You don't have to be a 'dot-com' to thrive on-line. Twenty smart companies show you how

Five years ago the commercial Web was a hammer used by entrepreneurs and executives for a single purpose: to bang marketing messages into visitors' skulls. Today it more closely resembles a Swiss Army Knife: each company's site acts as a scissors, blade, or corkscrew to perform the distinct task required by its host. Some sites are direct-sales machines. Some manage complex and multifaceted customer relationships. Some serve as platforms for heretofore undreamed of services. And yes, some just look good and inspire warm feelings toward a product or a brand.

The point is that great Web sites do not have to be all things to all people. The following profiles -- all winners of Inc. Technology's first annual Best of the Small Business Web competition -- celebrate sites that succeed in one or more of the following five categories:

  • Return on investment (ROI): Sites that contribute significantly to a company's bottom line
  • Utility: Sites that perform extraordinary feats of service
  • Innovation: Sites that offer novel services or reinvent their host companies' businesses
  • Design: Sites that are visually appealing
  • Local sites: Sites that serve customers in a circumscribed geographic area

We chose the 20 companies profiled here from a pool of some 400 entries, almost all of them submitted over Inc.'s Web site in June and July. We also considered a number of nominations from Inc. staffers. Entrants were required to be privately owned brick-and-mortar companies with $50 million or less in revenues. Since high-tech companies enjoy a number of advantages in such a competition, we discouraged those businesses from participating. The only technology company on our list is being honored for its employee Web site.

We hope that all of you will find at least one company here with which to identify: someone with a similar business, a comparable problem, the same lack of resources, a shared dream. Even if you don't find a model, you may find the motivation to get to work on your own site. Think big, think small: it doesn't matter. The Web can do something for just about everyone. And given the right strategy, it can do it brilliantly.

Leigh Buchanan is the editor of Inc. Technology.