10 Web tips for entrepreneurs

Believe it or not, nearly half of U.S. small businesses still don't have a Web site. Here are 10 ways going online can help boost even the tiniest company.

By Jessica Dickler, CNNMoney.com staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Web sites seem the way of the world these days, but many small-business owners still don't have an Internet presence.

Hal Hance, a practice manager at a small doctor's office in New York, says having a Web site would be unnecessary at the office he runs. "In medicine, especially in private practice... there really is no point," he said, "except maybe to provide demographic or biographic information."


Hance isn't alone. Indeed, of the nearly 25 million U.S. small businesses, 46 percent do not have a Web site, according to the Kelsey Group, a research firm in Princeton, N.J.

But Web sites are not only powerful tools for e-commerce, they also can boost almost any business, as consumers look into products they might buy.

"When customers are doing research for purchases, they are going to the Web," said Jed Alpert, vice president of marketing for WebCollage, a provider of online media technology based in New York City. "Sales that happen in the store are influenced by online research."

Web sites can level the playing field, too, allowing even the smallest business to compete more effectively with larger companies.

And while some entrepreneurs fear that going tech will be expensive, companies like Web.com, a provider of do-it-yourself Web sites and Web services, allow business owners to build their own Web site for $10 to $60 a month. The price includes a domain name, e-mail, Web statistics and technical support.

Which means that if your business is not online already, then it should be.

To that end, Jeff Stibel, CEO of Web.com, offers these 10 tips for small-business owners.

1. Stand out from the competition. Online you can be compared side-by-side with your biggest competitor. That means there is a tremendous opportunity to identify what your business does better than the rest. "A Web site is the great equalizer," Stibel says.

2. Establish credibility. This is particularly important for small, relatively unknown firms, he says. For example, a family-run restaurant may want to highlight how long they've been in business so new customers feel they're discovering a hidden gem.

3. Provide in-depth information. Use the Web site to provide background, testimonials, directions, demonstrations or other content that speaks to your target audience.

4. Make shopping easy. Every small-business owner is trying to sell something, whether it is a product, service or idea. Even a doctor's office, which may not have anything tangible to sell online, could provide users with an estimation of the wait time so patients don't have to sit in the lobby all day.

5. Enhance customer relations. E-mailing the company, placing an order or securing a reservation can all be done easily online. "Figure out what your customers need, and then build your customer relations based on that," Stibel says.

6. Increase customer spending. Ultimately you are trying to build a business, not just boost online sales, which means using the site to keep customers informed and make them feel happy about spending more money. This is the end goal, Stibel says.

7. Expand nationally or worldwide. When a business goes online, the dynamics change significantly because Web sites can be viewed by many more potential customers anywhere in the world. That also means that business owners may have to consider enhancing their inventory management, shipping and distribution.

8. Gather customer data. Everything you do as a small business is based on understanding who your customer is. Data from Web traffic can tell you where your customer is coming from and where they are going after visiting your site. Incorporating analytics is invaluable.

9. Brand extension. Offline, your store front is limited by your real estate. Online, your business is unlimited. You can even offer other products and services online that would be difficult to carry in a store due to size and space constraints. For example, a pizza stand could sell slices in the shop but also have t-shirts, hats and other souvenirs available online.

10. Drive traffic either to an online or offline location. Regardless of what type of business you operate, traffic to your site can translate into "qualified" traffic to your store. "Leverage the Web presence to build the business," Stibel says.

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