We Don't Need No Stinkin' Web Sites

Even in the Digital Age, many small businesses may not need to invest the time and money it takes to launch and maintain a full-blown site

A few months ago I was at a technology conference and things were abuzz. The results of a recent survey had just been announced and—gasp—it found that an astonishing 40% of small businesses don't have a Web site (another survey put the number closer to 60%). How could this be? Considering there are more than 20 million small businesses in the U.S., are we actually saying that something like 10 million small businesses in this country don't have a Web site? Shocking. Ignorant. Appalling.

"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. Others around him clucked their agreement while sending this shocking news to their Twitter accounts by way of their Apple (AAPL) iPhones.

Are those small business owners as naive as these very smart and witty technologists believe? I don't think so. Most are probably smarter than many who attended the conference. Why? Because millions of business owners may know something that we're not prepared to admit. Some people don't really need a Web site at all. Maybe a Web page. But not a Web site.

Learning from the Alexa Toolbar

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. And it certainly doesn't need any turtleneck-and-vest-wearing, greasy-haired propeller heads drinking Red Bull to maintain it. In fact, it can be hosted for less than $10 a month by any one of a dozen companies that do that sort of thing. 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. And those are just the NSFW sites I visit. I hear business sites have a lot of this stuff, too.

But here's a fun exercise for you to do. Go to Amazon.com's (AMZN) Alexa and download its free toolbar. Whenever you go to a Web site, Alexa will show you where that site ranks in its universe of Web sites. Alexa.com has its limitations. But for a free site, it provides some pretty interesting information. For example, you know the guy who spent a ton of money with one of those turtleneck-and-vest-wearing, greasy-haired propeller heads to plan, create, develop, implement, and then maintain a Web site for his hardware store? Well, his site is ranked No. 98,388,756,442. This is just a few spots behind my company's Web site. Which means that no one, other than his mother (and my mother), is visiting it.

Your Site Must Be Current

Want to get it listed higher? Then go ahead and pay one of the search engine optimization vampires a pint of blood so you can catch a glimpse of it somewhere on the first few pages of Google (GOOG). Wow. More money spent so people can find out your address and phone number.

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. Like the Drudge Report. You'll need to take time to develop it. You may need to pay a consultant. One of those turtleneck-and-vest-wearing, greasy-haired propeller heads. 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. They're not trying to grab attention. They're just trying to save some money. Marketing dollars are limited. There's a recession going on. For many, sinking a bunch of dollars into a Web site may not be the best return on investment.

Oh sure, if you're in the Internet porn business, or sell things online, then this is an entirely different story. Or if you're looking to replace all of your marketing materials and send prospects and customers online to learn in detail 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. A Web site's great for you, too.

But gee, many of the business owners I know—those incredible, pathetic, dismal, wretched losers who so shock the turtleneck-and-vest-wearing, greasy-haired crowd—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 selling books online or running auctions. They're not distributing software or hosting phone services. They're not complex. They're investing elsewhere. They're O.K. with no Web site.

A Vested Interest in the Debate

When was the last time I visited the site for the corner Exxon guy or the sub shop across from my office? To see the price of gas? To get nutrition info on ham on rye?

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 the people shouting how absolutely critical it is for a small business to have a Web site are—drum roll, please—in the business of helping small businesses create Web sites. Surprise! Despite what all the business experts—including the turtleneck-and-vest-wearing classes—may say, Web sites are not an absolute necessity.

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. Let the turtleneck-and-vest-wearing, greasy-haired geeks suck their fees from someone else.

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