This guide is brought to you by the Wahltinez Foundation and FinMango. It is a resource for small business owners to efficiently bring their business to the digital era. This guide is free of charge and everything suggested by the guide can be done for free — although sometimes we also mention paid alternatives. Any prices mentioned in this guide are in US dollars.
We are avid travelers and love to support local businesses around the world. We enjoy experiencing the different cultures and learning all about them, so finding small, authentic, local businesses is one of our favorite activities anywhere we go.
Small businesses, especially those based outside of the USA, sometimes are not very tech-savvy. We get it, running a small business is a very difficult and demanding task. Small business owners have enough things to worry about! But in order to grow as a business it is extremely important to develop a good online presence.
For physical stores, having a good storefront is very important to encourage potential customers to walk in. Similarly, businesses need a good online presence to reach out to more potential customers. What constitutes a good online presence depends on the type of business. Most businesses could benefit from having a website and social media. Businesses with a physical storefront should have a Google Maps listing. Businesses looking to attract tourists should have a TripAdvisor and Yelp listing.
When we talk to the business owners and ask them about their online presence, many times they either didn't know about what they could be doing better, or don't have the knowledge and skills to improve how potential customers can interact with their businesses online. As part of our desire to support the small, authentic, local businesses we decided to write this guide to address some of the most common problems we find in the online presence for these type of businesses.
You won't find advanced business or marketing strategies in this guide, and if your business already appears in Google Maps, or you have a working website and are tech-savvy, then you probably won't learn much since most of the things covered by this guide are common sense. Although you might still want to check it out to make sure you maximize the benefits of a strong online presence for your business.
Almost all of the services mentioned in this guide will require for you to create an account. It is very important to keep track of which accounts have been created and where.
Many of the free services suggested in this guide are provided by Google, which makes most of its money from digital advertising. By providing free services and encouraging businesses and consumers to move to a digital economy, the number of people that can be served by digital advertising increases which is highly beneficial to Google.
We recommend that you create a Google account specifically for your business. The Google account
will provide you with email, storage, calendar, and more — all for free. Preferably, use the name
of your business for the account name. If your business has a common name which is already taken,
you can also add the location of your business to find an available account name; for example,
Pro tip: dots in your account name are ignored by Google, so you can use them to break up the different words and make it easier to read and spell.
Throughout this guide, there are a number of suggestions for specific service providers. We recommend that you try to create new accounts in as few of them as possible. For example, even if you can get a slightly cheaper custom email provider, it may be worthwhile getting it through your existing domain registrar so you can more efficiently manage your online presence. There are several all-in-one solution providers for e-commerce business, we personally recommend Shopify as a great, premium solution.
In some cases, it can be extremely difficult to recover an account if the password is lost. At the same time, passwords should be difficult to guess, include a mix of numbers, letters and special characters, and should not be reused for different accounts.
There are a couple of ways to handle this problem. First, when the option is available, the issue can be avoided altogether if you choose the "Sign in with Google" or "Sign in with Facebook" options. That way, you can effectively create an online account with one less password to remember.
Otherwise, we highly recommend using a trusted password manager. They are considered secure and make managing complex passwords much easier. Most web browsers have a built-in password manager. If you use Google Chrome, the passwords will synchronize with your Google account. For a cross-platform solution, we recommend LastPass since it can be used on any type of device and is also free for personal use.
Many accounts, including those for Google and Facebook, can be further secured by the use of two-factor authentication (2FA). 2FA relies on two components: something you know (like a password) and something you have (for example a phone). 2FA might be slightly inconvenient, especially if you have to log into an account often, but it provides a significant increase in security. For something as important as your business, we recommend setting up 2FA for the accounts that support it.
One of the main places to tell customers about your business online is with a website. Creating a website is very easy and free, but it's very important to keep it simple and up to date. There are two components in the management of a business website:
The web page content is the most important thing, and can be done completely free of charge.
Normally this will result in a web address like
https://mybusinessname.wordpress.com. If you want to have a custom domain name like
https://mybusinessname.com you need to purchase it with a domain registrar, and pay yearly to
One of the first questions you need to ask yourself is: Do you really need a website? Some businesses only have a Facebook page and that seems to work just fine. While social media presence is important for interacting with existing customers and sharing updates about your business, a website is like a storefront for all potential customers.
However, websites need to be maintained so the information stays up to date. If you don't plan on spending at least 1-2 hours per month maintaining your website, then a website might not be the best idea: having an outdated website can be worse for your business than having no website at all. Rather, consider maintaining a social media page or a Google My Business listing instead.
Note: If you would like to sell products and services directly from your website, you should consider the options mentioned in the Electronic Payments section.
There are many tools and companies that can help you create a website for free. In most cases, they have a "free" plan and a "premium" plan that you can upgrade to. The free website builder we recommend is Google Sites. The main reason is that they don't have a "premium" plan, so the free version has all the features you need and you can't be tricked into paying for more features that you don't need. The only thing that you might be asked to pay for is a custom domain name, which is not necessary to publish your website.
To create a free website using Google Sites, just go to https://sites.google.com from a desktop computer, log in using your Google account, and follow the instructions on the website. We recommend starting from one of the templates from the template gallery at the top of the page.
Once you are done building your website, it's very important to test it. Make sure it works at least for the following combination of devices:
You should ask your friends and family for help testing your website. Not only can they help you make sure your website looks good in different devices, but they can also give you feedback about the design and the content.
We recommend Google Sites because it's simple and highly customizable. However, there are many more free website builders. Some well-known products which have a free base plan are:
If you want to process online payments, Shopify can be a good all-in-one solution. It has a monthly maintenance fee, but it can be used to create a website, purchase a custom domain, manage social media listings, and process online payments.
If you don't want to create your own website and want to pay someone to do it, there are many digital agencies that can create a website for you. This is a relatively expensive solution, but will have the most professional results. You should not pay more than $1,000 for a custom website, and keep in mind that many agencies will charge monthly maintenance costs even if the website is not updated with new content. Some agencies retain ownership of the website, so when you stop paying, the website is taken down — make sure that you review the terms of the contract.
When you create a website with Google Sites, you will end up with an address like
https://sites.google.com/view/mybusinessname. If you want to have a custom domain name, like
https://mybusinessname.com, you'll need to purchase it from a domain registrar. We recommend using
Google Domains since that will make it very easy to link your web page to your domain name.
Alternatively, you can also purchase a domain from CloudFlare or GoDaddy. Prices typically
are between $10 and $14 per year.
Consider that to keep your custom domain, you will need to pay for it yearly. If you decide to stop paying, anyone can purchase the domain after it expires and you will have no control over the content.
If you would like to have a more professional-looking email address,
firstname.lastname@example.org, you will need to purchase a domain name and also pay an email
hosting provider. When choosing an email hosting provider, keep in mind that many providers appear
cheap, but that's because they have an introductory pricing which typically expires after a year.
Some web and email hosting providers employ predatory business practices meant to take advantage of
small business owners. For that reason, we recommend using established, reputable companies.
The main options for professional email which we recommend are Microsoft 365 and Google Workspace. Email hosting providers are normally in the range of $5-10 per month. Technically, there is a way to use an existing GMail account with a custom domain, but it can be complex to set up and it's not covered in this guide — if you are still interested, search for "free custom domain email with gmail" and you'll find many step-by-step guides.
Search Engine optimization (SEO) is the process of improving the ranking and appearance of your web presence to the eyes of search engines, namely Google. Google's Search engine uses proprietary algorithms to determine which websites to display first in the list of search results. Generally speaking, the priorities are relevance, compatibility and speed.
You should also think about what potential customers could be searching for. For example, a customer might search for "best Chinese restaurants in Seattle", or even something very specific like "best Hawaiian pizza near me". Including those words in your page will make it more likely for your website to rank higher in the search results.
There are many (multi-million dollar) businesses that focus on SEO. For a small business, we don't recommend paying for any SEO-related services. We also don't recommend trying to worry too much about SEO, since a lot of SEO-focused business essentially play a game of cat and mouse trying to fool Google's algorithm which changes often.
To optimize the ranking in Google Search results, keep the website up to date with relevant information about your business and the services it provides, make sure that it loads fast and that it works well on desktop and mobile devices.
You should also make sure that your business appears in Google Search results often by searching for your business name. Sometimes, your website may stop appearing in the search results even if you have not made any changes. You can troubleshoot issues like that and tweak how your website is treated by Google Search from the Google Search Console. You can also find more information about this topic in Google Search Central.
Electronic payments refer to any form of payment other than cash. This typically includes credit card payments, but can also refer to cryptocurrency.
E-Commerce is a term that refers to selling goods and services online. Even if your business only deals with physical goods or services at the store's location, you can also take advantage of e-commerce by offering the ability for customers to pay upfront. For example, a restaurant may offer a pre-paid special dinner package. Other businesses may offer redeemable vouchers.
In order to be able to process electronic payments, you have to work with a local bank that can provide what is called a Point of Sale (POS) system. Depending on the local circumstances and your particular business, banks may impose some (sometimes seemingly unreasonable) requirements.
Alternatively, there are several payment processing providers that also offer a POS and have good international coverage including:
There are no free solutions for processing of electronic payments. Most payment processing providers will charge a monthly fee in addition to credit card fees. Normally, maintenance fees should be under $20 per month and credit card fees range from 3-4% + 30-60¢ per transaction.
Businesses that want the ability to sell products or services online need for a way to process credit card payments on their website. Even if you already have the ability to process electronic payments at your physical business location, you might need to find another payment processing provider to process online payments.
For US, UK and AU businesses we recommend using Square Online, which does not charge a monthly fee for their base plan and includes a tool to help you build your website. A very popular alternative is Shopify, but that can be more expensive for small businesses. However, Shopify also acts as an intermediary that integrates with many other payment processing providers, including PayPal which works in nearly all countries.
Avoid handling customer credit card information. If that's not possible for logistical reasons, avoid storing customer credit card information in any form. By using one of the payment providers we recommend above, the credit card information is never stored in your online properties and all the liability of processing customer credit card information is handled by the payment provider.
Google is crucial in how potential customers can find out about your business online. Particularly, Google Search and Google Maps are two products widely used that can be leveraged to make your business easier to find online. Google My Business is a collection of tools provided by Google to help business owners manage a number of relevant Google services.
When you first sign up for Google My Business, Google may require you to enter the mailing address for your business so they can verify that it indeed belongs to you.
Even though most optimizations for Google Search are done as part of the website design, linking your website with Google My Business ensures that Google understands that your website belongs to a business and can provide richer information as part of the search results. To put it simply, the more information Google has about your business, the more likely it is for your business to be highly ranked in relevant search queries.
Google Maps is a very important tool for potential customers to discover your business. While your business may already appear on Google Maps, it's very important to link it to your Google My Business profile so you can manage the listing. This includes editing the description and category of your business, selecting which photos appear in Google Maps, as well as replying to user reviews.
Google My Business also provides a very simple website builder. It is not very customizable, so we recommend building your website as explained in the Creating A Website section instead. Make sure that your website is linked to your Google My Business listing by entering the web address as part of your business information.
If you reply to user reviews, especially if they are negative, be sure to always be polite and civil. While you can flag a user review as inappropriate for violating Google's policies, Google will not remove any negative reviews if you and the customer disagree about facts which Google has no way of discerning who is right. For more information about the process for requesting the removal of user reviews, see the Google My Business help page.
Digital advertising are promotional messages delivered over the internet. It is a multi-billion dollar industry, and it is expected to continue to grow as reliable internet access expands across the world. It can be one of the most efficient ways to reach out to potential customers, thanks to the benefits of targeted advertising.
Targeted advertising consists in focusing on a very specific audience, tailoring the promotional messages to them and only advertising to a subset of potential customers that fit a certain criteria.
While not all digital advertising is targeted advertising, targeted advertising has been the major factor for the growth in digital advertising and thus it represents the majority of the industry. For most purposes, the terms digital and targeted advertising are used interchangeably.
Digital advertising platforms often collect information about the user in order to enable
advertisers to target specific audiences more likely to lead to a certain business goal, which in
the context of digital advertising is called a conversion. Conversions are tracked by embedding
some tracking code to the promotional messages to distinguish where each customer came from. For
example, you might see some links that contain a long string of characters at the end like
?utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook – this tracking code indicates the origin of the customer.
Some digital advertising platforms may differ, but most of them make use of a real-time bidding system. When a potential customer visits a certain website, there may be one or more advertising slots to be filled with promotional content in that page. While the website loads, the digital advertising platform initiates an auction for the advertising slots, and advertisers bid to display their promotional message. This all happens in a matter of milliseconds, every time a user visits the website.
Advertising online can be extremely beneficial to your business, but if it's not done right it can also be a huge waste of money. In order to maximize the benefits of digital advertising, business owners need to first spend a significant amount of effort learning about digital advertising strategies. In addition to that, maintaining digital ads that lead to tangible business results requires a large, ongoing time commitment. An alternative could be to pay a digital advertising agency to manage this on your behalf, but digital advertising agencies generally have a minimum monthly cost which can be over $1,000.
For those reasons, we recommend that small businesses limit their investment in digital advertising and instead spend the effort and money on more traditional forms of marketing or on growing the core part of their business. Once the business has grown organically and can dedicate a significant budget to digital advertising, adopting digital advertising as part of your business will be much more beneficial.
One of the simplest forms of digital advertising are email lists. You should encourage visitors to your website to sign up for an email list or newsletter, so they can stay up to date with your business. If your type of business tends to have repeat customers (hint: most businesses do!) then you should make it very easy for customers to sign up for the email list or newsletter as part of the purchase.
Make sure that you don't sign up customers for your email list or newsletter without their consent. First, it can be outright illegal in some jurisdictions. Second, if enough recipients mark an email as spam, then emails from you will start being categorized as spam for all recipients automatically.
One of the most popular email marketing providers, which is free to use for the basic tier, is MailChimp. We recommend using a established, reputable platform, since email advertising has been subject to numerous regulations due to the anonymous nature of email attracting shady businesses.
Facebook Ads is one of the most successful advertising platforms that small businesses have access to. Because of the large amount of information that Facebook has about users across their platforms, which include Instagram and WhatsApp, advertisers can target their promotional messages to very specific audiences.
Google AdWords is arguably the longest-lived, most successful digital advertising platform in existence. Since Google AdWords is mainly used to deliver advertising to users of Google Search, what the users are looking for is used as the most important signal. Even though it is an extremely powerful tool, compared to Facebook Ads, it can be significantly more difficult to maximize the benefit of using Google AdWords – partly due to its complexity but also because developing successful advertising campaigns requires knowledge and practice.
In the context of this guide, social media refers to any platform that allows for small businesses to interact with potential customers. Similarly to digital advertising, social media requires a significant ongoing effort to be an effective tool. On the other hand, generally speaking, the only cost of investing in a good social media presence is your time since the most popular platforms are free to use.
You should monitor the social media channels that your business is in regularly. If you don't plan on maintaining your social media presence at least weekly, it may be better to reduce your focus to other areas of your digital presence.
Social media should not be seen simply as a tool to promote your business, that's the role of digital advertising. While promoting your business is one of the benefits of having a social media presence, the main difference between social media and other forms of marketing is the ability to engage and interact with potential customers.
The interactions with customers will be different depending on the type of business. For example, a restaurant might post about specials or limited time menu items to attract new customers whereas a bike shop might post about biking trails in order to engage and build a long-term relationship with their existing customers.
Social media platforms tend to change very rapidly. Either by their rise (and fall), or by the change of the demographics in their user base. To use social media effectively, you should keep up with what your customers are using — and potentially ignore the social media platforms that you might be most familiar with.
Further, each social media platform has its own conventions and rules, and you should not treat them all equally. For example, in some platforms, businesses can be expected to publish new content at most weekly but in others daily new content would be considered acceptable.
Even though you should monitor the social media channels that your business is in regularly, there are some tools that will help you save some time. There is no substitute to spending the time to read what customers are saying about your business online — a lot of that will be valuable feedback that can help your business!
On the other hand, you can save some time by scheduling social media posts in advance. Social media users tend to engage more with businesses that post content at regular intervals. We recommend using Buffer or Later, which will let you schedule social media posts in multiple platforms for free.
A famous quote used in the context of analytics is "if you can't measure it, you can't improve it". If you want to attract more potential customers by establishing an online presence, then you should also keep track of certain metrics to make sure that what you are doing is working.
There are many website analytics products, but many of them are short-lived and have very limited free options. We recommend using Google Analytics, which is one of the most powerful products available and also completely free. If you used Google Sites for your website, here are the instructions for setting up analytics. If you built your website some other way, go to the Google Analytics website for more info.
If you don't want to use a Google product, Clicky is a good alternative. You can also use Bit.ly, but that's limited to only tracking visitors to your website coming from the short links created with their platform. There's also Facebook Analytics, but it's a complex tool which might require a large time investment.
Social media platforms provide analytics about user engagement in different ways. For example,
you can see the metrics related to your business' Facebook page with Facebook's Page Insights.
Other platforms, such as Instagram, YouTube, etc. have the equivalent tools to keep track of user
engagement with your social media posts.
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