Think back to the last time you had to find a new business or a phone number. Did you take out the phone book and magically know under which category to look? Or did you go to Google Inc. (GOOG), type in your city and exactly what you were looking for (spelling mistakes and all) and look for a business’s website?

What if the business you needed didn’t have a website, but only a Google+ page or a vague entry in an online directory? Would you frequent that business or look for one that could provide you with the information you needed right away and from the comfort of your own home? This is the reality of living in the twenty-first century: customers find business information and product offerings predominantly on websites, and small businesses without an online presence are left behind.

Increase Credibility

Businesses without websites, despite how professional their physical location may be, feel cheap, untrustworthy and stuck in a bygone era. If a business won’t invest the thousand or so dollars necessary to have a website, why should customers frequent it? The absence of a website not only calls into question the business’s spending priorities, it also raises concerns over how innovative and effective the management is. (For more, see Why Innovation Is Crucial To Success In Business.)

Furthermore, the website’s design must correspond with the cost of the product or service offered as websites are often customers’ introduction to a small business. Lawyers with HTML websites with a 1996 aesthetic aren’t going to get as many customers as a law firm with a modern website. A professional, high quality website is a must for every small business hoping to make a good first impression.

(Practically) Free Advertising

All businesses, whether big or small, need to advertise. Even a local business that sells products to a local customer base needs to have an online-to-offline strategy that complements a paper-based marketing campaign. Imagine being able to hand out flyers with unlimited room for text and pictures; that’s what a website should be.

Let’s use the example of Tires, Tires, Tires, a local car repair business. Without a website, the business has to rely on word-of-mouth advertising and the occasional pricey coupon campaign for discounted tires. Customers might wonder what exactly Tires, Tires, Tires does – does the company only replace tires? Can they do oil changes? Will they perform work under warranty? With a website, the small business can list every single product and service it offers, along with prices and accompanying pictures, for virtually no charge. (For more, see 7 Popular Marketing Techniques For Small Businesses.)

Get More Customers

Websites also make advertising via word-of-mouth incredibly easy. Without the Internet or social media, it could be difficult to tell friends about a small business you like. Today, websites encourage people to tell others about their visits with pop-ups and reminders to “like” the business or to “share” a link. The potential for social media shares and online referrals is too much to pass up for small businesses looking for an edge on the competition. 

Some small business owners believe that having a Facebook Inc. (FB) fan page is a sufficient online presence. While a fan page might provide essential information like opening hours and a map, it’s a clumsy method for communicating with customers. Not only is there a significant number of people without a Facebook account, meaning that many potential customers are being excluded, a Facebook page simply lacks distinguishing features. If Tires, Tires, Tires’s online presence is limited to Facebook, the company would be just another car repair shop in a sea of countless Facebook pages. (For more, see Best Social Media Tools For Your Small Business.)

Be Convenient, Beat The Competition

On the other hand, having a website when none of the competition does is a great way to increase a customer base. Imagine, decades ago, being the only print shop in town with a phone number. The other shops focus on printing and developing better products and offer lower prices. You, however, are the only shop that people can call for information. Everyone else inconveniences their customers by forcing them to come to the shop in person.

The same applies today, but with the Internet instead of the telephone. Forcing your customers to contact you in a way that inconveniences them is a sure-fire way to lose them. A publicly-listed email address and prompt replies are essential, as is an up-to-date and detailed website. While small business owners might believe they don’t have time to manage a website, not making time for one is so detrimental to their business that they might as well not even have a business at all.

The Bottom Line  

By and large, small business owners don’t believe that they need a website. In fact 46% of the 28 million small businesses in America don’t have one. Whether not having a website is due to a lack of need or the fact that they believe that social media like Facebook is sufficient, small business owners need to embrace technology. While owners don’t want websites, customers overwhelmingly do.