By Daniel Hunter

With two thirds of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the UK having no digital presence, and only one in seven selling their products and services online, 123-reg has proposed a core 'curriculum' of online skills to give business owners the confidence to get on the web.

According to recent research from Martha Lane Fox’s charity Go ON, UK businesses are missing out on billions of pounds of revenue because they don’t have a website or e-commerce platform. The report also points to a worrying lack of basic online skills among the population in general, and small businesses in particular, which is costing the economy £63bn annually.

In response to the report 123-reg, the UK’s biggest accredited domain registrar, has suggested a simple 'self-taught' curriculum for small businesses to get online, and designed to give directors and owners the skills and confidence they need to engage successfully with the web.

The curriculum revolves around five core skills: basic knowledge of HTML; website building and editing; search engine optimisation (SEO); website security; and monetising your website.

“It’s astonishing that there should be so few small businesses online in 2012,” said Thomas Vollrath, CEO of 123-reg’s parent company Host Europe Group. “To suggest that two thirds of SME’s see the web as unimportant is scarcely credible; it seems much more likely that it is a lack of skills that is deterring them.

“Companies like 123-reg help to get people and businesses online, but we can only help those who have taken the decision to register a domain and set up a website. That’s why we are proposing a simple set of five core skills to de-mystify the online world and show how simple it can be to put your business on the web,” he continued.

Vollrath stressed that the curriculum was not an attempt to create a comprehensive course in IT skills, and instead was focused on the areas that would give business owners confidence in their own abilities, and which they could teach themselves using free, publicly-available resources.

“We included HTML because it is a perfect example of online technology that seems terrifyingly complicated, but which is actually incredibly simple to get to grips with,” said Vollrath . “If you spend a couple of minutes teaching yourself some basic HTML tags, for example, you’ll be able to start taking control of editing your own website, and will be empowered to learn more and improve the look and functionality of your site.

“Similarly, web editing software may seem daunting, but with WYSIWYG editors it’s very quick and easy to add content and new features to your website. While website builders like those from 123-reg will provide a range of templates which require no programming ability at all, having even the most basic, easily-mastered web editing skills will enable you to take control of your business’s online presence without needing to employ expensive web developers.

“Keeping a website updated with relevant, interesting content is also one of the pillars of search engine optimisation (SEO),” continued Vollrath. “Again, the principles of SEO — such as usability, links, content and keywords — are easily learned without recourse to an SEO expert.

“On security, the priority for any business is to ensure that their site does not become compromised by malware, which can steal visitors’ data or turn the infected website itself into a malware or spam distributor. The good news is that you don’t need a degree in computer security to protect your site: there are affordable, easy-to-use tools available that can spot, pinpoint and help to remove malicious code from legitimate websites.

“Once you have mastered website design, optimisation and security, the final piece of the puzzle is to start making money. Building an e-commerce application can be as simple as buying a programme that combines shopping cart, tax calculator, order notification and payment capabilities, as well as in-built security functions such as SSL. Of course, as with everything in our suggested curriculum, a little research will go a long way — we just urge all business owners to take the plunge and see how easy it is to succeed online,” Vollrath concluded.

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