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2 Posts authored by: akgold

Your Web Presence

Posted by akgold Oct 16, 2007
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.”
The Internet levels the playing field and makes it possible for small businesses to compete with large corporations. If you are new to the world of online advertising, here are some tips on how to get started:
By Reed Richardson

Paid Search
Paid Search allows an advertiser to pay for placement of a site listing or ad within or near a search engine's results. For instance, if your company sells tires, and you want people on sites like Yahoo!® and Google™ searching for the word "tire" to more easily find you, you can pay to have a link to your company's site prominently displayed whenever someone searches for the word "tire."

This is an efficient way to use your advertising budget because you only pay when someone clicks on your link or ad. The cost-per-click (CPC) rate varies and is determined by how often users search for the word, how often they click, and how much competition there is among advertisers to be associated with the word.


Paid Search allows you to gauge the effectiveness of your advertising in real time. You can track: how many people are seeing your ad, how many are clicking through, and what the exact cost is to you. Hint: Using a less general term, like "laptop" instead of "computer," sometimes costs less and is more effective.

Email Marketing
While "spam" is a huge problem that can reduce the effectiveness of email, consider that in the fourth quarter of 2004 the number of orders per email message delivered was 0.35 percent. This was an all-time high, and much higher than the previous record of 0.30 percent (according to a 2004 DoubleClick study). That means there is, on average, one sale for every 300 email solicitations sent.

One of the reasons for this improvement is that marketers have learned the key is to target a specialized list of recipients, rather than mailing to as many people as possible. That's because the effectiveness of your email is largely dependent upon the quality of your list.

For example, if you own a dog grooming business, you might acquire a list of people in your area who have dogs enrolled in obedience schools, or people who buy high-end dog supplies. Any list you use should be an "opt-in" list, where the people have given the list provider permission to send commercial messages. Recipients should also have the option of having their names removed from the list.

With email marketing, you will generally pay a cost-per-thousand-impressions (CPM) rate, which is based on the number of impressions made over a period of time. Or, a cost-per-action (CPA) rate that is based on the number of actions made in response to your message. An action can be defined as a sale, a new customer, or simply a click.

Local Listings
People are searching online for local business information with increasing frequency, creating new opportunities for small businesses to connect with customers. According to a recent research study, 54% of search users have substituted local Internet searches for the phone book, with local Web search growing faster than general Web search.5 Numerous services have sprouted up to meet this growing demand, including the local products of major search engines like Yahoo! and Google, traditional yellow page providers such as SuperPages, and smaller local Web sites specific to a city or region.

One way to increase your visibility to local searchers is by listing your business with one or more of these local search sites. Creating a listing helps ensure your business information is displayed in the results when people are searching in your area. For example, if you sell lamps, you could create a listing under “lighting” and “housewares” to help ensure people searching in those categories see your business in the results. Creating a listing also helps ensure that potential customers receive up-to-date information about your business, which is especially important if you’ve recently moved or changed your phone number.

Most local search services enable you to create a free listing that includes basic contact information (e.g., phone number, address, and hours of operation). For a fee, some guarantee more prominent placement within search results or allow you to provide additional information (e.g., tagline, logo, coupons) to help potential customers notice your listing.

Web Site
It's a no-brainer that the Internet can help you increase your sales and profitability, which in turn can increase the value of your business. According to Forrester Research, e-commerce sales hit more than $75 billion last year.

You should also know that of the more than 300 million people worldwide online today, more than 85 million are in the United States. There are more than 1 billion Web pages in existence. These facts mean you could tap into an amazing opportunity.

A Web site can be a very effective means of reaching new and existing customers and expanding your geographic presence. Breaking down geographic barriers is a good thing for any business owner.

A Web site provides company exposure that customers can access at any time. Hence, a professional Web site is an important first step in tapping the power of the Web. You may wish to hire a consultant to help you with the marketing of your Web site. Simple tactics such as utilizing search engine optimization tools — making sure your Web site appears toward the top of a list when someone conducts a search — can significantly increase the hit rate on your site.

Many larger firms initially gauge the credibility of smaller firms as a business partner by the professionalism of the smaller firm's Web site. Additionally, a Web site offers the ability to capture the information of existing and potential customers, which bolsters the efforts of your sales team.

Reed Richardson is an Associate Editor/Writer for Business 24/7 Magazine.

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