When you're establishing a web business, you have to be sure that your most important e-business tools are high-quality, dependable products and services. But if you're like many new online entrepreneurs, you're probably curious about the various free tools and resources you may have heard about or discovered yourself while surfing the net for information. And you may be wondering if it's worth your while to give them a try.

My first word of advice on free tools and resources is this: Always be cautious. Free tools can be unreliable or come with hidden catches, like requirements that you display certain advertisements if you use the tool.

However, now that I've told you the downside, there are a number of very good--and reliable--tools and resources available on the net that are free. And these can be excellent ways to complement your existing tools at no cost, helping you make your site stickier and more user-friendly, make your keywords more effective, keep an eye on your competition, find potential business partners, and more.

Of course, you should still take care in the "free" world, and always be aware of what you may have to give up--like reliability--or give over--like advertising space on your site and potential customers. But the following 12 tools and resources can be effectively used to give your online business that extra edge you need to stay ahead of your competition.

1. Free link partner evaluation tool. Alexa provides a free, downloadable toolbar that opens in your web browser whenever you're online. The Alexa toolbar is one of the most useful tools around for online businesses. The most useful feature is a "site info" option. When you click on this button, Alexa lays out all the details of the site you're on, including:

  • The traffic ranking of the site. This is also listed right on the toolbar itself.
  • A list of related links. Two or three of the most popular links also appear on the toolbar.
  • The number of other sites that link to the site
  • The contact information of the site owner
  • All site/user reviews

This is the exact information you need when you're researching high-traffic sites in your industry and considering link partnerships or joint ventures. You can use this information to:

  • Decide how much you're willing to pay for advertising;
  • Make educated decisions about the worth of a joint venture partner; and
  • Determine the credibility and perceived value of the site.

The list of related links--which also has its own button on the toolbar--is an excellent way for you to find other popular or similar sites that might be good linking partners or joint venture partners. Use this list to determine other popular sites that your target market visits. Start by looking at your own site with Alexa's toolbar, and see what related links are suggested. The toolbar also contains a Google search option, so you can jump directly into a search without having to leave the page you're on.

If you prefer not to download the toolbar, you can still take advantage of these features right from Alexa's site

2. Free market research tool. When you're building a successful online business, you'll probably need to spend hours at a time researching your competitors and your target market and looking for new product ideas. The good news is that there are some nifty free tools available on the Google Toolbar that can make this whole process faster and a lot more productive. (Be sure to check the "Enable Advanced Features" option when you download it to enable all the options.) Take a look at some of these options:

  • "Google Groups" search: This is great for product or market research, as you can search for your keywords within the thousands of Google Groups online and find forums relevant to your site. By checking these forums regularly, you'll get to know what's important to the people in your target market.
  • "Search News": This feature lets you find news stories relevant to your website, e-zine or blog within news pages indexed by Google. It's great for sparking content ideas or just keeping up with the latest developments in your market or industry.
  • "Web Directory" search: This option lets you search Google's directory for sites that match your search terms. It's ideal for finding out how many competitors you may have for a new product and for seeking out potential linking partners.
  • "Search Froogle": Froogle lets online shoppers search for products and compare prices. It displays pictures, prices and links to online stores in the results, so you can use it to quickly research how the pricing of your products or services compares with other offerings across the Web. If you have an idea for a new product, Froogle is a great place to check out your potential competitors.

Once you get the hang of them, these powerful tools can become a great asset to your business, as they can save you hours spent on research--leaving you more time to concentrate on developing new products, new marketing strategies and other ways to boost your profits.

3. Free image-reducing tool and free "tool kit" trials. NetMechanic is a tool kit resource, offering a number of free trials that are great for easily locating potential problems with your site and repairing them quickly. With this tool, you can address such problems as:

  • HTML code errors
  • Browser display problems
  • Lengthy load times
  • Broken links
  • Site downtime

Some of these tools will even give you a free monthly update! However, you'll get a limited version of each tool unless you're willing to pay the fee. But NetMechanic's image-reducing tool, GIFbot, is totally free and is a particularly useful resource.

Using GIFBot is an excellent way to reduce the file size of your images so your web pages load faster--and you don't lose those impatient surfers. Image files can be reduced by as much as 50 to 85 percent in many cases, and it's so easy to do that nowadays you'll look totally unprofessional with huge, lagging image files that take forever to load on your site.

4. Free HTML editor and HTML tutorials. You don't have to spend hundreds of dollars on HTML editors and web design software to create your own site. Nvu is a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) HTML editor that's similar to FrontPage or Dreamweaver--but completely free to download. The software allows you to create and manage a professional-looking website without any knowledge of HTML programming, and includes the following features:

  • WYSIWYG editing of pages, meaning you can see what your web page will look like as you're creating it
  • Integrated file management via FTP, so you can upload your pages to your web host
  • Easy-to-use interface
  • Free tutorials

If you're interested in learning how to code HTML yourself, here are two excellent tutorial and resource sites where you can learn everything you need to know:

And for those of you who are a little more technically inclined, you may want to check out some of the many free CGI script resources out there. Two good places to start are:

5. Free keyword selector tool. Using Yahoo! Search Marketing's Keyword Selector tool allows you to easily discover which keywords are frequently searched by web surfers. Type in a term you'd like to target, and the tool will give you a list of searches that include your exact term as well as related searches. It will also tell you how many times those terms were searched in Yahoo! Search Marketing (formerly Overture) in the last month. A tool like this can help you optimize your search engine ranking by targeting keywords and phrases that are frequently searched by the online audience.

6. Free browser compatibility service. The browser compatibility experts at AnyBrowser offer every tool you'll need to make your site viewable, as the name suggests, in any browser. The most useful tool is the "SiteViewer," which allows you to see your web pages as surfers will see them on multiple browsers. For example, your site may look different in Netscape Navigator than it does in Internet Explorer--images may be broken, tables may shift and so on. With AnyBrowser, you can ensure you meet the needs of every browser.

You can also make sure your coding checks out and your links aren't broken, and view an example of how your listing will appear in the search engines (what description will be used, what the title will be, and so on).

AnyBrowser is also a great resource directory, pointing you toward a variety of really useful free tools. It's a great place to find online HTML tutorials, banner exchanges, CGI scripts and a ton of free resources such as HTML editors, classifieds, fonts, graphics, Java scripts, message boards and more.

12 Free Tools for Online Businesses

7. Free search tool.1-Click Answers is a downloadable search tool available from the Answers.com search engine. It allows you to search multiple information sources and find instant answers containing concise information on the topic you're searching for.

After you've downloaded the personal (free) version, you'll have a search bar right on your desktop. When you search on an item, you'll get results from some or all of the following resources, depending on your search term:

  • Dictionaries
  • Thesauruses
  • Atlases
  • Glossaries
  • Encyclopedias

... all in just one step! No more messing around with multiple search tools; 1-Click Answers consolidates them in one source to save the precious time of the busy netpreneur.

8. Free content.FreeSticky is a good place to find free (or cheap) content for your site, so you can keep your site fresh and interesting for your visitors--and keep them coming back for more. Find articles, news briefs, headlines, tickers, tips of the day and more. The broad variety of topics range from financial advice to hip hop headlines, from travel guides to lottery results. You can also give away free software applications directly from your site, many of which are available for co-branding.

Another good source for articles is www.EZineArticles.com, which offers free content designed for both websites and e-zines.

Watch that you don't just load up your site with a lot of stuff that you think is interesting, however. The material you provide has to be relevant to your business and your customer base. Also be aware that the sponsorship information that is usually included can pull your readers' attention away from your purpose, and, more important, the sponsors' links can draw traffic away from your site. It's always a good idea, when posting content on your site, to use your discretion and make sure it's worth the risk involved.

9. Free e-mail campaign ROI calculator.Marketing Today's ROI calculator is an easy-to-use device that allows you to accurately estimate what kind of return on investment you can expect from your upcoming direct mail or e-mail campaigns and promotions. The calculator is a simple tool that acts as an excellent reality check when you're determining your marketing costs.

The most accurate way to operate this tool is to use the response rate you received from your previous mailings to calculate your ROI for future mailings. All you have to do is enter the numbers: the number of mailings you'll be doing, your total costs, the response rate you expect, the conversion rate you expect, and how much you expect each buyer to spend (that is, the cost of your product or service).

Hint: If you don't have previous response rates and conversion rates to base your figures on, you should estimate much lower than you think necessary. If you guess too low, you'll just end up with extra cash on hand; guess too high, however, and you'll be making a costly mistake.

10. Free web design tool. Most internet entrepreneurs have very little, if any, web design knowledge. That doesn't have to be a barrier, however, to creating a professional-looking web site.

One of the hardest tasks for someone with no design experience to do is to choose the color scheme for your site. Well, this easy-to-use, free tool from ColorMatch 5K allows you to create a complete color scheme at the click of the button. It also gives you the HTML codes for the colors you choose--every web color has a code, such as #000000 for black--so you can use them on your site and not have to worry if that pink really does match that orange.

11. Free site search tools. If your site is more than a few pages and doesn't have a good internal search tool, you're probably losing many a frustrated visitor. SiteLevel can set you up with effective, free search tools for your website.

While appeasing your visitors, a site-level search engine also enables you to find out what your users want and need. SiteLevel's search tools allow you to track what your visitors are searching for and see what they're finding--or not finding--so you can adapt to their agendas and increase visitor satisfaction and the stickiness of your site. SiteLevel also lets you customize your own search results page to make it suit the look and feel of your site.

The basic, free version of this tool has more than enough "oomph" for the average small-business website, allowing you to index up to 1,000 pages and incorporate a variety of search strategies.

12. More free marketing tools. You got it...Free Site contains free stuff! And lots of it!

Although not everything on this site is e-business related, you'll find plenty that is. Probably the most useful section for e-businesses is the "webmaster" section. Here you'll find the "Internet Seer" site monitoring tool that provides downtime alerts so you don't lose valuable customers. You'll also find:

  • Tools to help you check your keywords and your link popularity
  • Suggested methods of winning awards for your site
  • Scripts, banners and polls
  • Guestbooks, message boards and more

Free Site also lists free technical support and online tutorials; free personal management tools; plenty of Java script resources; free fonts, clipart, graphics, icons, and buttons; plus much, much more. And although you should be wary of freebies that ask for advertising space in return, you might want to bookmark this page.

Final Thoughts

One of the great advantages of starting an online business, as opposed to taking the more traditional brick-and-mortar approach, is that costs are so much lower. Hosting fees are your main overhead, but these are nowhere near the rent you'd pay for office space for an offline business. And when it comes to creating and building your website--as well as marketing it--you can further reduce your costs by making use of some of the great free tools and resources out there.

The tools I've recommended are personal favorites, and I know you'll find them incredibly useful. But when you're choosing free services or software, always proceed with caution and stay in control with each decision you make. Find out whether any advertising will be included and whether you'll be bound by any restrictions or obligations. "Free" can sometimes mean only that there's no charge--not no consequences.