February 20, 2009, 12:00 AM

Small businesses have yet to adapt to consumers’ search habits, study says

When looking for a local business, consumers are most likely to start with an Internet search. Yet 44% of small businesses don’t even have a web site, and 51% of those who do have a site say they’re not satisfied with it, according to a new survey.

Consumers have embraced the web, but small businesses haven’t kept pace, according to a study by local interactive advertising firm WebVisible Inc. and web research firm Nielsen Online.

The study entitled “The Great Divide” shows consumers use web search engines frequently to find local businesses. 92% of online consumers surveyed say they have researched a product or service online then purchased offline from a local business at least once, and 82% say search engines are among the tools they use frequently to find local businesses, making it the most commonly used method.

Asked where they turn first to find a local business, 50% said web search engines, followed by yellow pages directories 24%, Internet-based yellow pages directories 10%, local newspapers 4%, white pages directories 3% and television 1%. The survey found consumers use search engines 72% more than they did two years ago, when a similar survey was conducted.

But small business owners are far behind in using the web to promote themselves, the survey says, even though 41% of those business owners say they themselves start with online search engines when looking for a local business. 44% of the business owners say they don’t have a web site, and 51% of those who do have a site describe it as fair or poor at acquiring new customers. What’s more, 49% of small business owners say they spend less than 10% of their marketing and advertising budgets on the Internet.

“To generate more quantifiable results and drive sales, small business marketers need to think and act like Internet users, especially in today’s economy,” says Kevin M. Ryan, chief marketing officer at WebVisible. “Unfortunately, the data shows they are clearly not.”

Nielsen Online surveyed nearly 4,000 Internet users on the tools they used to locate local businesses in the previous 90 days.

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