By Claire West

Prominence on Internet Search Engines is a significant stress and concern for one third of UK small businesses, according to research released last week by Fasthosts Internet Ltd, (www.fasthosts.co.uk ), a leading web hosting provider.

The study of 467 small firms also finds that a large number have not addressed these concerns by attempting to improve their rankings. Furthermore, 27 per cent of firms with a website admit that they have never used online methods to interact directly with customers, and only 23 per cent of businesses participate in social networking. Data from 1000 UK consumers shows that 38 per cent of Britons regularly look for social networking material from businesses. Whilst 1 in 3 consumers now expects to read responses from companies to negative reviews posted online, only 14 per cent of firms are providing these. Both studies show that all types of UK business can benefit from efforts to improve their online visibility, branding and communication.

Fasthosts 'Business Connectivity Audit' reveals that online visibility is a key stress factor for 34 per cent of UK small firms, both in terms of attracting consumers and suppliers or partners. 1 in 5 businesses suspects that it may be held back by an under-investment in online marketing this seasonal trading period, more than those who have under-purchased stock, or under-invested in their premises. Despite widespread concern, few companies are properly tackling the issue, with 41 per cent having never attempted to optimise their position in search engines.

Cost is a key deterrent for many small businesses when considering their search engine positions. 1 in 4 firms believe that paying to optimise their positions would be too costly. Some 35 per cent of businesses have paid to optimise their online visibility in the past but were not properly aware of the total costs at the time. 11 per cent are deterred by past failed attempts to optimise their online visibility. Furthermore, the majority of businesses admit they currently fail to understand their 'virtual footfall'. Only 28 per cent of small companies believe that they understand their number of website visitors effectively.

Steve Holford, Marketing Director, Fasthosts Internet Ltd., said "For many small firms, battling for online visibility can be a real stress and seem too daunting a challenge to take on. However, every business owner should know that there are now low-cost, point-and-click solutions for both improving search engine positions and understanding how their website is being used".

It appears that online communication is still a problem for many UK businesses. Even basic website features, such as an email contact form, are still absent from 41 per cent of SME websites. Only 6 per cent of firms use live-chat to communicate with customers visiting their website. Despite the huge popularity of social networks with Britons, only 23 per cent of firms are publishing social networking material. The figure is lower for real-time activities such as Twitter (15 per cent), and multi-media or video channels such as YouTube (7 per cent).

This is in direct contrast with data from 1000 British consumers, which finds that consumers now expect a package of online participation - web presence, dialogue and social networking. 38 per cent of Britons now actively look for social media material from companies when making purchases, and 55 per cent appreciate multi-media material such as video clips. Consumers today are now sensitive to online branding. 60 per cent would like small companies to show consistent online branding across everything they present online including social networks.

Significantly, 1 in 3 consumers now expect to read responses from companies to negative material about them posted online. Such material can often be published on review websites, news and industry websites and consumer forums. Alarmingly, the study reveals that only 14 per cent of small businesses are currently responding to such online material. Encouragingly, only 1 in 5 consumers report that negative online material alone would lead them to avoid a retailer altogether. The data suggests that consumers expect businesses to engage with what is written about them online, and all firms can benefit from managing their online reputation.

Holford added, "Research shows that consumers now expect to analyse online reviews and branded multi-media material as part of their online purchasing decisions. Every small business can gain from demonstrating a commitment to their audience through interacting online, and presenting their activities proactively on popular social media channels".

Today, there are web-based tools available which any business can use to improve their position within search engines. For example, Fasthosts TrafficDriver SEO, available from only £24 per year+VAT, will submit a business website to hundreds of search engines worldwide and guarantee a Google listing. TrafficDriver also generates detailed monthly reports that can provide excellent insights when defining an online marketing strategy.

As a leading web hosting provider, and Technology Sponsor of The Great Exhibition 2012, Fasthosts offers a comprehensive range of web solutions including domain name registrations, email solutions (including mobile email services), shared web hosting, virtual servers, dedicated servers, secure online storage, online payment services, reseller web hosting and feature-rich broadband packages. Fasthosts is well placed to deliver a high quality service. All data is hosted in Fasthosts' state-of-the-art UK based data centre.