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Great Free Tools for Online Business
By Caroline Waxler
From market research to Web design, some online tools can help improve your site and save you money at the same time.
One of the great things about the Web is the proliferation of free information and tools available. There is even a movement out there, called Open Source, which Wikipedia defines as describing “practices in production and development that promote access to the end product's sources.”
Here’s how you can take advantage of the generosity out there that’s ripe for the picking:
Check out the website for SCORE, a non-profit which describes itself as "Counselors to America's Small Business" and “America's premier source of free and confidential small business advice for entrepreneurs.” The site offers loads of free tools and advice such as how to write up a business plan, build a website, and position your business. It should be one of the first stops that any small business owner should make if he hasn’t already, and even then it should be a routine click because there is often new information posted.
There is help for small businesses to be found all over the Internet, says Victor Liu, co-founder of Web Advanced, a Web design firm in Irvine, Calif. One site that aggregates them for you is The Free Site, essentially an online holding pen of practically every free deal out there (hence the name). Some tools to help you ramp up your online presence include Marketing Today, which offers information about online marketing, and Any Browser, which lets you know how others see your site when it pops up on their browser. The latter also provides tools to fix things in case it turns out that the site others are seeing is indeed not what you intended. For better functioning websites, Liu highly recommends Google Analytics, which can help you find out how much of your traffic is organic versus paid.
Get the message out:
Blogs and podcasts can be valuable tools for companies to promote their sites. Paul Epstein, CEO of High Voltage Interactive, an online marketing firm, has suggestions of where to get started on these. For free information about blogs check out Technorati and also see Blogwise about setting up your own. For information on how to set up podcasts, check out PodBlaze.
If it’s free, can it be good
Gary Chen, the small and medium business strategies analyst at the Yankee Group, a Boston research firm, also is cynical. A lot of free sites are not what they appear to be; they have hazy privacy policies. Check to see what the policies are -- a quick search on the Internet to see if anything bad comes up can be a good start. “But, if you’re not sure, stay with a more reputable site,” he says.
But even if it is reputable, as with anything gotten for free, especially if the service isn’t be offered by a non-profit organization, be careful. Justin Kitch, CEO and co-founder of Homestead Technologies, Inc., a website creation software company that once had a different business model involving giving away free product, knows of what he speaks. “If something is for free there’s a reason,” he says. “If you offer a free service you can’t think about the free customers. The most important person is this case isn’t the customer it’s the sponsor.”
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