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Why small businesses need websites and how to build one

If you're a small business in 2018 — you need a website just as much as you need a phone number and sign over your door.

Virtually every small business could benefit from a web site. A package store, for example, could give background and recipes with this bottle of Crios Rosé of Malbec.
Virtually every small business could benefit from a web site. A package store, for example, could give background and recipes with this bottle of Crios Rosé of Malbec.Read moreMalbec

You would think that in 2018 it would be common that every business — big and small — would at least have a website that provides basic information for prospective and current customers. Unfortunately, that's not the case — and it's hurting those that don't.

According to a recent study from SurveyMonkey, 31 percent of millennials don't trust companies without a website and 24 percent of non-millennials feel the same way. And yet, according to another study by the same company a year ago, nearly half (45 percent) of small businesses still don't have a website at all.

What gives?

Most of us automatically go online to find out information, directions, menus, background, and news about the companies, stores, and restaurants we plan to patronize. I may not agree on all the things that some millennials find important (Paid time off to raise a puppy?), but I do think that lacking a website would raise my concerns about the legitimacy and even the long-term prospects of a company.

Some small business owners that I meet say that it's not necessary for them to have a website. But that's just not true. For example, let's say you're an independent liquor dealer in New Jersey. Your business comes from street traffic and you may even advertise. That's good enough, right? Not really.

Even liquor stores can offer deals online assuming the products are legal to ship. Coupons for in-store purchases can be proffered. More information about the products — their history, ingredients, health data — can be available. A smart liquor store owner might even want to regularly blog on her site about fun cocktails, cool recipes, and great meals that can be prepared to entice us to buy different products that she sells.

More importantly, by generating views the site will also create more leads and a better search position for when prospective customers are looking for their nearest liquor store on Google or Google Maps, as so many of us do from our smartphones. It's a revenue generator. More importantly, it's a low-cost revenue generator.

That's because you don't have to hire a web designer to do this. Sure, web designers can be important if you're setting up a complex site with e-commerce capabilities and integration to other systems. In those cases, searching for help on UpWork, Guru, or even Craigslist will likely uncover someone with the skills you need to help you create something unique.

However, in the case of a liquor store or most small companies, a number of do-it-yourself services have popped up that make all this very easy. These services — Squarespace, GoDaddy, Wix, Weebly, Shopify, and many others — offer hundreds of professional-looking templates tailored to your industry, in-house experts to answer the most trivial questions, and easy customization tools that even an internet luddite can use to create specific content and branding.

"We've helped millions of customers avoid costly custom websites by enabling them to build their brands themselves, and given members of today's independent workforce the tools their businesses need to stand out from the crowd," Kinjil Mathur, chief marketing officer of Squarespace, told me. "Today, it's more important than ever for entrepreneurs to have a website not only to increase sales and expand their customer base, but also to lend immediate credibility to their business."

Squarespace costs $18 a month, not including a three percent fee on transactions. Shopify, which does both internal and ecommerce sales, runs from $29 to $79 a month. A consultant would be anywhere from $50 to $200 per hour.

These same services also provide help with optimizing your site for search, creating email campaigns, connecting to advertising services, and making sure a website works well on any mobile device. Even if you don't have the time to do it on your own, rest assured you can hire a part-time marketing major from a local college (or pretty much anyone under age 30) to do this for you at a reasonable hourly rate. Just make sure you build in extra time for that person to regularly maintain the site with new information and updates.

Here are three common mistakes that many owners make:

  1. Over-develop and spend too much time (money) designing their sites when in most cases the templates from these services are perfectly fine and can be customized.

  2. Ignore search engine optimization.  Just because you've built it doesn't mean they will come. Significant money may need to be invested in online marketing, social media and search engine optimization.

  3. Not maintaining their site. My best clients put someone in charge of the site who is consistently re-shaping and updating content, inventory and other data so that the site is dynamic and evolving with the times.

If you're a small business in 2018 — regardless of the type — you need a website just as much as you need a phone number and sign over your door. No one says you have to be But today's consumers expect this stuff — and if you're not delivering it, you're harming your company's future.