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The Playing Field Is Tilting

By Bob McElwain
Posted Monday, October 13, 2003

The statement that the Web has created a level playing field upon which a small home-based business can compete on equal footing with the big boys is a myth. It never was so. And it never will be.

For one thing, a small home-based business is limited by the capacities of the individual operating it. No matter how gifted this individual may be, one person can only know so much. A large business can draw upon the knowledge of a number of people. The decision maker does not need to understand the details, only the results of thinking from those who do. There is a tremendous advantage in this, simply not available to an individual, unless there is cash to buy such results.

You may be able to stretch your work day to 12 hours, but that's about the limit. A large company can bring as many hours to the task as needed. Unless cash is available to buy the needed hours, the individual is forced to move more slowly toward certain goals or abandon them completely in favor of something less time consuming.

All comes down to bucks. Even a modestly successful company has dollars to commit to a new project, or can get them. Without a friendly bank handy, a home business without ready cash must focus on improving sales and thus profits before committing required funds.

Search engines and directories are powerful tools with which to draw traffic to your site. Larger companies have always been able to buy search engine positioning services beyond the economic reach of small businesses.

Further Tilting

Recently Yahoo began offering a pay-for-review service at $199. While it does not assure a listing, it does promise a speedy site review. While the free submission service remains available, I personally know of only one person who obtained a listing through repeated submissions with this option. On the other hand, I don't know of anyone who paid this fee who was not subsequently listed. While some have undoubtedly been turned down, the only reasonable approach is to consider the fee as a one time advertising cost and pay up.

LookSmart is also now asking $199 and they offer no free option. Personally, I think they overrate themselves, but as with Yahoo, I recommend paying the fee. (Even Snap for a time was demanding $79.)

Getting Started Now Costs More

In the past, starting an online business required only filing a factious name statement ($50-$100), a bank account ($10/month), a domain name (previously $35/year, now less), and a hosting service ($6/month and up).

This cost has gone up in just the last year, for $398 needs to be added for submission to the above directories. You can not afford to ignore either service. And add another $100/year if you want to play the Real Names game.

Search Engines Are In Business

With billions of dollars at stake in the search engine game, be assured they will continue to seek to present the most relevant listings in the briefest time. However, they will also continue to look for ways to increase profits that do not detract from the quality of listings provided. Here's another example.

Ask Jeeves, LookSmart, and Inktomi now have a for-pay service which assures more pages on large sites will be listed. While this does not say anything about page positioning, it does mean that given more pages there is a better chance one of them will come up. Payment at present ranges from five cents to a dollar per clickthrough.

This is not a game at which a home business owner wants to sit down and play. Since the plan is designed to accommodate very large sites, a small site would not be accepted at this time. The reason for this qualifier is that it's so just now. But look for similar models to emerge for small businesses. However these may remain out of reach for the home business owner.

Another new service is eLuminator from MediaDNA. It generates spider friendly pages from protected sites. (Also from framed pages and those generated dynamically.) These pages are then submitted to the search engines. Clicks on the listing generated take the visitor to a page which explains what is needed to access the actual page. At this writing, MediaDNA is partnered only with Inktomi. But others will join in. Cost? $5000 initially. And up to $0.40 for each clickthrough. This is out of reach for most home businesses.

An Aside:

The two news items above were taken from a newsletter by Danny Sullivan, "Search Engine Watch." There is a free version available. Details about the above are available only to paid subscribers. As is the dynamite private site. For info about subscribing, check out ...<http//searchenginewatch.com/about/subscribe.html> If interested only in the free version, click back to the home page. Whatever your choice, if you are serious about search engines, Danny Sullivan is the primary source. Nobody beats his work. Period.

Look For Further Tilting

Count on it. There will be further advantages available to those with bucks to spend. Even now, large advertising runs cost far less per impression than do short runs, the sort a home business can afford. Look for this difference to continue and increase.

Are We Doomed?

No way. But it is time to forget the myth that the playing field is level. It never was. And it never will be. Still there is room for all players, however small.

A Narrowly Focused Niche: Within your realm, you can still be king of the hill. If you are not selling Ford trucks, you are not concerned about what automobile manufactures may do. And they don't think of you at all. Within your niche, you are concerned only about others claiming your turf.

Provide Expertise Not Available Elsewhere: This is another way of saying you need a narrowly focused realm in which you are the Guru. It's the only way to go.

Newsletter: Even if you gather many thousands of customers, you can still beat the big guys. With a newsletter, you can stay in direct, personal touch with each and every one.

Search Engines And Directories: Don't ignore them, for that would be foolish. But only do what is reasonable. Then turn to more effective strategies. Things such as strategic alliances (if only an exchange of links), joint ventures, and advertising. The latter may prove central to success.

Provide Multiple Products And Services: This is a must, even if the additional products and/or services are not your own. The reason this matters so is the cost of generating a first time customer. Anybody who has bought from you even once is a far better prospect than is a new visitor.

One Undeniable Advantage

Bigness comes with a great burden a home business never encounters. You are in charge. There is no need for approval from any committee or boss. The ability to change a procedure quickly and easily is invaluable. If what worked yesterday fails today, change it now.

Imagine what a large business must go through to drop an existing product. Or add a new one. But when you are in charge, the decision can be made immediately. And with the dynamic of the Web, you will know within days if the decision was good. Further, you can easily reverse it if it was not.

The Greatest Opportunity

Above all, as a home business operator, you can provide great service and support tailored precisely to the needs of your customers. You can provide it more quickly and in a more personal manner than can any large outfit. This alone is likely to remain a sufficient advantage to assure you win big time.