Thanks to location-specific services (like Google and Yahoo maps), the Worldwide Web is becoming a great resource for local business. In fact, I believe all small and local businesses should have their own Web sites. But many don't.
MerchantCircle, officially launching today, is a site publishing tool aimed squarely at these very small businesses. The site has two things going for it. First, 14 million small businesses are already programmed onto the site, waiting for their owners to "claim" them and grow them into more robust micro-sites. If a business owner wants to get his or her shop online, and the site's barebones page is already set up, there may be no quicker way to establish an online presence.
Second, the service is designed to make sure that search engines and mapping services find the pages on it. While potential customers of the businesses represented on the site can go to MerchantCircle.com directly, the system's CEO, Ben Smith, realizes that most people find businesses on Google, so he's built his system to create pages that Google (and other search engines) will find and rank highly. In this regard MerchantCircle is a lot like CitySearch, whose local business listings frequently show up at the top of Google search results. MerchantCircle, however, is targeted at smaller communities where online expertise is not common -- in other words, the team won't be marketing to the Bay Area, Seattle, or New York.
At its free service level, MerchantCircle is absolutely worth a try for any small business. But the free product is just a tease. For $29.95 a month, MerchantCircle will put one paid ad a month on engines like Google and Yahoo. This advertisement management is the real value of MerchantCircle -- unless you are good at managing a paid online advertising program yourself, in which case you might be able to get more traffic for your money. For $99.95 a month, you get more ads placed and a personal consultant. Again, this is not a bad value for the business owner who values time over money and doesn't want to worry about the Web.
MerchantCircle's paid programs look like easy and relatively inexpensive ways for small businesses to get online in local markets. Businesses serious about expanding on to the Web will probably outgrow the service in short order -- but they might get some good value from MerchantCircle before that.