Out of the net

4 May 2005

With so much written and talked about the impact of the internet on business, it’s sometimes easy to forget that many small firms don’t have a website. In fact, an O2-sponsored survey from earlier this year found that the majority, some 60pc, of Irish SMEs do not have a web presence. As you would expect, the survey found the smaller the company the less likely it was to have a site — 72pc of firms with one to three employees don’t have a web presence. And frankly many of those firms that are not online already have no intention of doing so.

So why do so many firms still not believe the web can benefit their business? For a start, the type of business they do might simply be unsuitable to the online world. For example, if you need a plumber in a hurry because you’ve got a leak in your house, what are you going to do? Go online, search for plumbers in your area, check out their website and send them an email? Or pick up the Golden Pages, view the listings for plumbers, ring one that looks professional and find out how soon they can come and solve your problem.

A new breed of directory services is emerging to address this conundrum. Pay-per-call services are inspired by the success of pay-per-click web advertising services such as Google Ad Words, which use a deceptively simple model. Businesses without websites are encouraged to bid for search terms, eg printers and geographical areas. If someone searches for the service in that area, freephone numbers for the leading bidders will be displayed. If the user then calls that freephone number (which automatically diverts to
the business’ phone), the business pays the amount it bid for that call. Ingenio, www.ingenio.com, is currently the market leader in the space providing pay-per-call search results to AOL among others.

While pay-per-call services are now being developed on this side of the pond, businesses that want to benefit from the web without investing in a website should look to portals that service their area of business. For example, Myhome.ie lists providers of services relevant to homeowners and movers and no website is required.

Irene Gahan, CEO of the Irish Internet Association (IIA), believes Irish businesses are more likely to have established a web presence than their European counterparts. Based on her experience of talking to businesses around the country, she estimates that 25pc of Irish businesses would not have a website and 15pc would not use email as a tool. Of those that have a website, she says 70pc are brochureware — static, information-only sites that are updated once a month or less.

“Many SMEs are put off by the hassle and expense,” says Gahan. “They have to get a broadband connection; they could be exposed to viruses; they suddenly have to get into IT management. As one SME said to me recently, the disadvantages outweigh the benefits.”
So if you want to develop your own site, what are your options? You could get some software, read up about design and HTML and get cracking yourself. But that’s hardly an efficient use of your time, which could be profitably spent generating revenue for your business.

The clever option clearly is to employ the services of a web design company. There are certainly no shortage of companies out there that
offer packages designed for SMEs, and if you are simply looking for a static site, you should have change left from €1,000. The IIA’s directory of members, which can be found on www.iia.ie, is a good place to start searching for suitable developers.

If your requirements are more advanced, ie you want a site that integrates with your existing IT system or one that can provide e-commerce facilities, the costs will increase and your choice of development company will be even more crucial. One tip from people in the industry is to separate the design elements from the actual development. Many designers will offer development services and vice versa, but this won’t be the most efficient way to do things. If you get a designer to come up with the concept and the imagery, you will have a choice of literally hundreds of small companies and independent developers that will be able to put that design online.

You should also ask any company you plan to work with to give you some samples of its work and one or two references you can call to see how previous projects worked out. It’s also worth looking at sites from other companies in your sector or locality that you like and find out which company they worked with.

By John Collins