Whether you recently launched your site or you have been in the biz for years, establishing a customer base within your local community is a must for any small, online business owner.

Local portals in particular are an especially viable option for small, online businesses. They provide direct access to local consumers wanting to do business locally.

Nielsen NetRatings statistics from May 2001, indicate that portals, search engines and community sites are the most popular types of sites among American Internet users. Portal/search engine reach is currently surpassing Internet service sites and entertainment sites by more than 20%.

"Search engines, portals, and community sites have established themselves as a mandatory part of every surfer's online habits," NetRatings vice president Sean Kaldor said in a statement. "Nine out of every 10 Web users go to such a site every month and are going there more frequently, nearly five times monthly."

Portals Get Personal
The reason behind portal popularity is simple: personalization. People look for news and information relevant to them. Local portals are gateways to community members. By grouping Web sites of businesses located in a specific area, local portals offer a great opportunity for small businesses to reach their markets.

AK Media, a large media and broadcasting corporation, is among the growing number of companies recognizing this popularity. It launched the first live site of its iKnow portal network in Bakersfield, Calif., last November.

"iKnowBakersfield will give Internet users and businesses the ability to get the most up-to-date local information from multiple sources by going to one online destination," said Wayne Stephens, regional vice president and general manager of iKnowBakersfield.

First Things First: What and Why
A portal is a kind of home base for Internet surfers, a runway to other destinations. Portals organize the chaos of Internet searching into identifiable and relevant segments that cater to specific interests or groups of people. Portals fall into four primary types:

  • Consumer portals such as Yahoo! or Excite allow consumers to search for sites by category or location and look up information such as news, weather, and horoscopes.
  • Enterprise information portals (EIPs), corporate sites, provide product and industry information to customers and resellers, and sometimes act as an intranet for employees.
  • Niche portals such as Autobody Online focus on a specific interest or niche. These are sometimes referred to as vertical portals.
  • Regional and local portals such as VirtualTahoe.com, the Northeast Florida visitors' site, or those found through sites such as citysearch.com provide information specific to residents and businesses of geographic regions and provide information and links to local business sites. Many newspapers and chambers of commerce maintain local portals popular with residents and tourists.

Contact your local newspapers and broadcast stations to find out whether they maintain a portal site such as that maintained by the Boston Globe. If your company is located within 30 miles of a major city, you'll definitely want to contact the major newspaper and ask about linking your site to its portal. Most of these sites contain a shopping guide, an event guide, or a directory. Expect to pay approximately $200 per month to be featured within a major paper's consumer guide.

Become a member of your local chamber of commerce or convention and visitors bureau. Because so many people go online for information, chambers of commerce and visitors bureaus now offer numerous services at reasonable rates designed to promote online business and drive traffic to your Web site.

Become the Big Fish
List your site with online directories such as YellowPages.Com and make use of the consumer section that allows consumers to find coupons, compare prices, and ask for quotes.

Advertise with popular portal sites such as citysearch.com or cities2u.com, sites out-of-town visitors or new locals might look to for information on local businesses, events, and service providers.

Head to Google and type in the name of your town or city. Many tourists do this before booking a trip to your town, and you're likely to find dozens of local portal sites that cater to these tourists and visitors. This is a great way to gain wide coverage for little cost. These smaller sites are relatively inexpensive to list with, or you can advertise on the site for less than you would at a larger portal.

Remember, many consumers prefer to do business with a local company. If you let local customers know they're welcome to stop by your office or call, customers who are uncomfortable doing business online or who aren't sure what kind of service to expect from an online transaction will be more likely to do business with you than a company located 2,500 miles away.

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