Are Internet search engines ignoring you? Yours may be the best darn doughnut shop ever, but when someone checks Google for, say, "doughnut shops," are you even among the 84,400 results that pop up? What's the use of having a Web site if no one can find it?
That's why Dan Bricklin, co-inventor of the VisiCalc spreadsheet program, launched the SMBmeta initiative, a way for some of the unique attributes of small and midsize businesses to rise to the top of search results. His site, SMBmeta.org, describes the new SMBmeta form you can fill out with specifics about your company: its name, address, services, location, hours of operation, nearby transportation and what makes it special. Your webmaster can insert the form onto your home page, and, hopefully, as search engines and online directories pick up on the concept, you'll start to get noticed. Bricklin has posted a demo site (www.overall.com) where you can see the results of a search involving companies that have already inserted SMBmeta files in their Web pages.
So what's the catch? None. The SMBmeta file can be filled in quickly and easily with tools available on the SMBmeta site, and it's free. Try ignoring that!
A full office-suite software package at a rock-bottom cost? Sounds promising. The OpenOffice.org office suite, a close relative of Sun Microsystems' StarOffice, is designed to rival Microsoft Office. It features word processing, spreadsheet, presentation and drawing components and is available for Linux, Windows and, at press time, as a beta for Macintosh OS X. The program reads Microsoft Office file formats, and the documents it outputs can be read in Office so there are no compatibility problems. And did we mention it's free? You can install OpenOffice.org on as many computers in your business as you'd like.
The basics of the program have been around for a while, but recent updates make it more appealing for entrepreneurs. Most notably, it now has the ability to export files in PDF and Flash format. OpenOffice.org also features international language support. The suite as a whole is designed to be familiar to any user who has experience with an office suite. A final release version of the suite will be out by the time you read this. What you won't get is a program equivalent to Microsoft's Outlook or a regular technical support system. There's no toll-free number to call for help, but user help is available via the OpenOffice.org Web site. It's a tempting offer for growing businesses that don't mind that limitation.
If OpenOffice.org sounds good, but you're not ready to give up the help desk support, try Sun Microsystems' StarOffice, which retails for less than $80, or $1,500 for a 25-user pack. It's built on the same code but with some third-party extras, like additional templates and a clip art gallery.
A sister project, dubbed OpenGroupware.org, is working on developing an alternative to the Microsoft Exchange Server software. When released, this will fill a major missing piece in the open source software puzzle. Entrepreneurs who have already adopted the OpenOffice.org suite will find the new software compatible with it. Visit OpenOffice.org to download the software or get involved with the community.
Paul Hyman, a former editor-in-chief at CMP Media, writes about technology. He lives in Long Island, New York.