January 15, 2003 12:00 PM PST

Web spec targets small businesses

Small businesses could gain a larger online presence through a new Internet specification now under development.

More on Web searches
The move to establish the specification, called the SMBmeta initiative, is being led by Dan Bricklin, who helped popularize PC software in the late 1970s as co-inventor of the first spreadsheet program.

On Friday, details of the project were posted on a Web discussion board for review by programmers.

Bricklin, chief technology officer at Interland, an Atlanta-based Web hosting company, said the project could greatly benefit small and medium-sized businesses, since it could make them more visible in the top search results of Google and other leading Internet search engines. Such engines are seen as a critical business tool for attracting customers.

SMBmeta, which stands for small and medium-sized business metadata, defines a standardized way to describe businesses in an electronic format. The specification details how businesses could create files, written in Extensible Markup Language (XML), to describe the goods and services they sell, where they are located, hours of operation and other information.

The files, in essence, help to create an online business directory. They would be attached to a company's domain name so that Web search engines such as Google, and online business directories such as Yahoo Yellow Pages, could list the business in search results.

For instance, a search for a company in Phoenix that sells Titleist golf balls would turn up in searches using the keywords Phoenix and golf balls, for instance, along with listings for other small businesses that fit the bill.

Many business owners complain their sales are hurt after their sites are seemingly arbitrarily dropped from top search results on Google and other leading sites. "It's a huge frustration," said Greg Boser, president of Web marketing consultancy WebGuerilla.

Neither Bricklin nor Interland will directly profit from acceptance of the new specification. In addition, use of SMBmeta doesn't require any proprietary software. But if it catches on, and helps businesses succeed, the specification could help create a larger market for Interland's hosting services.

There are several obstacles standing between SMBmeta and wide-scale acceptance, however. Google and other leading search engines would have to modify their software to work with the SMBmeta specification, said Bricklin. In addition, the potential millions of small businesses wanting to participate in the plan would have to create SMBmeta files, he said. The latter would be the easy part. For small businesses, creating an SMBmeta file should take only five minutes and cost next to nothing, according to Bricklin.

The more difficult task would be getting the major search engines to cooperate. Experts in the field of "search engine optimization," a cottage industry dedicated to helping businesses manipulate search results in their favor, were skeptical that search engines would adopt the SMBmeta technology or any kind of search system that relies on the honesty of Web masters to describe the content of their own sites.

"It's a noble idea, but it will never fly," said Boser. "For a small search engine without a lot of market share, it would be great. But in the eyes of a major search engine, it would be another tool spammers would abuse, and it would increase their policing work."

Keeping tag of results
Google and others several years ago phased out the use of an earlier technology similar to SMBmeta, called metatags, as a way of organizing search results. Metatags created huge headaches for search engine companies, because dishonest Web site operators used them to place their sites at the top of search results regardless of whether or not their site had any relation to the keywords--a phenomenon known as search-result spam.

A common problem at the time was that pornographic sites would take advantage of metatags to scatter links to their sites among unrelated search results, said Boser.

Bricklin said the SMBmeta system is designed to avoid the pitfalls of metatags while being much more useful. For one thing, Bricklin said, it would be easier to police and block Web sites abusing the system because SMB files are directly tied to domain name, which contains information about who operates the site in question.

Even so, Boser believes Bricklin will have a tough time convincing Google, a company with a reputation for doing things its own way and weeding out those who would manipulate its results. And Google, said Boser, is "the only game in town" when it comes to search results that matter. Google's power is, in part, a result of its agreements with Yahoo, America Online, EarthLink and others to provide those Web portals with search capabilities.

Bricklin has talked to several search engine companies about the SMBmeta initiative, but declined to name which ones. A representative at Google was unfamiliar with the initiative. Yahoo representatives did not respond to calls from CNET News.com about the project.

Bricklin is confident, however, that if he builds it, they--small businesses and search engines--will come. If Google doesn't get on board with the SMBmeta project, others will, Bricklin said.

"Google has to fight to stay where they are, and other players might come to the fore," said Bricklin. "But I love Google, and I would hope Google would support our proposal."

In addition to giving small companies a potential economic boost from added traffic, the technology could also provide search engine giants with higher income, said Bricklin, in that they could charge advertisers more for targeted ad placement as a result of more finely tuned search results, for example.

Bricklin, who is soliciting feedback from the programmer community, hopes to finalize a 1.0 version by the end of February. At the moment, he is trying to spread the word about the specification to Web site developers and small businesses through Interland.

 

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