When it comes to Web hosting and small business’ needs, the old adage, “You get what you pay for,” just may apply. This according to Affinity Internet President Jim Collins, who believes there are Web hosting services worth paying for — and for good reason. Small businesses, he said, need more than just a presence. They need a comprehensive Web services strategy.
According to Collins, small businesses stand to benefit from a full-service Web hosting partner who will help them build, maintain and manage their sites. They need search optimization, online keyword marketing and other related services — still at an affordable price.
Affinity is a leading Web services provider to the small- to medium-sized business (SMB) market, with hundreds of thousands of customers.
The E-Commerce Times caught up with Collins recently to discuss trends in the industry, and must-have Web services for the SMB market.
E-Commerce Times: There were a number of “free Web site” services targeting small businesses a few years ago. It seems most of them have gone by the wayside. Why do you think that “free” business model failed?
Jim Collins: “Free” completely misses the point for small businesses. In survey after survey, small businesses tell us that the most valuable resource for them is not money, but time. The industry’s response as a whole has been to decrease pricing and introduce easy-to-use self-service tools. How are these connected? What small businesses want is a quality product delivered at a fair price, and if you can find ways to help them save time, then you’re meeting their needs.
ECT: Are these free and ultra-discounted Web site offers deceptive, as some have claimed?
Collins: They’re not really deceptive, but small businesses know they’re going to get what they pay for. The big free offers of the last few years have been marketing failures when you think about it. What these attract are vast numbers of Web-speculators who set up sites and then basically die out. Small businesses that are serious about online success shop for solutions they know will solve problems rather than create them. There is a healthy skepticism around free services and this is valid.
ECT: How important is the small business market to Web hostingproviders?
Collins: Small business is America’s most productive economic engine. Hosting providers who can provide real solutions meeting the needs of this vast market will find success. As a business community we must get serious about helping small businesses succeed. This means we need to take their success as seriously as we take our own. I tell everyone who comes to work for Affinity that the difference between people who come to work here and our small business customers is that our small business customers have thecourage to go it alone. We have their backs. That’s how important small businesses are to us.
ECT: Why is this market so important?
Collins: If the Internet is really going to meet its promise, then it is going to have to become useful for small business. There are 500 companies in the Fortune 500. There are more than 40 million small businesses in the U.S. Making the Web useful and relevant for this community, its customers and its vendors, is critical to continued online growth.
ECT: What are the biggest challenges facing small business owners seeking a Web presence and how do solid hosts help them overcome those issues?
Collins: They tell us over and over again that they want a professional Web presence. The marketplace tends to talk down to small businesses, as though they lack sophistication. We’ve got to get over that. The fact is that small business practitioners are experts in their chosen fields. They may not understand TCP/IP, POP or SMTP, but they know insurance, or medicine, or accounting, or landscaping or concrete better then we ever will. They deserve our respect and our help. Affinity understands this and has built a set of products and services and a support organization that is devoted to our customers’ success.
ECT: What strategies are reputable Web hosting providers putting in place to help small business owners establish and maintain a Web presence?
Collins: It’s no longer about providing tools that make it easy for small businesses to be online. It is about providing solutions that make their Web site additive to their business rather than a burden.
ECT: Web site templates are proliferating the Internet. Are these a good option for small business owners? Why or why not?
Collins: If the small business is technically focused, or if they are exceedingly concerned about saving money, then templates aren’t a bad way to get online. The thing to understand is that they will always be limited to doing what the template allows. At some point, if they’re successful, they’re going to outgrow the template site. If that’s ok, then this is a good place to start.
ECT: What if a small business has absolutely no clue how to use HTML and other codes, but can’t afford a professional Web designer? What are the options?
Collins: It is important to understand that small businesses don’t say they want a “Web site.” Surveys tell us that they want a “professional Web site.” The industry tends to put cheap tools and templates online, but these don’t meet the needs of real small businesses. Additionally, advertising agency solutions, which can easily cost US$10,000 more, don’t meet their needs either.
ECT: What’s a practical method for small business owners to figure out what they really, truly need from a Web host provider in terms of storage, e-mail and other bells and whistles?
Collins: The real question is not how much storage or bandwidth they need. Most hosts know that most customers won’t begin to scratch the surface of their product capabilities. The bells and whistles that are important to small businesses are easy to understand. Does the company answer the phone? Is their network (and thus the small business Web site) online? Are the people in the support department helpful, meaning they solve problems or do they just point customers back to self-help centers on the Web. (That’s not a lot of fun on a Sunday night when you can’t figure out why you’re unable to download your e-mail at home). I guess the real question is, is the host committed to their success and does this show in the initial communications? If not, then move on.
ECT: What types of services should small business owners expectfrom a reputable Web hosting provider?
Collins: Small businesses should expect great service and support. They should find an array of do-it-yourself solutions, but they should also find a series of services where the provider does the work. They should expect someone who is looking out for them with state of the art spam and virus protection, but the provider should understand that these are more of a given then a critical differentiator. Most of all, small businesses have a right to expect that their provider will give them the respect and assistance they deserve.
ECT: How can small businesses make sure they are getting thebiggest bang for their online bucks when it comes to Web hosting and related services?
Collins: That’s really a function of their wants and expectations. There are a lot of ways for them to waste a lot of money, but a reputable provider will help them avoid that. The biggest thing to me is that they need to understand that the web is a real-time medium. It needs to be kept completely up to date. Having a site that hasn’t been updated in a year is worse than having no site — it communicates to the viewer that the smallbusiness doesn’t care enough to keep the site up to date.
ECT: What else do small business owners need to know about Webhosting?
Collins: The Internet isn’t the field of dreams. Just having a Web site will not bring business rolling in the door. Getting people to visit the site requires active, aggressive and sophisticated activities. Making sure site visitors enjoy the visit to the Web site enough to do business is critical. This isn’t about entertainment value, it’s about valuable content. Take the time to find a provider who is truly committed to small business success.