Do Small Businesses Really Need a Website?

A couple of months back, I wrote about Yodle’s recent finding that around half of small businesses still don’t have a website. This statistic, I wrote, has barely changed in the past several years. I used this as a starting point for a discussion of how little progress we’ve made on the long road toward full adoption of online presence management by the small business community.

I haven’t changed my mind about any of that, but I still find it instructive to turn the question on its head. Do small businesses actually need a website? The question takes on new meaning in a world where communication on the open web has been largely overtaken by closed circuit channels like Facebook, Tumblr, and Pinterest. These forums aren’t entirely shut off from the outside world, but they do encourage participants to stay inside their fiefdoms. For instance, a perfectly legitimate sales funnel on Facebook would have the consumer search for a local business using Graph Search, visit the appropriate Facebook page, gather the needed contact info, visit the store, and complete the purchase, never needing to visit the business website nor caring if such a website exists. Local search is just one of the many types of social interaction users can engage in without ever having to leave the network.

Now think how strongly such closed circuits are reinforced by mobile search behavior. Contrary to the current wisdom that your website must be mobile-optimized, as a small business you might find that most if not all of the consumer traffic that reaches you via mobile devices begins and ends with the search app of choice, mobile websites never entering the equation. The typical use case for mobile shopping is one where the minimum information required to get me to my goal is all I need or want. If Google Maps gives me that, I won’t bother to click the link to the business website, no matter how responsive or mobile-friendly it may be. We know from Google’s encroachment on organic search real estate that such closed-loop searches are becoming a strong tendency in desktop search; on mobile they are the default.

Of course, many businesses will still find a website to be a useful way to do things social sites and mobile listings can’t do. You can summarize this approach by saying that the website exists to provide features that don’t fit well in any third party data model. Post your store’s inventory; tell your origin story; share an events calendar; provide testimonials from satisfied customers. Those sorts of things are best done on your website, but they really only apply to a subset of potential customers who need or want a deeper dive. Many customers will use Yelp star ratings and the like as a proxy for the type of qualitative marketing information websites are designed to provide. The website should be there to appeal to those customers who do want more, but should definitely not stand in the way of ensuring your business is easily found and well represented on third party sites.

In this context, it may be best to think of the website as a central connection point for third party representations of a business – a node in a broader network. It’s the richest online repository of compelling information about your business, but it probably isn’t your primary means of attracting customers. Rather, customers who find you via Google Maps or Facebook may need to refer to your website in the event a third party search doesn’t provide enough information to make a buying decision. The website serves as a last stage effort to win business that hasn’t already been secured via local search.

Online presence management then becomes a matter of taking ownership of business profiles on third party sites: claiming your listing on Google, Yelp, Bing, and other popular search services and apps; establishing a presence on Facebook and other social sites relevant for your line of business; and using those outposts – local branch locations in the digital geography – to engage with customers in the places where they already hang out, rather than hoping they’ll come to you or trying to compete for search traffic with massive nationwide directories or with Google itself. Your website may conveniently act as a meeting point for all of these third party profiles, but you only really need to drive traffic to your website if you depend on it to transact business. If you’re after foot traffic, not clicks, you want to give the customer the shortest path to your door.

Damian Rollison writes the Streets Ahead column for Street Fight. He is VP of product at Brandify, and can be reached via Twitter. Brandify is the publisher of Street Fight.
  1. Paul D. Engels
    October 30, 2013

    Very good points, Damian. BIA/Kelsey published a “before and after” diagram in 2010 for its directory member audience showing Business Listing as the centre of the universe and web site as the new epicentre, post 2010. The diagram utterly missed social media (perhaps understandable for that year) but even so, they’d have likely added SM as just another spoke from the hub rather than a parallel, competing and synergistic world of alternative presence. I’ll add another point. A senior researcher we use pointed out that small businesses behave much differently in large cities vs mid-sized vs small towns. Online presence plummets as a percentage in small towns because the local market knows exactly who and where the vendors and merchants are.

    IMO a website is mandatory whether it’s the front line virtual salesperson or a behind-the-SocMed resource for deeper conversation and detail. It ALL depends on the nature of the business and the retail customer’s expectation. For a gas station, I’ll take a Google map. For a $20,000 basement reno – I’m taking the web site!

    1. Damian Rollison
      October 30, 2013

      Paul, thanks so much for the valuable feedback. Were I writing a longer piece, I would have hit many of the same points. The simple takeaway may not change much, however — if social media and search are the primary means of access to local business info, then websites function in a second-stage role even for those business categories where consumers do more research. As for small towns, I live in one and I know whereof you speak, but I still find myself needing local search for those stores and services that are outside my daily routine.

  2. Paul D. Engels
    October 30, 2013

    LOL. I await your 3-volume book on this subject where you can do it proper justice! BTW no sooner did I make the small town comment that my colleague Justin pointed out that small towns with seasonal visitors are very avid web site users for non-local traffic…

  3. samasd12
    May 22, 2014

    I had a long discuss with a user about this on Reddit:

    It makes a big difference for a Small Business to have a website design for themselves. Initially that is my recommendation.

    Blue Group Solutions.
    (317) 728-9159

  4. June 8, 2014

    Nice article, Damian. My answer is yes. Small businesses should not surrender nor fragment their reputation across multiple websites, many of which will never be used by a consumer for local search (Facebook, Twitter, etc.). And the website they need is a very simple one (literally one page) that brings all their customer reviews together in place and, critically, is easy for consumers to consume on their mobile devices. We discuss the drivers more here –

    Malcolm Lewis
    Founder/CEO RefGo

  5. sbrhutchens
    July 14, 2014

    If your small business is in need of a great website, contact us at

  6. Mohammad Helal
    October 8, 2014

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  7. Jeremy Collins
    October 13, 2014

    I hate to sound spamy but this is a real problem and it is the fundamental basis of my company, Not only is building a website confusing for the normal small business owner but it can be very expensive to get a legitimate website you can be proud of. We don’t charge anything upfront for our service and for a small monthly fee you can get a very good website that is better than any WordPress site out there built be “freelance designers.”

  8. kyle jones
    February 22, 2015

    I have a small neighborhood store and didn’t have the time to figure out how to build a website myself. The people at built me a gorgeous, personalized website in only a couple of days. And, they also help me advertise. Only $49/month. It’s perfect for a small business like mine.

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