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Google helps small businesses tap Web

(MoneyWatch) Small businesses are a big part of the job market today, accounting for nearly half the jobs in the U.S. According to the Small Business Administration, 55 million jobs come from companies with less than 500 employees, and 20 million of those positions are from businesses with less than 20 people.

So how do the little guys compete with big corporations with huge ad budgets? Call it the Internet grassroots approach, along with help from Google (GOOG). The tech giant kicked off its "Get Your Business Online" program in June 2011 to help small business owners build and host Websites for a year at no cost.

What's in it for Google? The mission is to drive economic growth by helping local businesses get online and get more customers. Scott Levitan, Google's director of small business engagement, said it is in Google's best interest to get small businesses online. "There is a perception out there that getting online is hard and expensive and takes a lot of time," he said.

One of the program's key objectives is to debunk the idea that "getting online is hard," Levitan added. The goal is to help people create something "fast, easy and free" to teach them how to bring their business online.

And in this hyper-connected age, even small businesses are obviously at a major disadvantage if they lack an online presence. According to BIA/Kelsey, 97 percent of consumers use online media when researching products or services in their local area.

Yet 15 million U.S. businesses still aren't on the Web. "That's a lot of information that's invisible that cannot be found," Levitan said.

Google's program helped get several new enterprises set up online.

Five years ago, Marilyn Caskey started her business, The Garment Exchange, a consignment shop that sells used designer clothing in San Antonio, Tex. A year and a half ago, a Google employee told about a workshop the search company was holding in the area to help small businesses get online. Caskey jumped at the chance, and by the following weekend she had built her own website.

Caskey's business grew 40 percent from July 2011 to July 2012. In the past few months she's seen a 20 percent jump in sales. Her company's "online presence helped in a big way, it's been a huge help for business," she said. Sales at The Garment Exchange are about $14,000 a month. "Online has helped compete with franchises that have advertising presence on radio and TV."

Some other small businesses are seeing similar success. Melodie Bishop quit her job a year ago to dedicate her time to her business, Send Them Chicago, which makes gift baskets with a touch of Chicago style. Bishop said she "would not be in business without the website, [and] the online presence is a successful concept."

With the U.S. economy still struggling to break out after the 2008 financial crash, a broader move by small businesses to adopt Internet and mobile technologies could help power the recovery.

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