If you own a business, you need to pay attention to this statistic: 97 percent of potential customers go online looking for local businesses and services.
The results from a consumer tracking study by research firms BIA/Kelsey and ConStat make for a frightening reaction to this next statistic released recently by Google to promote a program in which it is offering free Web site hosting for a year. Studies by the online search leader suggest 58 percent of small businesses don't have Web sites, and in Kentucky, that figure jumps to 71 percent.
Without a Web site, your business is invisible to potential customers. Customers are going online looking for your services and products, but are you there for them to find you?
That's reason enough, but Web sites can be much more and a smart investment for your business.
Web sites are:
Open 24/7: They allow customers to "visit" your business whenever it works for them.
Cost-effective: Depending on the complexity of a site, it can cost a couple of hundred dollars for a do-it-yourself Web presence or $500 to $2,500 for a professional design. Owning your domain name and hosting the site can cost about $15 a month.
Adaptable: As your business grows and changes, your Web site can change with you.
Measurable: There are free statistics services such as Google Analytics that can track how many people visit your site; where they came from; how long they were there; what pages they were visiting; and what types of devices they were using, such as a desktop computer, smart phone or tablet.
It's good information to know, especially to measure whether your paid advertising or social media efforts are working.
Great referral tools: Your Web site can let satisfied customers share opinions with their friends. After all, word of mouth is the best kind of advertising. Make sure you give visitors a "share" option.
Now that we've established the importance of having a Web site, what is stopping you?
"The perception that getting online is complex, costly and time-consuming has prevented many Kentucky small businesses from taking the first step," said John Ploumitsakos, Google's director of small business engagement, in promoting the company's recently launched Kentucky Get Your Business Online program. "This program makes it fast, easy and free for businesses to get online."
For the next year, Kentucky businesses may go to KentuckyGetOnline.com and use tools from Google partner Intuit to create a free Web site, and to receive training and other resources. The search leader also will provide a free domain name and Web hosting for a year. After that, the cost is $2 a month for the domain name and $4.99 a month for Web hosting.
The company is offering a free workshop Tuesday in Louisville in which small business owners may create company Web sites.
The Google program can be a good start for a company that wants a simple online presence. But determining what you want to be online truly requires a well-devised plan based on current and future business goals. Build it to suit your business. It doesn't have to be flashy, but it needs to:
Be identifiable: Your Web address should reflect what you do and who you are.
Have a simple and clean layout: White space is a good thing. Pictures or logos should have a purpose and not overwhelm. This will allow your site to load quickly. Various studies show you have just several seconds to make an impression before people move on.
Have meaningful content: Your Web site needs to provide useful and relevant information. Be sure to keep it updated. This is where a blog could be helpful.
Offer RSS feeds or email subscriptions: Include "share" options on your site's pages. If you have a Facebook page, Twitter account or Pinterest board, offer that as another way to connect. Remember, your Web site is your house, and social networking platforms are paths leading back to your front door.
Display your contact information prominently: There's nothing more frustrating to a customer than when they can't find a phone number or email address to contact you. Ideally, put it on every page.
Be easy to navigate: You need to tell visitors what's on the site, help them get there and make it easy to get more information. Test your site for usability.
Include a privacy statement: In this era of privacy concerns, a privacy statement should be included to show your commitment to customers. You are building a relationship with the customer, and that's built on trust and transparency.
Your policy should say how you handle email addresses and accept orders, identify who has access to this information and so on. There are free sites which can generate policies such as FreePrivacyPolicy.com or Generateprivacypolicy.com.
These aren't considerations you make just once, either. You need to evaluate continually whether your Web site should be redesigned. Looking to the future is important. And the future is the mobile Web.
There are big differences between mobile and traditional displays. While most Web sites look OK on a desktop or laptop, those same sites might appear clunky and hard to navigate on the smaller displays of smart phones or tablet computers such as the iPad.
It's another of the many things to consider in creating the virtual presence of your business. But the hard work that goes into great Web sites offers great rewards in helping grow your customer base.
So go get started.