When Cindy Glass opened her Bikram yoga studio in Raleigh 10 years ago, the launch of the business's website wasn't far behind.
"We've always had some kind of website," Glass said. "The very first one was just our class schedule. We understand that in today's world, lots of people find us on the Internet."
Google is hoping more small business owners will follow Glass's lead as it introduces the Get Your Business Online program in North Carolina. The search engine giant has teamed up with Intuit, the maker of Quicken software, to encourage small businesses to build their online presence by offering free website domain and web hosting services for a year. Monthly fees start after that.
The program held a kick-off event in Charlotte on Friday.
"There is a perception that getting online is hard, that it's expensive and time-consuming," said Scott Levitan,Google's director of small business engagement. "We wanted to change that by making it fast, easy and free."
The Get Online program was started in Texas last summer, Levitan said. Since then, it has spread to 14 states and 23 countries.
Google research showed that 69 percent of North Carolina's small businesses did not have websites, making them invisible to customers, Levitan said. Increasing online presence is not only good for business, it's good for Google, he said.
"It makes the web better," Levitan said. "We're really not thinking about that in terms of immediate impact on (Google's) revenue."
Though the initiative is Google's, software-maker Intuit is providing the domain name, web design and web hosting services. The partnership made perfect sense, said Elisabeth Gettelman, who works in Intuit's small business group.
"It was natural for Google to come to us knowing that the people they're targeting have heard of us and do trust us," she said. "We just have a proven track record of helping small businesses."
Under the standard service, Intuit offers small business owners access to its website templates in addition to widgets that help customers find the business on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. The standard package also comes with map capabilities, a contact form and full features for text and image editing.
After the first free year, the standard services will cost a combined $6.99 a month. Business owners can also upgrade for extra features like online stores and personalized emails. Intuit can even help owners place online ads on Google.
"We can be with you in the journey of driving traffic to that site and making your business even more successful," said Megan Bhattacharyya, product manager for Intuit websites.
Glass said roughly 75 percent of her yoga studio's business comes from customers who found her online. She has the website redesigned every two years to keep it relevant.
"We don't even do an ad in the YellowPages anymore because no one uses the Yellow Pages," she said. "Everyone does Google word searches. We're constantly running Google AdWords."
The program's competition
Google and Intuit's program faces plenty of competition from companies, many of them small Web design firms, that have been helping small businesses get online for years.
Toban Penner, a Durham-based web designer that customizes WordPress templates for his customers, said local firms can often personalize a webpage better than larger companies like Intuit.
"A lot of my clients start off with a company like that, and then they realize that their site doesn't reflect their company's look and feel," said Penner, who has been in business for about three years. "If you work with someone locally, they'll be able to meet with you, see your company and get a feel for what you need. They'll be able to design a site that fits with the identity of your company."
The Get Online program could present a challenge to Facebook, which has attracted many business owners to build company pages thanks to its simplicity. Other blogging websites like Blogger -- owned by Google -- and WordPress offer free and easy ways for businesses to get their information on the web.
Google and Intuit's challenge will be to convince businesses like Blake Street Studios in downtown Raleigh that the program is worth it. The studio sells handmade goods from local artisans and crafters. Jenn Hales, the manager, said while the collective's artists usually have their own websites, the store has only a company Facebook page.
"It's not that much more complicated to do a website, but Facebook is just so quick and easy," Hales said. Still, she said, the studio would consider programs such as Get Online if it could help her reach more customers.
Intuit's Gettelman said social media sites and blogs are just pieces of the puzzle that help drive traffic. A website is the best step toward building an online presence.
"The more places you are, the better for your business," she said.
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