Canadian small businesses dragging their heels online

We had seen the chandelier in the store, and liked it, but back at home a few days later I wanted to double-check on the price. I went online. I searched for the company’s name. Nothing.

“Oh, yes, I’m sorry,” the store owner told my wife a few days later. “We don’t have a site yet. I keep meaning to get around to it.”

Such is the state of online business in Canada. Although I had thought this was a rare example, data released this week by the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) suggests the problem is widespread. According to CIRA’s Internet FactBook, only 41 per cent of small businesses have an online presence, even though the average Canadian visited 3,731 web pages per month last year and three-quarters of us use the Internet to research purchases.

“What I find striking is simply that technology still, frankly, scares a lot of people.”

Although small business owners probably do their own web surfing at home, Fowler said, the process of establishing an online presence may seem intimidating. I’ve spoken to a few who have asked me about whether they need a site or a blog (and if those are the same thing). They’re not always sure whether or not they need to host a site themselves with a server or how to register a domain name.

“People need to be educated. It isn’t really that hard,” Fowler said.

Although there are probably many small businesses that could benefit from establishing a solid website of their own, one thing these statistics may overlook is the rise of third-party sites and services that aggregate and streamline the online research process for consumers.

Yelp is just one example of an easy-to-search database for all kinds of local products and services. HomeStars does something similar for real estate. Given how many Canadians tend to use Facebook on a monthly basis, I’ve seen some small businesses whose sole online presence consists of a Facebook page.

These de-facto sites, as I’ll call them, will obviously lack some of the advantages of creating a distinct portal with product and service details, a compelling “About Us” story and customer testimonials. That doesn’t mean they can’t be effective, though. Just as some retailers decide it’s better to be part of a strip mall or shopping mall than relying on their own free-standing structure, there are advantages to be had in going where the traffic (online or otherwise) is already congregating and spending time trying to earn good customer reviews.

As much as the technology industry has been celebrating the last 30 years of the Internet over the past week, Canadian business with an eye on the future might be better served to start thinking about their presence on smartphones. It’s mobile sites and particularly mobile apps where many consumers are increasingly doing their research and comparisons before shopping in stores.

“That’s even further behind in most of their minds. It’s another layer of complexity that is not understood for most people,” Fowler said.

Maybe so, but it’s not a layer businesses can avoid forever. Websites are an important tool, but if I were running a company today, getting moving on mobile would be Job 1.