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Commentary > Wastler's Wanderings
Small fry, big boys and chain mail
Better searching may be giving small businesses ... well, some of them ... a leg up.
January 11, 2005: 7:54 AM EST

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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - There's a little medieval armor shop in Ohio that made a few bucks more this Christmas because of the Internet.

And an electronics shop in Indiana.

And a specialty hardware outfit in Vermont.

And an art gallery in California.

I know they did better because it's my money they got (actually the art gallery has a co-worker's money). And they wouldn't have gotten this money if they hadn't been on the Internet. That's how I (and my co-worker) found them.

"We've been getting some interest (from the Internet), some business," said the medieval store owner when I called to ask a question about his chain mail coifs.

I'm willing to bet a lot of small businesses around the country saw a little bit better Christmas this year ... provided they had some sort of Web presence. About half of the folks around CNN/Money bought something from a small operator during the holidays. (And nearly everyone got something from one of the big boys, like Amazon or Overstock.)

Of course, small businesses using the Web is not a new story. This year is probably a little bit different, though. Why? Because of the explosion in the search business. Googling and contextual search offerings were all the rage -- manifested in part by Google's IPO and subsequent price march to nearly $200 a share. And along with improvement in the technology, people have gotten better at using search engines too.

Just check out the figures for Froogle, a Google search site specifically geared to shopping. It provides links to retailers large and small and is a starting point for many consumers. It saw a holiday boost of 147 percent in Web site visitors this season, according to comScore Media Metrix.

"Certainly, in the same way the Web has leveled the playing field for businesses of all sizes to compete, search has taken that one step further," said Dan Hess, senior vice president for comScore. "It allows Mom and Pops to get that much closer to shoppers they wouldn't ordinarily come into contact with."

So is the Internet the great equalizer for small businesses? Probably not. If Smith Barney analyst Lanny Baker is right, the Internet this year is likely to become a veritable retail battleground as more bricks and mortar types try to establish a bigger presence. That's why he slapped a sell rating on Amazon. When Wal-mart and Target move into town, be it real or virtual, the little grocer and corner five-and-dime get hammered.

And search results, while still free and algorithmic to a degree, are getting more money based. Those who can pay to have their products and sites come up in searches.

"The simple fact is big budgets and optimization of search technology tend to win the battle," said Hess.

But I think the more specialized small businesses have a shot, though, by offering products and services outside of the mainstream.

More medieval thoughts? Click the helm.

Art, for example, isn't something you typically shop for at Target. Well, fine art at least. And medieval flails and chain mail coifs, like the ones I got for a couple of battle-minded nephews, aren't available at Amazon has books about chain mail, but if you want some of the actual thing ... it sends you to a small business.

You know, chain mail was all about staying nimble in the battlefield. A good search strategy is about nimbleness too ... only it's on the Web. And doesn't look as cool as chain mail.  Top of page

Allen Wastler is Managing Editor of CNN/Money and appears weekends on CNN's "In the Money."

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