Why Your Small Business Needs a Web Site

As I was searching Google for “small business tools” today (as I regularly do), I came across an article written by CPA Gene Marks called “We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Web Sites” (BusinessWeek), and I was shocked.

Mr. Marks begins with a “statistic”: 40% of small businesses don’t have a web site. He then uses this statistic as support for his central thesis, which is simply that not every small business needs a web site. I’m sure you can easily spot the non sequitur. (Answer: Just because some small business owners don’t have a web site, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they don’t need a web site.) In fact, there are so many reasons why you should have a web site that I decided not just to comment on Mr. Marks’ post, but to write a rebuttal article dispelling the web site myths Mr. Marks seems so eager to propagate.

Myth #1: Site Rank is the only indicator of web site value.

Mr. Marks asks you to do a “fun exercise”: check the rankings for some of your local small businesses and see how low their sites rank online, “[w]hich means that no one, other than [the site creator’s] mother (and my mother), is visiting it.” Marks’ conclusion? You shouldn’t waste money on a site that nobody visits. When people say they are “ranked” they usually mean indexed by a search engine for a particular term. Indexing is only important if you are using search engines to drive traffic to your site. For instance if you provide landscaping services in Austin, Texas, it would be valuable to you for people searching for “landscaping in Austin” to be shown your website as a search result. However, the majority of small business owners simply need to be easy to find for people who are looking for them specifically. Your goal would be to provide information to people who are trying to learn more about your business, which is the main reason why you need a web site. Mr. Marks would have you believe that, if you’re going to create anything online, a single web page will suffice. By the end of this article, I will have explained why a web page is not a viable solution to lacking a web site.

Myth #2: Creating a web site takes lots of time, money and outside help.

Mr. Marks makes a distinction between a web page (which he admits most small business owners should create) and a web site, which he defines as “a collection of many Web pages” with “[l]ots of pretty pictures…Flash videos…Pop-up windows…High-definition graphics.” But it’s a distinction that didn’t need to be made at all. Just because a “web site” contains multiple “web pages,” it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily harder to create than a single web page. In fact, creating a web site is the next logical step if you already have a pre-existing web page (which I’ll explain in the next section).

Quite a few people still think that if they don’t have the first clue about setting up a web site, they ought to immediately go out and hire a bunch of expensive experts, or, as Mr. Marks likes to say, “one of those turtleneck-and-vest-wearing, greasy-haired propeller heads.” But the truth is that many free website builders and site creation wizards give you the ability to do what the experts do, without having to spend many hours or dollars. The most popular and affordable web hosting providers like GoDaddy include such tools with their service for free. You can use and edit pre-created web page templates or even input your own HTML or CSS code. There are even a few free flash site builders out there that can help you create a site that looks like it was professionally done.

My advice? Sign up for a free trial of any web hosting service and test it out. You’ll find that it’s a lot easier and more fun than you probably thought it would be. Just last week, our entire office did an exercise that proved this point to be true. Each person, myself included, signed up for a web hosting service and created sites using free site builders and/or free web site creation tools found online. At the end of the week, everyone from our Office Manager to me, a writer with little to no experience in programming or graphic design, had easily created a professional web site that could rival many others already indexed on search engines.

Myth #3: Web sites are only good for web businesses.

The assertion that websites are good for web based businesses is intuitively obvious. The assertion that they are worthless to non web based businesses is ridiculous. Many small service businesses such as lawyers, accountants, etc. use their websites to inform potential customers about their services and to generate leads by capturing information from such potential clients. These are clearly not web based businesses, but they will clearly benefit from an easy to use, professional looking website.

Mr. Marks argues, however, that web sites are necessary for some specific small businesses (i.e. “if you’re in the Internet porn business, or sell things online”) and superfluous for others (i.e. “gas station owners, restaurateurs, insurance agents, shopkeepers…CPAs, architects, landscapers, plumbers, and electricians”). The latter group, he says, doesn’t have money to waste on web sites because they need to invest elsewhere. “They’re O.K. with no web site,” Marks declares.

My question to him would be, “Are you O.K. with just O.K.?” Does O.K. sound like a small business that’s exceedingly successful? The fact is that if you’re operating your small business under a “simply getting by” mentality, then you certainly will not get by, especially not in this economy—when each and every potential new customer plays a crucial part in helping your business survive.

Let’s use one of the groups that Mr. Marks claims can get by without a website, restaurateurs, as an example. Just a few days ago, I decided to Google one of my favorite local restaurants. But instead of an official web site, I saw a MySpace page at the top of the search results. And I groaned.

What’s wrong with a MySpace page (or Facebook page, or any other type of page which might serve as a business card or brochure for your business)? A MySpace page is created for MySpace users, just as a Facebook page is created for Facebook users. So, the problem is that there just wouldn’t be any way to transcend that very specific user-niche with just a single “web page.” This is why Mr. Marks is very wrong. A MySpace page ought to be a supplement to a web site—not the other way around. In fact, if you’re actually paying somebody to host a single page that displays nothing but contact information, then you’re probably throwing your money away.

Imagine if the restaurant I Googled had a web site where information was easily accessible to any and every user. Imagine pages of information—not only contact information and business hours, but a full-scale menu, a page to place orders for delivery or pick-up, a page about the products they use, the freshness and quality of the food, a feedback section or forum for people to discuss what they like or don’t like, pop-ups with weekly coupons or daily specials. That, my friend, is a full-fledged web site. And it is something that could very well attract enough people to keep a restaurant operational for a long time. Finally, it is something you can create yourself for as low as $10 a month and a couple of days.

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