For small businesses, an online presence is as important of having a sign over the door – customers won't be able to find you unless you make yourself known. And with 77 percent of Americans using a smartphone, the days of spontaneously wandering in and out of stores on Main Street are ending. Consumers operate with assassin-like precision now, analyzing and considering product reviews, customer comments and proximity before they even leave the house, let alone make a buying decision.
Alarmingly, 45 percent of small businesses still don't have an online presence, according to a CNBC/SurveyMonkey survey. These businesses, which include restaurants and retail stores, prefer to put all their energy behind day-to-day operations because they're afraid of technology. That's where Google comes in.
Mary Ellen Coe is the head of Google's small business marketing solutions organization, and it's a personal passion of hers to get local SMBs online and in the minds of consumers. Business News Daily sat down with her to talk about how to get past the fear and ultimately put more businesses on the web.
"It's a pretty inspiring mission for me to help small businesses get online and grow," she said. "If they're not online, their consumers can't find them."
There is a wide selection of Google products, like free in-person digital marketing seminars and a simple site builder that can get a basic business presence up and running in less than 10 minutes. Of course, Google isn't the only company ready to help small businesses get online, but its free educational resources are impressive. [Read related article: Building a Business Website: A Small Business Guide]
Basic online presence tools
Google My Business is the first and arguably easiest step for any small business without an online presence. By signing up and adding your business information, you can take advantage of a free Google listing. This means that your business will appear on Google Maps and Google's search engine even if you don't have a website. [Read related article: How to Use Google My Business]
"Google My Business is just about being found; it's not an advertising product," Coe said. It has "the sole purpose of making sure that we can help these businesses get online and find their customers."
From here, Google provides tools to round out a business's online presence while keeping things simple. Its web builder is a quick way to get an actual webpage up and running. It includes important business contact information, like a phone number and address, and features photos of the business. Google offered this example of a San Antonio-based restaurant in a recent blog post.
For small business owners who aren't tech savvy or don't have time to fiddle with a content management system such as WordPress, this is a quick way to get a site with base-level functionality for users. Posts and photos are looped through your Google listing, and customers can even book appointments through your listing. The web builder and Google My Business are free, and the resulting webpage acts almost as an extension of your listing, not as a robust website.
Note: If you're a small business owner looking for more control and functionality from your website, you may want to consider other website builders. This basic presence may not offer enough bells and whistles for you, such as e-commerce features, video embeds or newsletter signups. But an upgrade to a full website may be step two in your business's online plan.
Are you interested in services for building an e-commerce website for your business? Use the questionnaire below to have our sister site, BuyerZone, provide you with information from a variety of vendors for free:
Online marketing and advertising tools
Google also provides a simpler version of AdWords for small businesses called AdWords Express, which incorporates automated features. This allows business owners to advertise online without getting lost in marketing language and concepts.
Business owners "are not doing marketing for a living," Coe said. "Their primary role is to run their business. So, it uses automated features to auto-create creative text, to be able to manage bids, to recommend a budget. [It's] all designed so you can get a campaign up and running in 15 minutes."
Google also offers YouTube Director Onsite, where the internet giant sends out content creators to shoot, edit and produce an ad for your business for as little as $350. That makes creating Local Services Ads quick and easy, which can provide service-based businesses with a pay-per-call ad program.
"Every business has a unique challenge," Coe said. "What they have in common is to really understand how can they get a better return on their dollar and how do they do that using a broader array of digital tools."
In addition to the SMB-focused services, Google has an extensive education and outreach program. It provides online education resources on the Google Small Business YouTube channel, but it also provides free in-person seminars and workshops with local businesses. These sessions, which are part of Google's larger business initiative Grow with Google, provide small business owners hands-on learning with Google tools as well as higher-level concepts like digital marketing.
"We'll do a broad awareness education and then digital skills training," Coe said. "It's a combination of making sure they know what's available to them and then a skills piece."
Other major tech companies, like Microsoft and Amazon, offer similar education programs. Microsoft provides small business owners with online learning resources as well as various workshops at Microsoft stores through the country. Amazon offers online training and resources for its AWS platform, as well as networking events for business owners. Amazon's events are geared more toward developers, while Microsoft's workshops mirror Google's.
If you're ready to take those website-building skills to the next level, there are tons of other resources that can help you, both free and paid. For instance, Codeacademy offers both free and paid courses on programming and web design, and there are classes for all skill levels. Udemy features a library of curated tech and business courses taught by professional developers.
However, Google is one of the only major internet companies with a large, dedicated initiative for getting small businesses online. As part of the Grow with Google program, Google and Coe hope to connect with small businesses throughout the country, get feedback on its tools and talk with local business owners about the importance of being online.
Coe went so far to say that Google will partner with local chambers of commerce to work with businesses in a specific region. "If you can get people to try things, it's that trial, then they see the value in it. Connecting consumers with restaurants or coffee shops – any small business you can imagine – and bringing that to life … [business owners] tend to respond much more to how does it work for their own businesses specifically."
Google is working with small businesses to provide tools that make it easier for customers to find the products and services they want. By helping more businesses get online, Google is laying a foundation for small business owners looking to grow their business locally.
While many business owners may not see the advantage of being online, Coe and Google hope to change that. In fact, 91 percent of customers have visited a store because of an online presence, and businesses that are online do 25 percent of their business over the internet. So, if you're lost and not sure how to go about getting your business online, Google may be the place to start.
"If they're operating in an offline world, they're not seeing the value of online," Coe said. "So many people use Google to find things themselves … [Some businesses are starting to] understand that value, and it's really been about how do you make the tools easier."