It was time for Dennis DeRocher's car repair business to have an online home, but he didn't have the first clue where to begin. "I knew I needed to do something, Internet-wise," said DeRocher, who has run Mobile Mechanic Service out of Graham since 1998. His customers find him primarily through the phone book. "I couldn't afford to get anything done, so it was time to start learning."
Enter Google, which in partnership with Intuit has been offering free seminars across the country to teach business owners how to build their own website. Since summer 2011, company officials estimate tens of thousands of business owners have attended the classes. Google wraps up its almost-two-year effort this week with a gathering in Washington, D.C.
More than half of U.S. businesses don't have a website, Google's research showed. Business owners think it's hard, expensive, and time-consuming.
"There's a certain amount of intimidation," Scott Levitan, director of small-business engagement for Google, said in an interview last week. "We know from experience, getting online is not that hard. You could do it in an hour, sometimes less. You don't need technical training."
DeRocher, whose business model is a car mechanic who makes house calls, took a 90-minute seminar from Google last year. He then spent a few months building the website. He had some minor frustrations along the way, including challenges in making verbal contact with people from Google to help him fix things.
"They wanted to do more things online than actually talk to you, and that's how things work, but for me the online was the problem," DeRocher said.
The founder of a Tacoma website design firm said many business owners do need a low-cost online option, but they will soon see the need for work that might be beyond their expertise.
"You can get online easily. The question is, how do you promote it? It's not 'Field of Dreams'" where if you build it, customers will come, said Brian Forth of SiteCrafting. "It's a good public relations move by Google, to give these free things away, but if the free has no value, it's a photo op."
Growing a business online is challenging work. "I'm almost grateful to Google for showing that," Forth said.
DeRocher said his site is a good start. His site lists hours of operation, services, a contact form and a phone number. But Mobile Mechanic still doesn't appear until the third page of Google search results, and the site doesn't convert to a mobile-friendly site when accessed by a smartphone. He knows these are key areas that will help bring in more customers, but he's not sure what to do next.
Google is planning continuing-education seminars, Levitan said. "The vision for the program is getting businesses online and succeeding. So getting online is starting point," he said.
Already, DeRocher has seen results from new online visibility. A person called from Canada, wanting him to evaluate a van up for auction in the area. Another person from Australia hired him to assess an RV he wanted to buy for traveling around the U.S.
Despite some frustration, he's proud of building the website.
"It's cool when you're finished," he said, "that feeling of, I did that! And, I can fix your RV."
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