Media giants squashing SME developers

Online business directories are attracting small business customers away from Web developersWeb developers that offer specialised services for small businesses are finding their target market is being swept up by large media players offering bundled services.

The small business market has often been seen as a slow adopter of using the Internet to conduct business. The attraction of this largely untapped market convinced a myriad of small development teams to offer specialised Web services, and has also attracted the likes of Peakhour to offer a broad range of SME services.

But small Web development businesses are starting to see a worrying trend on the Internet. The creation of online business directories, such as those offered by F2's Big Colour Pages, is squeezing developers out of the market with stock-standard Web pages being offered as a value-add to listing.

"I'm concerned that traditional media, which has a very tight and well-protected foothold in this country, is using its influence and existing customer base to the disadvantage of the small players," said Donna Lever, manager of Smart Artist Web Services.

Lever and her peers point out that a service like the Big Colour Pages build the cost of a free Web site into expensive published directories, distracting small businesses from creating more sophisticated sites through Web developers.

"As we all need a listing in these pages, you don't really have much choice," Lever said. "They pretty much have a stranglehold on the market."

Equally as concerning for Web developers is the poor quality of these sites which, according to Lever, frustrate the small business owner to the point where they no longer see the value of conducting business on the Internet.

"An awful Web page can be more detrimental than not having one at all," said Lever. "Most of the sites offered under the pretence of being free are really built into the price of the listing. The customer ends up with a rubber-stamped site, gets frustrated and jaded and gives up on the whole idea of the Web."

Brooke Galloway, Internet and e-commerce analyst at IDC, is not surprised small businesses are attracted by bundled services rather than paying for a design house.

"For the big media players, offering Web site design and hosting to small businesses also makes sense as they can see the long-term value once they have secured them as a customer," she said.

Finding an alternative

Lever has decided to scale back her business and focus on special requirement sites which require database work and shopping-cart functions. She urges small business owners to shop around among their own peers, as specialist Web developers tend to be more affordable and achieve better results.

"The fact of the matter is you only have to spend a few hundred or a few thousand dollars to have a well-presented site developed for you," she said. "It's probably going to cost you more than that to list in the business directory anyway."

F2, owner of the Big Colour Pages, was unavailable for comment.