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Forbes.com: Better Late Than Never

June 01, 2005

Forbes.com – Better Late Than Never
By: Emily Lambert
June 1st, 2005

CHICAGO – Meathead Movers began as pocket money. In 1997, brothers Aaron and Evan Steed were in high school and would load and unload people’s moving vans for whatever the people wanted to pay. Three years later the Steeds got official and paid a friend $10 per hour to design a Web site. Now meatheadmovers.com draws thousands of hits daily. Aaron, 25, says the Web site has helped Meathead, based in San Luis Obispo, Calif., become the biggest moving company in the tri-county area.

Web sites can bring customers and credibility, even to young entrepreneurs like the Steeds. Yet more than half of all American small businesses–54%, or close to 3 million companies–have no Web sites, says Frederic De Wulf, who runs Microsoft’s (nasdaq: MSFT – news – people ) small business center Web site.

Lucky for the laggards, there are some advantages to having waited before jumping online. It’s easier to set up a Web site now than it was a few years ago. You no longer need to know HTML, the computer publishing language, to build a basic site. Moreover, Web tools are more sophisticated than before.

And a Web site can be cheap. It’s possible to run a nice looking site with commercial capabilities for $100 per month or less. Yahoo! (nasdaq: YHOO – news – people ) packages start at $40 per month, hosting included. Kyla Chappell-Dean, founder of plus-size marketing and model management company Catwalk Productions, recruited a Webmaster from a local college to help her manage her site, catwalkproductions.biz. If you’re ready to join the Internet age, too, and could use some help, read these tips.

Pick A Domain Name
Many small businesses have unusual names to reflect unique niches, which helps secure a good domain name (Internet address). If the domain name you want has been claimed, consider a “dot-biz” address. “The best is dot-com, of course, but don’t despair if you can’t get it,” says Microsoft’s De Wulf. Also register a few variations and misspellings.

Mind Your Search Engine
The No. 1 way people find a small business’ Web site is through search engines, and there are search engine optimization tricks to make your site attractive to them. They work: In April, Chappell-Dean relaunched the Web site for Catwalk Productions. Thanks to tinkering behind the scenes, hits have doubled.

Advertise
“Internet advertising is not nearly as expensive as people think it is,” says Paul Berger, CEO of M Networks, a media firm for small business owners. He suggests using another company’s money to figure out what works: Yahoo! and Google sometimes offer free advertising at trade shows and during promotions.

Maintain Your Web Site
A typical mistake is to spend a lot of money on a Web site and then ignore it, says De Wulf. Keep your site current, and watch traffic patterns. Learn the popular pages and the little-viewed ones, then retool accordingly. That’s especially important if you’re selling products online.

Build A Fortress
An always-on Internet connection is an invitation for hackers, and small businesses are attractive targets. To keep your systems secure, use all the tools included in your hosting package. You might also download or buy antivirus software from a company like Symantec.

Remember What You Already Knew.
Whether you’re on Main Street or eBay, practice good customer service. If you’re selling products online, tell your customers up front about return policies. “It’s amazing how many people don’t put a phone number for their company on their Web site,” says Berger, CEO of M Networks. “Put a phone number on your Web site, and your sales will go up.”

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