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Small Business Web Holdouts: Unsearched, Unfound, Unfulfilled

Small Business Web Holdouts: Unsearched, Unfound, Unfulfilled

Who's afraid of the Big Bad Web? A lot of small businesses, that's who. For the most part, that fear appears to be grounded in a lack of information about the actual costs and benefits of operating a Web site and engaging in some strategic e-marketing efforts.

By Jeff Meisner
02/06/09 4:00 AM PT

No matter where one turns on the Internet these days, it's virtually impossible to avoid being bombarded by advertising in one form or another. Banner ads. Video ads. Display ads. Search engine marketing. Ads on MySpace. Ads on Facebook. The only area of the Web left untouched by advertising may be government-run sites.

Web marketing, in large part, is the province of companies with enough money to plaster their messages, goods and services all over the Internet. Missing from this equation is the traditional engine of American commerce: the small business.

Indeed, a recent study showed that there is a major disconnect between the way most consumers look for goods and services on the Internet and the way small businesses use the Web to advertise.

The study, which surveyed nearly 4,000 U.S. Internet users on the tools they use to find local businesses, was conducted last November by Nielsen and WebVisible. Participants in the survey included 261 small business owners.

Here's what Nielsen and WebVisible discovered: Search is the No. 1 choice of consumers and small business owners alike when looking for a local product or service on the Internet. Yet, half of all small businesses spent less than 10 percent of their marketing budgets on Internet ads.

In essence, most small businesses are missing out on a huge segment of the consumer population that turns to Internet search engines such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft's Live Search.

The Great Divide

"Local business is the last, vast untapped piece of online marketing space," said Kevin Ryan, chief marketing officer at WebVisible, which offers a suite of software tools and services designed to help small businesses run online advertising and marketing campaigns.

The biggest problem small businesses face when it comes to Web marketing is an attachment to an old way of doing business. It's clear in many cases that small businesses simply don't understand the inherent power of the Internet as a way to reach their customers, Ryan said.

Here's an example: A consumer looking for a plumber, attorney, insurance agent or electrician rarely conducts a search using the name of a local business but rather types in keywords such as "plumber and the Bronx" or "electricians and 06850," the ZIP code for Norwalk, Conn. Then, a page of search results with local businesses comes up, and the consumer goes on from there, he said.

"It's very difficult to convince a small business that in the eyes of a search engine, their brand doesn't have nearly the value they think it does," noted Ryan. "What they fail to realize is that most consumers will go to an online source such as a search engine or even the Yellow Pages directory first."

In fact, 63 percent of consumers turn to the Internet first when looking for local products and services, according to the Nielsen/WebVisible survey.

At the same time, only 44 percent of small businesses surveyed said they had a Web site.

"That explains why 40 percent of consumers said they have trouble finding a local business they know exists," Ryan observed.

Small Biz Snapshot: Helena, Mont.

The Helena Area Chamber of Commerce in Montana has about 860 local businesses as members. About 75 percent of those businesses are small businesses -- that is, businesses with 25 employees or less, according to the chamber's marketing and communications director, Barry Houser.

"I would say the majority of the businesses that comprise our membership still don't have a Web presence," Houser told the E-Commerce Times.

As the state capitol, Helena is by and large a government town. Outside of government, the major industries include health care and tourism.

"We're centrally located between Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park," Houser said. "So, fishing, skiing and snowmobiling are big attractions here."

While many big-box companies such as Costco, Wal-Mart and Bed Bath & Beyond have started to move into the Helena area, the vast majority of businesses there are "small mom and pop" shops, he said.

Like small businesses in every corner of the U.S., these mom and pops don't have the budgets to promote their goods and services the way the big-box stores do, making the Internet almost a vital component of their marketing efforts, noted Houser.

"We try to encourage them to take advantage of their membership with the chamber to get more of a presence on the Web," he said.

The Helena chamber has an online directory that is searchable by business name and type. Businesses that already have Web sites can link to the chamber's site too.

Doesn't have to Break the Bank

One of the chief reasons small business owners give for not having an Internet presence is that it's too expensive to put up and maintain a Web site.

It doesn't have to be that way though, said WebVisible's Ryan.

"We have a number of pricing models," he said. "We can accommodate budgets from US$200 a month to $20,000 a month and beyond."

What's most critical is that whatever route a small business owner chooses to go with in terms of a Web presence, it has to suit their specific needs.

"Alfonso the tailor doesn't want to check emails all day long," Ryan said. "He wants to receive an SMS (short message service) text when someone needs something. The diamond jeweler doesn't want to spend all day answering stupid questions from someone that doesn't know what they want to buy."

Situated in the heart of downtown Seattle is the Seattle Mystery Bookshop. The store's owner, J.B. Dickey, has been selling mysteries, and nothing but mysteries, for years.

His shelves are lined with paperback and hard cover books written by authors local to the Pacific Northwest, such as G.M. Ford, as well as nationally acclaimed writers like James Ellroy and Michael Connelly.

Dickey has had a Web site in various iterations for 10 years.

"It started out as a way to just have a presence on the Web and have information about the shop out there," he told the E-Commerce Times. "It evolved into a place where we post our quarterly newsletter, an updated calendar of events such as author signings, and a shop blog. It's also information that's always out there, even when the shop is closed."

The blog serves a variety of purposes. It gives customers an inside take on what Dickey and his staff of well-read mystery lovers are reading and why they're reading it. It also lets publishers know that the bookshop is getting the word out about its books and writers, Dickey said.

The one thing the shop's Web site doesn't have is a shopping cart.

"That requires a completely different level of security and expertise that we don't want to fool with," he said. "But even without the shopping cart, the Web site is a big help."

Also, the Seattle Mystery Bookshop's Web site is relatively cheap.

"It's not a big expense," Dickey said. "We pay someone to run it. We send her updates, and she gets them up on the site right away."


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