When the owners of Harris Crab House and W.H. Harris Seafood Inc. in Grasonville decided to create a Web site, they hoped to attract more customers and increase sales, especially of the restaurant's signature crab soup and steamed shrimp.
Nearly three years later, they say the results have been disappointing.
The Internet accounts for a minuscule amount of business - less than 5 percent - and the Web site attracts mostly loyal followers rather than fresh customers.
"We haven't seen the results that we thought we would," said one of the owners, Karen Oertel.
Though small companies still lag behind larger, more technologically hip firms in creating Web sites, their Internet presence is growing. But both consultants and business owners say many small companies haven't seen the payoff they expected.
"There are a lot of businesses that have put up Web sites and haven't done the correct research, so, therefore, they're not getting the bang for the buck that they could be getting," said Jeryl Baker, director of marketing and design for Connextion, an Ellicott City Internet service provider and Web-page designer.
Oertel and other small-business owners complain that few people visit their sites or buy their products online. Other companies say they let their sites become outdated because they don't have the money or manpower to keep them current. Often, they end up pulling the plug.
A recent survey by the National Federation of Independent Business, for instance, found that 35 percent of small companies have Web sites and that the average life span of these sites is 21 months.
But consultants say even the most cash-strapped businesses can create a strong Web presence, and that a site is vital to remain competitive in the marketplace. In some cases, consultants say, the Internet can help level the competitive field between large and small companies.
"I don't care what type of business you are, you've got to have a Web site," said Pamela L. Porter, a regional director of the Maryland Small Business Development Center. "It's marketing while you're asleep. The Web is available 24/7 and it's available worldwide. What else can you pay for that can get you that much exposure?"
Yet merely having a site isn't enough, small businesses are discovering. Marketing, advertising, design of the site and where it's listed on the Internet all play a part in its effectiveness.
When Daedalus Books in Columbia created a company Web site six years ago, it barely affected sales. The site was all text and hard to maneuver and read, said company co-founder and Executive Vice President Helaine Harris.
The company, which sells surplus books and compact discs, has since revamped the site. There is a color picture and synopsis of most books. Online shoppers can put purchases in a computerized shopping cart.
"We saw that our customers wanted to purchase from us that way, but we needed to make it easier for them to do that," Harris said. Internet sales have doubled every year since the new site was unveiled four years ago and now account for 20 percent of total sales. Nearly 2 million people visit it every month.
"A Web site is just like a Yellow Page advertisement or a billboard," said Gary Porter, owner of National Business Products in Columbia, who also had to revamp his initial site. "You've got to have substance to it. You have to promote it and let people know it exists."
His store's first Web site was little more than an informational page listing its location and what it sells: office furniture and supplies. Porter has since enhanced the site with photos of desks, chairs and other merchandise. People can order online or scan the site to see what's in stock before they come in. Business has increased 50 percent, thanks to the Internet.
"We took a superficial site and added a lot of meat to it," Porter said. "We get about 20 to 30 visitors a day. Do all those turn into a sale? No. But if we get 100 hits and 10 people show more than a mild interest, one of those will probably buy."
Connextion's Baker said bad marketing and poor position on search engines such as yahoo.com and aol.com are two of the biggest factors hurting small-business Web sites.
Ideally, when a user types a keyword into a search engine, a business' site should appear near the top of the results. A knowledgeable programmer can help a Web site gain a more prominent spot on search results.
"If it's a pizza shop and you type pizza into the keyword search, are they going to come up [No.] 1, 2, 3 or 5,000?" Baker asked. "It's important how the site is submitted and how relevant the keyword is."
People also need to know that a company's Web site exists, business consultants said. Marketing budgets should include money to promote a company's Internet presence. At the least, businesses should include the Web address on any correspondence that bears the company's name.