget to install some level of encryption in their wireless networks is astonishing," says Dan Smith. "People who are scrupulous about installing Internet anti-virus programs just blank on wireless access security." But the consequences can be serious. "There are people who set up their laptops outside office buildings and shopping malls looking for vulnerable wireless networks," Smith explains. "Once they find one they can penetrate they'll poke around until they find some useful information." That can include customer data like credit card numbers and billing addresses or employee data like social security numbers. "Once they have anything like that, it can be used for theft or identity fraud, or sold to others for that purpose."

 


In order to prevent unwanted intrusions, wireless equipment manufacturers have developed a variety of encryption programs. Most wireless network equipment comes with two basic encryption systems: Wired Equivalence Protection (WEP) and (Wired Protected Access) WPA. These encrypt your wireless signal, requiring any wireless-capable computer to have the right encryption key to decode the signal. WPA is the more robust encryption protocol. Keeping firewalls enabled on all networked computers and changing network passwords is also recommended.
SBC Team

Digital Security Spotlight

Posted by SBC Team Dec 6, 2007
Don't ignore the issue of digital security, a network breach or a loss of data could threaten the survival of your business
By Nate Hardcastle

The digital revolution has given small businesses capabilities that were once the exclusive domain of their big competitors from fast, high quality publishing to instant global communication. But those technologies have also brought new dangers, including hackers, viruses, spyware, adware, and the loss of valuable data to insufficient backup. Luckily, there are numerous lines of defense available to guard your office against these new age threats.

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Safeguard Your Network
A recent study by the Small Business Technology Institute (SBTI) in San Jose, California found that most small businesses networks are inadequately protected and the problem is getting worse. "Small businesses are using increasingly sophisticated technology," says Patrick Cook, an analyst with SBTI. "But their digital security systems aren't keeping up, so they are increasingly vulnerable."

The study found that more than half of small businesses had experienced an information security incident in the previous 12 months, and one in ten small businesses had suffered five or more. Security is especially critical for small companies. Small firms have fewer resources than their larger competitors, so they tend to suffer disproportionately when security problems occur: For example, a negligible computer virus at a big corporation might cripple a small business. Many small businesses are strapped for time and cash, however, so they often fail to take sufficient precautions to protect themselves. That's a big mistake. Security investments not only keep your company safe they pay for themselves many times over.

Major security breaches like computer hackers or viruses can result in catastrophic data loss or theft, but the majority of these occurrences have less obvious repercussions. "The biggest problem was lost productivity," says Cook. "Viruses, adware, spyware and other intrusions lead to downtime for networks and employees, and that costs businesses a lot of money."

Mike Faiola, president of Boston area printing company Arlington Lithograph, learned that lesson seven years ago. The 25 employee business upgraded to an entirely digital printing process in 1995 and experienced its first virus in 1998. "Four of our six workstations were disabled," says Faoila. "Everything ground to a halt." Faiola discovered that the company's anti-virus software was six months out of date. A quick upgrade took care of the problem and the experience made Faiola a true believer in the importance of data security. "That was probably the best thing that could have happened to us," he says. "Everything we do depends on our computers. Security takes a small investment of time and money and it pays for itself even if it just prevents one workstation from going down for one day."

The following steps will help you spend your money wisely and keep your data safe.

Put up firewalls. Firewalls prevent hackers from peering inside your network. They come as both hardware and software products your firm should have both. Make sure firewalls are installed both on your computer network and on each computer, including those connecting remotely.

Patch holes automatically. Make sure your operating systems have all the latest security patches. This is a snap: Simply go to the OS maker's Web site and sign up for automatic security updates. The site will upload any new patches to your computers as soon as they become available. Microsoft OneCare, a subscription based security program for Windows Vista and XP, performs these updates automatically.

Use free security tools. For example, Windows Vista contains a high quality built in software firewall and an anti-phishing filter that warns you when you visit a nonsecure site. Symantec, Microsoft and other software companies offer free spyware scans on their Web sites.

Hide your wireless network. Wireless networks are relatively easy for malefactors to exploit. Use Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), which encrypts wireless data and prevents intruders. Avoid older systems such as Wired Equivalent Privacy, which have less protection. If possible, restrict your wireless use to portable devices like PDAs and Blackberries, as cellular wireless service which relies on code division multiple access (CDMA) technology, is more secure than traditional WiFi. "A person can't operate cellular wireless service unless they have a license to employ the technology," explains Mark Boggs, manager, data sales for Verizon Wireless. An unlicensed spectrum like WiFi, on the other hand, is not so hard to crack.

Inoculate against viruses. Install up to date antivirus software on every networked computer. Microsoft's OneCare package includes anti-virus software that updates automatically, saving you and your employees the hassle. "We liberate small business owners from having to think about whether their security coverage is good," says Microsoft corporate marketing manager Larry Brennan.

A word about Microsoft OneCare: The package, which contains anti-virus, anti-spyware, anti-phishing, and firewall programs, acts as a network watchdog-detecting security breaches, alerting you of their presence, and correcting them with the click of a button. However the subscription service is only available for three computers at a time. Larger networks will require multiple subscriptions.

Secure Data Storage
While the paperless office never really arrived, any small business owner will tell you that the amount of critical information email correspondence, credit card numbers, business plans, sales and marketing data stored on a company's computers has increased exponentially. Vastly increased, too, would be the cost of losing any or all of that precious data. Many small businesses still rely on traditional backups like external hard drives and basic CD/DVD-burners to secure their company's records. Such methods may be sufficient for storing relatively small amounts of data, but they are labor intensive and capacity is limited. By contrast, Quantum Corp's GoVault Removable Disk Drive Solution, a storage and backup system designed expressly for small businesses, offers up to 20 times the storage space. Its deduplication technology backs up data as users perform updates, eliminating the need to resave an entire file every time you or one of your employees makes a change. The system, which uses a simple, Windows like drag and drop interface, runs on an internal or tabletop dock and includes removable hard disk cartridges for on or offsite data storage.

But GoVault is still built on the traditional hard disk model of storage and backup. The removable disk cartridges, like DVDs and CDs, are easily lost or, worse stolen, resulting not only in the loss of company records, but possibly in a security risk.

There is nothing traditional about Microsoft's Complete PC Backup. Currently available in Vista's Business, Ultimate, and Enterprise editions, the program takes a digital photo of your existing hard drive and saves it to a disk. In the unfortunate event that your hard drive crashes (and wasn't backed up by a server), the disk that houses this image, when inserted into a PC with a blank hard drive, will restore and configure all of your lost data, settings, and preferences on the new drive. And it's user friendly. "The whole process takes thirty to sixty seconds," says Austin Wilson, Product Manager for Windows Vista. A picture worth a thousand gigabytes.

Offsite Data Storage
Once upon a time, only big companies with huge IT budgets could afford the luxury of transmitting their data for backup and storage in secure, remote locations. But the Internet has made this an option for even very small businesses. Online data storage is an exploding field with both established names and newcomers all vying to store your company's data.

There are a number of benefits of storing and backing up your data offsite. Physical security is the most notable. If your offices are damaged or destroyed, your critical business information will still be secure miles away, whereas, any on site data storage device may not survive. Online storage also permits easier access to data, especially for companies with traveling representatives or multiple offices, without clogging up email systems or company servers with large files. Better still, online storage is far more easily expandable. No need to buy new equipment for the office and endure the disruption of installation as more storage capacity is required simply purchase more storage space from the provider. Online storage also eliminates the need to maintain the storage devices or deal with technical issues on your own. Many online storage providers also offer software that automatically backs up all your company's data at set intervals, eliminating the chance of data loss due to forgetfulness.

Iomega (iomega.com), the maker of various hard disk storage media, offers iStorage, which allows small business owners to store data on Iomega's secured servers using highly encrypted data access and transmission. Data stored on iStorage can be shared by any number of authorized users, eliminating the need to send large files by email and freeing up space on users' hard drives. Data in iStorage is protected from viruses and system crashes and can be downloaded to users' laptops or PDA's from any location. One gigabyte of storage space on iStorage's servers will cost $249 per year; larger data capacities are available.

A number of other companies offer online data storage with similar services, including HyperOffice (hyperoffice.com), eVault (evault.com), C I Host (cihost.com), and Spare Backup (sparebackup.com). These companies offer a variety of data access, storage and backup features at widely varying pricing structures. All offer secure, encrypted data storage and transmission and technical support.
Guarding your business against digital intrusion and data loss is essential and can make the difference between the success and failure of your enterprise. The process may not be easy, and certainly will require an investment of time and cash. But those investments will reap generous returns. Protecting your firm from the various threats it faces may increase productivity, decrease losses to theft, and keep you afloat after a calamitous event, but its greatest benefit may be the vast improvement in your peace of mind.

Digital Security Checklist
Everyday practices that will help keep your data safe.

1.) Use powerful passwords. For passwords to do their job, they should contain at least eight characters and some combination of upper and lower case letters, digits and symbols. Make sure everyone at your company changes passwords every few months.
2.) Surf with care. Enable your Web browser's security settings (you usually can find these in the "preferences" menu), and never click on pop up ads. Microsoft's OneCare and Windows Vista can warn you when you're approaching an unsafe site and protect you from malware.
3.) Email intelligently. Never open attachments from unknown senders, or attachments with extensions you don't recognize. Make sure you have antivirus software running when opening attachments.
4.) Audit your security systems. Hire an IT consultant to perform an annual security audit that includes an examination of every machine at the company.
SBC Team

Protect Your Business

Posted by SBC Team Oct 21, 2007
You and your colleagues have invested untold amounts of time, energy and capital into your business. You want to protect it from potential threats - ranging from burglars to computer viruses to fire.
By Reed Richardson

Security is especially critical for small companies. Small firms have fewer resources than their larger competitors, so they tend to suffer disproportionately when security problems occur: For example, a negligible theft or computer virus at a big corporation might cripple a small business. Many small businesses are strapped for time and cash, however, so they often fail to take sufficient precautions to protect themselves. That's a big mistake. Security investments not only keep your company safe - they pay for themselves many times over. The following sections outline the most important steps you can take to protect your firm's information, assets and employees.

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Digital Security

The digital revolution has given small businesses capabilities that were once the exclusive domain of their big competitors - from fast, high-quality publishing to instant global communication. But those technologies also have brought new dangers, including hackers, viruses, worms, Trojan horses, spyware, adware and other digital beasties.

A recent study by the Small Business Technology Institute (SBTI) in San Jose, California, found that most small businesses are inadequately protected - and the problem is getting worse. "Small businesses are using increasingly sophisticated technology," says Patrick Cook, an analyst with SBTI. "But their digital security systems aren't keeping up, so they are increasingly vulnerable."

The study found that more than half of small businesses had experienced an information security incident in the previous 12 months, and one in ten small businesses had suffered five or more. Some of those incidents resulted in catastrophic data loss or theft, but the majority had less obvious repercussions. "The biggest problem was lost productivity," says Cook. "Viruses, adware, spyware and other intrusions lead to downtime for networks and employees, and that costs businesses a lot of money."

Mike Faoila, president of Boston-area printing company Arlington Lithograph, learned that lesson seven years ago. The 25- employee business upgraded to an entirely digital printing process in 1995 - and experienced its first virus in 1998. "Four of our six workstations were disabled," says Faoila. "Everything ground to a halt."

Faoila discovered that the company's antivirus software was six months out of date. A quick upgrade took care of the problem - and the experience made Faoila a true believer in the importance of data security. "That was probably the best thing that could have happened to us," he says. "Everything we do depends on our computers. Security takes a small investment of time and money - and it pays for itself even if it just prevents one workstation from going down for one day."

The moral: Investments in network security can boost your bottom line. Cook recommends increasing your business's digital security expenditures in line with your investments in computers, servers, and networking equipment.

The following steps will help you spend that money wisely:

Put up firewalls.
Firewalls prevent hackers from peering inside your network. They come as both hardware and software products - your firm should have both. Make sure firewalls are installed both on your computer network and on each computer, including those connecting remotely.

Use powerful passwords.
For passwords to do their job, they should contain at least eight characters and some combination of upper-and lower-case letters, digits, and symbols. Make sure everyone at your company changes passwords every few months.

Patch holes automatically.
Make sure your operating systems have all the latest security patches. This is a snap: Simply go to the OS maker's Web site and sign up for automatic security updates. The site will upload any new patches to your computers as soon as they become available.

Use free security tools.
For example, Windows XP contains a high-quality built-in software firewall, and Symantec, Microsoft and other software companies offer free spyware scans on their Web sites.

Inoculate against viruses.
Install up-to-date anti-virus software on every networked computer. Make sure it's set to download updates automatically.

Surf with care.
Enable your Web browser's security settings (you usually can find these in the "preferences" menu), and never click on pop-up ads.

Email intelligently.
Never open attachments from unknown senders, or attachments with extensions you don't recognize.

Back up data files.
Assign one employee daily back-up duty, and test the system regularly to see if information can be restored from the backup copies.

Hide your wireless network.
Wireless networks are relatively easy for malefactors to exploit. Use Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), which encrypts wireless data and prevents intruders. Avoid older systems such as Wired Equivalent Privacy, which have less protection.

Audit your security systems.
Hire an IT consultant to perform an annual security audit that includes an examination of every machine at the company.

Vital Records Protection
Chances are, your business would be in big trouble if a fire or natural disaster destroyed documents such as customer lists, contracts, invoices, and insurance documents. In fact, Steve Aronson of the records protection firm Fire King International reports that only half of all businesses that experience total records loss survive the following year.

The good news: It's relatively simple to protect such documents. Store them in file cabinets that are rated by Underwriter Laboratories to withstand one hour of fire as well as heavy impacts. Impact protection is critical, since large fires typically cause roofs or floors to cave in. Such cabinets typically cost two to three times the amount of an ordinary steel filing cabinet - a small investment to protect your firm's most valuable records.

Digital records stored on CDs, hard drives, and other digital media are more sensitive, so they need greater protection. Be sure to keep those records in a data safe rated by Underwriter Laboratories to keep contents below 125 degrees and 80% humidity for at least an hour during a fire.

Physical Location Security

Many small businesses will be well served by hiring a security vendor to monitor their premises and deter robbery, vandalism and other physical threats. Security vendors can tailor a system that keeps a lookout using digital video cameras and a variety of sensors, and then relays important information to key business members and law enforcement. (The cost will vary widely depending on your security needs.) Select a reputable vendor recommended by your chamber of commerce or other small businesspeople and certified by the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association (NBFAA).

Meanwhile, take the following security precautions:

  • Make frequent deposits to reduce the amount of cash on hand.

  • Maintain adequate lighting, both inside and outside your facility.

  • Eliminate hiding places around the premises by keeping grounds clean and spacing out trees and bushes.

  • Change locks regularly, particularly if you have high employee turnover.

  • Use safes that carry Underwriter Laboratories ratings of five or higher.

  • Contact local police about performing a security audit

Fraud

Fraud is more common - and more costly - than you might think. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) estimates that the typical business loses 6% of its annual revenue to fraud. Losses are even worse for small businesses: Small businesses that suffered from fraud lost a median of $98,000 - more than all but the very largest organizations. Create a positive work environment. "Employee resentment creates an environment ripe for fraud," says Larry Cook, a fraud examiner in Kansas City. Some essential elements of a positive environment include:

Integrity at the top. If the owner takes cash from the till without recording it, he sends the message that doing so is okay.

Written job descriptions. Job descriptions create clear responsibilities, so employees don't feel put-upon.

Open lines of communication and clear lines of authority. Workers need to know that complaints will be dealt with fairly and expediently.

Separate financial responsibilities. It's best if the people who handle the money are not the same people who record transactions. Limit access to valuable assets and information. Such items include cash, tools, and other pricey equipment, intellectual property, and accounting and human resources records. Create strong fraud policies. Fraud and ethics policies should be written and distributed to all employees - including senior management. The ACFE found that the higher a fraudulent employee's rank, the more expensive the fraud. Conduct thorough background checks. Examine an applicant's criminal record, driving record, and history of civil lawsuits, and verify the information on the resume or application. Look for warning signs such as arrests for violent offenses or lawsuits for fraudulent conduct or collection of funds. Important: The applicant must sign a release allowing you to look into these matters, or you risk running afoul of privacy laws. Build an anonymous reporting system. The majority of fraud that's discovered is reported by whistle-blowing employees.

As a result, companies with confidential reporting mechanisms lose only half as much to fraud as those without them, according to the ACFE. Make sure employees, customers, and vendors know about the system. You can outsource your reporting system to a vendor, or simply maintain a phone line that goes straight to voice mail. Perform regular and irregular audits. You can hire a security firm to gauge your fraud-prevention controls. That's likely to be expensive - typically more than $10,000. Alternatively, fraudinvestigation firm CVA Solutions offers a well-regarded vulnerability assessment at ifvat.com. Use video cameras - but only where necessary. Closed circuit cameras are one of the best ways to deter employee theft, and advances in digital technology have made them far more affordable and easier to use. Employees generally don't mind surveillance cameras, as long as they are clearly used to prevent fraud - not to catch loafing. Investigate incidents promptly. Doing so will discourage future fraud, and encourage whistle blowers.

Guarding your business against digital intrusion, records loss, robbery, and fraud is essential and can make the difference between the success or failure of your enterprise. The process may not be easy, and certainly will require an investment of time and cash - two things in short supply at many small businesses. But those investments will reap generous returns. Protecting your firm from the various threats it faces may increase productivity, decrease losses to theft, and keep you afloat after a calamitous event - and it also will dramatically improve your peace of mind.

Reed Richardson is an associate writer/editor for Business 24/7 magazine.

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