When consumers start shopping for goods and services, they let their fingers do the walking – straight to their keyboards. Webvisible and Nielsen research shows that 82 percent of customers find goods and services through search engines, and 50 percent go to search engines first. So it's shocking that more than half of small businesses – 55 percent – still don't have websites, according to a June 16 AP report [link unavailable]. That figure comes from a Google/Ipsos survey of 3,800 small businesses last year and represents only a tiny improvement over 58 percent without websites the year before.
In addition to making a business more visible to consumers looking for what it sells and expanding its marketing geography, a website can make a business more efficient. A San Antonio clothing consignment shop, for example, reports that simply posting information about inventory, brands and designers on its website has cut down on time-consuming and interruptive phone calls. Instead of having to run down the whole list on the phone, sales staff can just refer callers to the website.
Even if it does nothing else, having a website – or even just a domain name with a holding page – tells prospective customers that yours is a bona fide business. To consumers, not having a web address can look as fishy as doing business out of a post office box.
The main thing standing between one out of two small businesses and their customers is a collection of illusions about the cost and difficulty of having a business website.
- "I can't afford it." Websites can be expensive, but most aren't. It depends on how much you want it to do. The more bells and whistles, the higher the cost. Most developers start at around $3,000. An Oklahoma snack food business is paying $4,500, and the site isn't even finished yet. But you can also get your website built for free, or next to it. (See below.) Registering your domain runs about $10 a year, and hosting in most cases is $120 a year or less.
- "It's too complicated and time-consuming." If you know how to work word-processing software, you know how to build your website – no coding required. "It can take less than 20 minutes to set up," says AP business writer Joseph Pisani. You can choose from literally thousands of designs from WordPress.com and set up your choice with just about any host. Google, Wix.com, SquareSpace.com and Weebly.com all offer free, easy-to-use software and free hosting. (But there's a catch to that.) Adobe Business Catalyst offers free, easy-to-use and well designed software, with hosting starting at $11 a month. If you're still diffident, there are even web design companies in India that can do whatever you ask them to for $20 an hour.
- "I'll have to keep paying someone to make changes."The beauty of all these applications is that you don't have to pay an outside developer $300 or more per month for maintenance. With software that's easier to work with than Microsoft Word, you can add, delete or update content; add or switch photos; even add, delete or reorder entire pages.
Look before you leap
But before you go with some of that free software and hosting, there are some pitfalls to watch out for.
One is that instead of having your own domain, your URL may show weebly.com or google.com, not [YourCompanyName].com, as the domain. While having a website makes your business look more bona fide, having your site at someone else's domain makes it look less so.
Another is that you may be locked into your free hosting and software forever. Except for WordPress and a few other open-source applications, most free hosting comes with proprietary software that most other web hosts don't support. This means that if you ever decide to change hosting, you'll have to rebuild your design and content from scratch.
So by all means, do the due diligence. But don't let that become yet another excuse for not setting up your online presence. Being locked into a web host and its proprietary software isn't the greatest thing, but it sure beats being locked into invisibility from your customers.