We Don't Need No Stinkin' Web Sites

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A few months ago I was at a technology conference and the results of a survey had just been announced and, gasp, it found that an astonishing 40 percent of small businesses don't have a Web site (another survey put the number closer to 60 percent). How could this be? Considering there are more than 20 million small businesses in the United States, are we actually saying that something like 10 million don't have a Web site?

"Oh, they just soooo don't get it," said one conference attendee, a turtleneck-and-vest-wearing, greasy-haired propeller head drinking a Red Bull.

Are those small business owners as naive as these very smart and witty technologists believe? I don't think so. Millions of business owners may know something that we're not prepared to admit. Some people don't really need a Web site. Maybe a Web page. But not a Web site.

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First, let me explain the difference. A Web page is simple. A Web page has basic, but important, information, like contact data and maybe a photo or two. A Web page doesn't need a lot of maintenance. It doesn't need a lot of creativity.

In fact, it can be hosted for less than $10 a month. Some companies, like Synthasite and Weebly let you set up, for free, very simple Web sites that are akin to pages. Other popular destinations, like Facebook, LinkedIn or MySpace (NWS), can also be used.

A site is, by definition, a collection of many Web pages. I'm sure you've seen them. Lots of pretty pictures. Flash videos. Pop-up windows. High-definition graphics.

But here's a fun exercise for you to do. Go to Amazon.com's Alexa and download its free toolbar. Whenever you go to a Web site, Alexa will show you where it ranks in its universe of Web sites. The guy who spent a ton of money on a Web site for his hardware store? Well, his site is ranked No. 98,388,756,442, a few spots behind my company's.

Want to get your site listed higher? Then pay one of the search engine optimization vampires so you can catch a glimpse of it somewhere on the first few pages of Google.

SO WHAT'S THE POINT?

Web sites cost money, not just to host, but to create. If you're going to have a Web site for your business, you're probably going to want it to look really cool, hip and professional. You'll need to take time to develop it. And for Pete's sake you're going to need to keep it up to date. Your products may be obsolete and your services have never adapted to the times. But that doesn't mean your Web site has to get stale.

There are some exceptions. But is this really necessary? Can all those site-less small business owners be wrong? They're not trying to shock people. They're just trying to save some money. For many, sinking a bunch of dollars into a Web site may not be the best return on investment.

Oh sure, if you sell things online, then this is an entirely different story. Or if you're looking to replace your marketing materials and send prospects and customers online to learn about your products and services, then it makes sense to a have a full-fledged site. Or if you're going to use your site to provide customer service, manuals, videos and a knowledge base, you'll want a vehicle to do this.

But many business owners I know don't necessarily have those needs. They are gas station owners, restaurateurs, insurance agents, shopkeepers. They're CPAs, architects, landscapers, plumbers and electricians. They're not complex. They're investing elsewhere. They're OK with no Web site.

A VESTED INTEREST IN THE DEBATE

When was the last time I visited the site for the corner Exxon guy? To see the price of gas?

If you search the Web you'll find lots of people writing about how small business owners must have a Web site. Dig a little further and guess what? Many of them are in the business of helping small businesses create Web sites.

Good business owners invest wisely and for the most return. They're not in business to run a site just because it's cool or hip. Many people I know are fine with a simple and professional Web page.

Gene Marks, CPA, is the owner of the Marks Group, which sells customer relationship, service and financial management tools to small and midsize businesses.

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