Google wants your business—very badly.
Of course, so does nearly every other major technology company—and nearly all of them have the small-business outreach efforts to prove it. But the search-engine behemoth is going to near-unprecedented lengths in its efforts to secure the business of the nation's entrepreneurs.
The company is in the midst of its Get Your Business Online tour—a sort of traveling e-commerce circus featuring free workshops, led by Google experts, on creating websites and hands-on coaching in using tools such as Google Analytics, Google Places, and AdWords. But wait, there's more: In partnership with Intuit, Google is also offering a year of free website hosting and, in some cases, $75 of free AdWords. The events have been held in 24 cities nationwide; so far, more than 20,000 businesses have signed up.
One of them is Tall Paul's Tall Mall, in Montpelier, Vermont. The retailer of furniture and bedding for the over-6-foot-4 set has had a website for more than a decade, but owner Paul Hartmann was concerned that online business wasn't growing fast enough. So when the Google team rolled in to Burlington in August, Hartmann, along with some 500 others, decided to hear it out. He wound up pocketing $75 worth of AdWords and getting help setting up a couple of search-engine campaigns. He also plans to check out some of Google's cloud-based business apps. "It was really useful," Hartmann says of the event. "I got more out of it than I thought I would."
For a $170 billion giant like Google, merchants like Hartmann may seem like small potatoes. But connecting with businesses like his is key to the company's efforts to stay on top of online advertising, which accounted for $28.2 billion of the company's $29.3 billion in revenue in 2010. It's especially important as consumers increasingly search for things and make purchases using their mobile devices. "Everything is moving to mobile faster than anticipated," says Ben Schachter, an analyst at Macquarie Group. Getting more small businesses online, he says, is about giving mobile users better search results—Google says 40 percent of its mobile searches are for local information—and, perhaps more important, building the customer base for new mobile advertising products.
Some 63 percent of small businesses still lack websites, points out Scott Levitan, Google's director of small-business engagement. "There's a perception that it's hard, expensive, and time-consuming," Levitan says. "We want to demystify that by making it fast, easy, and free."
Google's moves have not gone unnoticed by others in the tech world, most notably by Microsoft. After all, as more companies begin to rely on AdWords and Google Analytics for their online marketing, they are also more likely to consider Google's cloud-software offerings as a platform for running their businesses. Indeed, Google argues that its e-mail, calendar, word-processing, and video-chat applications may be all the tools that many small businesses need. What's more, those tools are free for companies with 10 people or fewer. (The paid version, Google Apps for Business, costs about $50 per user a year.)
Microsoft, of course, has owned the market for business software since people started using computers to run their companies. In a 2010 survey by Forrester Research, all respondents reported using some form of Microsoft Office. But other findings were potentially worrisome for Microsoft: 72 percent of those surveyed said they were actively looking for, or already using, an alternative to Office. That helps explain Office 365, a cloud-based platform Microsoft launched in June that offers a set of tools similar to those of Google Apps for Business, at a competitive price. Both cost about $5 per user per month. Meantime, Microsoft spokeswoman Tracy O'Dowd says business owners would be wise to think twice before partnering with Google. "Free is never really free," O'Dowd says. "Google's business is about scanning your personal data to serve you ads. Small businesses should be leery of any company whose business model is at odds with user privacy and security."
Google spokesperson Rob Shilkin says the Get Your Business Online tour is nothing more than what its name implies—a drive to help business owners better utilize the Web. "We have partnered with Intuit to offer websites to help more businesses get online," says Shilkin. "That makes the Web better, which is good for everyone."