Not so long ago if you wanted to check when a movie was playing, you'd consult your local newspaper. If you wanted to find someone to remodel your bathroom, you'd open the yellow pages.

But for an increasing number of consumers, those habits are as dated as a pair of faded bell bottoms.

"Today, consumers across all age brackets use the Internet and, particularly for computer-savvy users, the Internet is the first place they'll turn for information about a vendor," says Sadie Peterson, president of SDMarCom Inc., a San Diego-based marketing firm that specializes in working with small businesses.

"The Internet offers an opportunity to introduce yourself to consumers exactly when they are searching for your business-by appearing in the major search engines," Peterson notes. "For niche businesses, the Web presents an opportunity to reach the nationwide or global community, where geographic limitations might otherwise force you out of business."

Nicci Blanke, who started a dance studio in southeast Michigan, is a believer. Her Viva! Dance Center site, created with Microsoft Office Live Small Business, had more than 1,000 hits in its first month.

"Everybody has the Web now," Blanke says. "And I think keeping up with technology is just like keeping up with dance steps. People appreciate that and our Web site allows us to do that."

A Web site can be as much about customer service as it is about selling products and services. Blanke says she has limited office hours, but uses the site to stay connected her young dancers' parents. "The Web site allows us to be available to them 24 hours a day, seven days a week," she says. She posts paperwork, maps to dance competitions, even pictures.

Looking like a serious business
Paul Gryfakis, who runs Parking Padding Solutions out of his Chicago home, thinks a professional Web presence helps potential customers take his business seriously. "Having a Web site does give me some credibility," he says. "I'm not just somebody on the phone or sending you a mailer about my product."

When people go to his Web site, which was also created with Office Live Small Business, they can see pictures of his product, they can see specs, they can learn about the ordering process and they can find out how to get in touch with him.

For Gryfakis, that Web site is the core of his business since products are shipped directly from his supplier to his customers. "I don't have a storefront. I don't need a storefront," he says. "I just need my Web presence."

Clearly there are numerous reasons why even the smallest of businesses can benefit from a Web presence, but here are five key considerations:

  1. Visibility: With more and more consumers logging onto the Web to research products and services, if they are going to find your business, your business needs to be on the Web.
  2. Reach: With a Web site, you are no longer limited to a customer base that is in physical proximity to your shop. Your place of business may be in Boston, but your customers can be in Bangkok.
  3. Customer service: When customers can log onto your Web site and easily find the information they want-when they want it-their satisfaction increases.
  4. Competition: A professional looking Web site can level the playing field for smaller companies trying to compete against larger enterprises. It's also a way to stay in the game; even if people can't find you on the Web chances are they can find your competitors.
  5. Credibility: When you can point customers, partners, even potential employees or investors to a Web site, it tells them you are a serious business.

Getting on the Web quickly
At one time having a Web site would have been out of reach for many small businesses, with the cost of hiring programmers, designers and writers and paying for hosting services and the time commitment involved in keeping the site updated.

But the time and expense once associated with having a Web site has been replaced with template-driven software services that make it a quick and relatively painless process to build a Web site.

Microsoft introduced Office Live Small Business specifically to meet the needs of small businesses eager for a Web presence but without the resources and skills to build one from scratch. Utilizing easy-to-use tools and a wide variety of pre-designed page templates, small business owners and managers with absolutely no technical or design skills are now able to create professional looking Web sites with minimal effort. And with the Office Live Small Business service-which includes a domain name, hosting, company-branded e-mail accounts, and project and contact mangement services-you can get started online for free.

Another concern that makes some small businesses reluctant to make the move to the Web is the need to put up a site with lots of different pages. But a Web site today can be a work in progress. At the very least you can start out with a "business card" Web site that contains very basic information about your company:

  • Name
  • Logo
  • Location
  • Contact information
  • Brief description of products or services

As time and inspiration permit, you can expand the site.

There are plenty of compelling reasons why small businesses today should have a Web presence. But with the advent of free, easy-to-use services, it's difficult to come up with a reason not to.

Hear how more about the successes Nicci Blanc, Paul Gryfakis, and others have had using Office Live Small Business to create their Web sites on our Customer stories page.