Steamboat Springs Some businesses can thrive without an Internet presence, but for most, Web pages increasingly are a necessity for attracting clients.
That was the message local economist Scott Ford gave to a group of Yampa Valley entrepreneurs during the latest in a series of "Success Steps" breakfasts hosted by the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association and Colorado Mountain College.
It's not out of the question that a business could get by without its own Web page, Ford said. For example, the kind of business that doesn't need a listing in the telephone book probably doesn't need a Web page, either, he said.
Ford's comment easily could be taken for sarcasm, but he was sincere when he said that some businesses, such as those that thrive with one or two major clients, may not need a Web page or even a phone listing. Increasingly, however, prospective customers won't take a small business seriously if it doesn't have a home page on the Web, Ford said.
But simply having a Web page isn't enough, he said. If a business' site is unattractive and difficult to use, customers may wonder whether the business it represents is legitimate.
"The best guess is that 65 percent of all businesses have a Web presence," Ford said. "They function like giant brochures with multiple layers of information. And our customers are beginning to expect it."
Shirley Stocks of Wild Horse Gallery of Steamboat Springs said her business's Web page, www.wildhorsegallery.com, serves as an online portfolio that allows potential customers to view every painting hanging in the gallery at any given time.
"It's so much easier for us," Stocks said. "When people call us asking about a painting, we just refer them to the Web page, and they can call us back."
For most small businesses today, it's not a question of whether to have a Web page, but whether to jump into the search engine fray, Ford said. The question revolves around whether it's important for a business to have new customers find them on the Web, or whether the business is better served relying on traditional marketing strategies to drive customers to a home page.
Stocks said her gallery's Web page is effectively optimized for search engines.
"Often, if you do a Google search on one of the artists in our gallery, our home page comes up in the top results," Stocks said. That's a factor that leads to increased sales.
Stocks began with a picture of her Web site in her mind, then turned to Greg Effinger of Cigar Graphics, who also is an artist with work on display at the gallery, to take her vision further. Rick Nelson of RAM Designs in Craig built the Web site in a way that allows Stocks to maintain and update it.
Ford said search engine optimization isn't critical for many small businesses.
"Most of us can get by if we promote our Web site through effective linking and our existing marketing pieces," Ford said.
Stocks said her gallery prints its Web address on its business cards and its gallery opening invitations. In addition, they have built an opt-in e-mail list of clients that allows the gallery to alert them when a new art piece of interest has been added to the Web page.
Another question is whether to take on the complexities of true transactional Web sites -- e-commerce sites that allow customers to make Internet purchases, Ford said. Anyone who undertakes e-commerce is taking their business Web page to another level in a multitude of ways, he said.
"Once you move into a transactional Web site, that's a different animal," Ford said.
Businesses selling on the Web must worry about security issues, shipping and a database that can track their various products. They also have to worry about subjects such as "shopping cart abandonment" -- the tendency of Internet shoppers to place items in a cart, then abandon the sale before it closes.
"You have to make all of these things come together," Ford said.
Stocks stopped short of attempting to sell art online. She and her partner, Rich Galusha, decided they wanted customers to call them so that they could build personal relationships.
However, for two other local businesses, it's important to make individual sales on the Web.
Bruce Stover owns Wheel Wax (wheelwax.com), a company that enjoys worldwide sales of products designed to protect the shine on expensive alloy automobile wheels.
Kelley Sexton and her husband, Rob, operate Magic Carpet Travel (magiccarpettravel.net), an Internet-based travel agency with an emphasis on tropical destinations.
Both Internet entrepreneurs say they've learned to be very careful about researching the intermediary companies that facilitate Internet credit card transactions.
"Check your merchant processor very carefully and understand that it is a nonregulated industry," Sexton cautioned.
They also have become savvy in the ways in which bad transactions can come back to the vendor.
Stover said he has learned over time that by being very thorough in the information his Web page gathers from customers, he can reduce the percentage-based fees he must pay to credit card companies for each transaction.
"The charges go down because fraud goes down," Stover said.
There's a way for business people who want to get their feet wet in e-commerce to get started without taking on the full complexity of a transactional site, Ford said. He suggested that fledgling Internet entrepreneurs investigate renting space in one of the Web malls, such as those hosted by Yahoo and e-Bay.
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