With the health crisis we are experiencing today, the importance of digitalization is constantly coming back on the table. Everybody talks about e-commerce, digital strategies, and everybody explains that you have to be able to reach your customers through the Internet. 

All this is true, but what about the facts? More specifically, what is happening on the ground and what is the relationship that SMBs have with their website? 

We asked ourselves this question. In this article, you will discover the results of the survey conducted by Sortlist on 500 SMBs in order to better understand how these companies perceive their website and online presence. 

Main findings

  • 22% of SMBs do not have a website yet
  • There is a correlation between the size of the SMB and its chances of having a website.
  • 38% of SMBs with a website think it should be more mobile-friendly
  • Creating quality content is the top priority for SMBs in 2020

This study answers several questions. Firstly, to what extent do European SMBs have a website. Secondly, which SMBs are most likely to already have a website, based on their turnover and nationality. Finally, what are the elements that SMBs attach most importance to in order to improve the performance of their website. 

Table of Content

More and more SMBs are active on the Web

Today, having a website is no longer a recommendation. It is a prescription. In 2019, 51% of consumers reported using Google to find out about a product or service they were considering buying online. This figure rises to 59% for products they were planning to buy online or in a store. In addition, 60% of consumers with a smartphone said they use Google to directly contact the companies they are considering buying from. Finally, more than 50% of respondents say they use Google to discover new products. 

And these figures are only going to increase. According to Statista, between 2011 and 2021, the time spent on the Internet increased from 75 minutes to 192 minutes per day, per individual. That’s a 156% increase.

What this means is that if an SMB does not have a presence on Google, it misses a huge opportunity to increase the size of its customer base. 

And fortunately, SMBs are aware of this. Our study found that 47% of SMBs launched a website before 2019 and almost 15% launched a website in 2019.

smb_website_1

Having said that, we note that more than 20% of SMBs do not yet have a website dedicated to their activity, i.e. more than one SMB in five. When we know that there were more than 25 million SMBs in the European Union in 2018, 20% is a considerable figure. And this is without taking into account the 15% of SMBs that launched their website in 2019! 

It seems to me that emphasizing on the importance of this figure is crucial. SMBs account for more than half of the EU economy and employ 66% of the European workforce. This represents almost 100 million people directly employed by an SMB, on which their relative depends. This can be their children or the elderly who depend on the pension system.

What I am getting at is that behind the issue of the digitalisation of SMBs, which can be a cold and somewhat abstract subject, there are real people who depend directly on these SMBs. 

Which SMBs are most likely to have a website?  

 According to our study, two factors have a role to play. 

The size of the company

First of all, the size of the SMB and its turnover are directly correlated with the use of a website. In concrete terms, 90% of companies with an annual turnover of between 30 and 50 million euros have a website. For companies with annual revenues between €0 and €100,000, this figure falls to 45%. 

smb_website_2

It therefore appears that the smaller the turnover, the least a company is likely to set up a website. Which is really unfortunate, given the fact that the Internet is a great channel for generating leads, acquiring new customers, and building customer loyalty. What is all the more glaring is the gap between companies with an annual revenue of less than €100,000 and those that exceed this figure. There is a real gap, as if the €100,000 barrier played a role in the adoption of a website. 

The nationality of the company

Then we discovered that depending on the country in which the SMB is located, its chances of having a website are different. 

In concrete terms, Belgian SMEs are the least likely to have an online presence, while German SMEs are far ahead. 

smb_website_3

Indeed, while 22% of German SMEs say they do not have a website, this figure rises to 42% for Belgian SMEs. The Netherlands is in second place, with only 25% of SMEs not having a website, while France and Spain are at 34% and 33% respectively. 

We believe that this figure is linked to the environment in which these SMEs operate on a daily basis. When we look at the Global Digital Competitiveness Ranking, which measures the ability and willingness of 63 economies to adopt and explore digital technologies as a key driver of economic transformation for businesses, governments and society at large, there is a real difference between Belgium and Germany. According to the study, Belgium is in 25th place (the country has been falling steadily since 2016), while Germany is stable and has been around 17th place since 2015. 

Several factors play a role in this ranking. 

  • The emphasis on knowledge generation, which measures the ability to discover, understand and build new technologies. 
  • Technology as such, which measures whether a country’s context is conducive to the development of digital technologies. 
  • Readiness, which measures the ability to fully exploit digital transformations. 

More concretely, economies that are able to adopt new technologies quickly and that are flexible with respect to innovations achieve better results. Moreover, according to this ranking, there is a direct correlation between economies that place importance on the generation of new knowledge and those with strong digital competitiveness. 

This goes well beyond the responsibility of SMEs, it is the whole institutional environment that is concerned. What can be assumed is that the German digital context is more favorable to the creation of websites than the Belgian digital context. 

This means that there is still a lot of room for improvement in Belgium, but that doesn’t mean everything is perfect in Germany. In France, the Netherlands and Spain too. 

For SMEs, with a website or not, there are many points of attention to be taken into account, as we will see later on in this article. 

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What is the situation in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Belgium?

The 500 SMEs that responded to our survey are spread across these five countries. This allows us to make comparisons and to measure the extent to which differences exist between these SMEs. 

France

In France, 34% of SMEs do not have a website. Among the 66% that do have a website, we noticed two priorities: 

  • 35% want to make their website more adapted to the mobile format
  • Generate quality content

Germany

In Germany, 22% of SMEs do not have a website. Of the 78% that do have a website, the same two priorities emerge: 

  • 36% want to make their website more suitable for the mobile format
  • Generate quality content

The Netherlands

In the Netherlands, 25% of SMEs do not have a website. On the other hand, for the 75% that do have a website, there is a difference in priority compared to France and Germany: 

  • 51% of these SMEs want to make their website more adapted to the mobile format, i.e. more than half!
  • Content generation takes second place to the importance of the mobile format

Spain

In Spain, the situation is quite similar to that in France. 33% of SMEs do not have a website, and the priorities of the 67% of SMEs with a website are the same: 

  • 35% want to make their website more adapted to the mobile format
  • Generate quality content

Belgium

Finally, Belgium is in a rather peculiar situation. Indeed, 42% of Belgian SMEs do not have a website, the highest figure in this study. On the other hand, the 58% of SMEs that have a website seem to be more concerned than French, German and Spanish SMEs about their transition to mobile: 

  • 43% of Belgian SMEs want to make their website more mobile-friendly
  • The creation of content is not a priority, but it is the safety of navigation that is particularly emphasized by Belgian SMEs 

Why not all SMEs have a website yet?

Our study revealed four main reasons why some SMEs do not yet have a website dedicated to their business. 

smb_website_4

Relevance between the website and the industry

37% of SMEs are not convinced that a website would be useful to them in the industry in which they operate. 

There are two problems behind such a belief. 

Firstly, it amounts to completely ignoring the fact that the Internet is conquering every industry. They may not all be involved yet, but it will soon be the case. If we were to go back to the early 2000s, it’s very likely that the bookseller in your neighbourhood was not convinced that a website would be useful to his business. 10 years later, Amazon had a 19% market share in book sales, with more than 40 million books sold in one year

This bookseller’s problem was that he relied on the past to predict the future and thus predict what he would need to stay competitive. The problem with this reasoning is that no one can predict the future, and this is even more true with the Internet. 

Book sales may not have changed much between the year 1000 and the year 2000. On the other hand, it was revolutionized between 2000 and 2010 with delivery, and between 2010 and 2020 with the appearance of the Kindle and the expansion of audiobook services such as Audible, for example. 

Today, we can’t look to the past to see what needs to be done in the years to come because things can change overnight. Nassim Taleb, author of several best-sellers and a statistician specializing in risk and randomness, presents this problem in his book “Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder”. 

In this book, Taleb presents this situation in the form of the “Turkey Problem”. 

Let’s say a turkey has a lifespan of 1001 days, without it knowing it, of course. Between day 0 and day 501, this turkey has seen its situation improve: it is being fed daily, its weight is steadily increasing, and the farmer seems to be taking good care of it. Its conclusion? Breeders love turkeys! If the situation improved between day 0 and day 501, it should continue for the next 500 days. So it uses the previous 501 days to predict the next 500 days. 

Until we get to Thanksgiving, when it’s no longer a very good idea to be a turkey. In this situation, the steady growth you’ve experienced for 1,000 days collapses in a snap: 

smb_website_5

Coming back to our 37% of SMEs who are not convinced of the relevance of a website for their industry: just because it wasn’t relevant in the past doesn’t mean it won’t be relevant in the future. And we had a real-life demonstration of this with the arrival of Covid-19: how many companies realised that they were totally depending on their physical point of sale and that their non-presence on the web was going to put them at risk during the containment period?  

Then, the second problem behind this reasoning is that it totally neglects the scope that a website can give to a company. It is literally a window on the world that allows it to reach an infinitely larger number of people than a simple point of sale. 

Naval Ravikant, co-founder of AngelList and investor in Uber, Foursquare, and Twitter explains it very well: 

The Internet has connected everyone. You can find the audience that will be interested in your product or service, no matter how far apart you are. 

Today’s competition is global. An SME is not only in competition with the companies in the surrounding area, but with all the companies that offer the same services and/or products around the world. Not having a website is a major flaw in facing this competition. 

The use of social media

The second reason why SMEs do not have a website concerns the use of social networks. It is true that these platforms have a role to play in the visibility of companies, and that they can be real acquisition and loyalty channels. 

Some companies are specialists in this field and manage to use these networks to their full potential to create a relationship with their target audience and customers. 

However, relying solely on social networks to provide an online presence for one’s business is a flawed strategy. 

First, in terms of branding, it may seem strange to have a presence on Facebook and/or Instagram but no website. If you put yourself in the consumer’s shoes, what reaction is he likely to have if he finds a company on Instagram but cannot find his website? 

Second, there is a risk in terms of control. When you post content on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, you are not at home. Concretely, you are at the mercy of the slightest change in the conditions of use and/or the publishing algorithm used by these platforms. For example, between 2012 and 2014, the organic reach of an average facebook page went from 16% to 6.5%. For an SME that would rely solely on Facebook to get its messages across, such a drop can be a real visibility problem. 

For an SME, having a website gives it more control over the content it can publish and gives it more options to maintain its online visibility. Of course, we are all likely to be affected by Google’s updates, the last of which took place in May 2020, but Google gives more options to deal with such changes. 

When Facebook decides to drop the organic reach, the possibilities to adapt are limited, and often you have to pay to maintain your visibility. When Google changes its algorithm, it is always possible to adapt its SEO strategy.  

In the end, one should not come without the other. The use of social networks and a website are complementary and SMEs must have a global digital communication strategy to preserve their online visibility as much as possible. The logic could be compared to a supply-chain: instead of having a single factory producing 1,000,000 units, it is better to have two factories each producing 500,000 units in order to spread the risk and not put all your eggs in the same basket. 

Lack of budget

According to the results of our study, the overwhelming majority of SMEs allocate a budget ranging from 0 to 10,000€ for the design of their website. 

smb_website_6

However, the third reason cited for the lack of a website is precisely the lack of budget. 

There are two flaws in this reasoning. 

The first is that the development of a website should not be seen as a cost, but as an investment. Certainly, the creation and implementation of a website has a price. However, the benefits associated with the creation of such a website are not negligible, and that should weigh in the balance. 

Among these benefits are the following: 

  • The opportunity to reach a global audience
  • Digital sales save time and work
  • A better brand image
  • More efficient than a physical store
  • The ability to effectively track the results of sales and marketing efforts that are put in place

However, we must also consider the context in which this obstacle in the budget was cited. Indeed, our study was done in the middle of the Covid-19 period, and one of the questions we asked was whether the economic context had impacted or not the marketing budget of the SMEs surveyed. 

There is no doubt about it: nearly 60% of the SMEs that had planned to create a website reduced their budget dedicated to their online presence. 

smb_website_7

It is perfectly normal, and even logical, to reduce the costs a company has to bear to get through a crisis. However, for all the arguments that have already been put forward, reducing spending on marketing and communication does not seem to be the best strategy. 

The second flaw behind this budget problem is that there are plenty of tools available to create a website at a lower cost. These include Squarespace, Wix, Strikingly, Webflow, Weebly, Shopify, and so on. In addition, there are thousands of resources that provide step-by-step advice on how to create websites. 

The price of a website has dropped drastically with technological advances, especially for an SME that does not have the same needs as a large group. The problem of budget should therefore not be an obstacle to the creation of a website, especially when we see all the benefits that can be derived from it. 

Lack of skills

Again, there should be no such objection. First of all, because there are dozens of tools that allow you to create a website very easily, without touching a single line of code. This is the case of the six tools mentioned above, for example. 

Secondly, because with the development of the Internet, it is now possible to acquire dozens of skills related to the creation and maintenance of a website. Knowledge is more accessible than ever. 

Finally, for those who don’t have the necessary skills and don’t want to get their hands dirty, there are services like Sortlist that make it very easy to find a provider. 

What are the priorities for SMEs that already have a website?  

Improving mobile performance

The priority that jumped out at us was to make the website more mobile-friendly.

smb_website_8

According to the results of our survey, 38% of SMEs consider that their site should be more mobile-friendly, and 26% of the SMEs surveyed consider this to be their priority for the year 2020. And rightly so! Between 2013 and 2019, smartphones increased their market share of global traffic from 16.2% to 53.3%. This figure has been rising steadily since 2009, and is likely to continue to rise, given that access to a smartphone is much easier than access to a computer, especially in developing countries. 

In addition, ignoring the responsiveness of a website can have a major impact on a company’s ability to compete on search engines. In April 2015, Google launched an update that penalizes companies that do not create a mobile-friendly website. 

Finally, not having a website adapted to mobile browsing is tantamount to missing a huge opportunity to reach the Millennials and Gen-Z, for whom mobile browsing is an integral part of daily life.

Producing high quality content

The second priority we found was content creation: 28% of SMEs with a website say this is their main priority for 2020. 

smb_website_9

It makes sense to us. When we look at the statistic we quoted earlier, that 59% of consumers say they use Google to find out about a product or service they are considering buying, the creation of quality content clearly has a role to play in converting these prospects into customers. 

In addition, content creation can be an acquisition channel. By producing high value-added content targeting keywords related to an SME’s business areas, the SME is likely to appear in the search results of its target customers on Google. And it works: 72% of marketers say that content marketing generates more engagement and more leads. 

The importance of SEO is underestimated

One thing that stands out among these priorities is the low importance given by SMEs to improving their SEO. Indeed, only 17% of SMEs with a website consider improving SEO to be their priority for 2020.

Of course, all the priorities in this table are important, but SEO has a special place. It is a major asset that will play a role in the long term, and must be combined with efforts devoted to content production. An SME that manages to combine a strong SEO with high-quality content will have a major advantage over its competitors because it will be much more promoted by Google. In our opinion, SEO should be taken much more seriously. 

Improving security and user experience

The last two priorities cited by SMEs with a website are security (26%) and user experience (27%). These priorities are relevant. As far as user experience is concerned, having a website that manages to combine an attractive design with ease of use is key to the success of any business. 

As far as security is concerned, this priority is also relevant, especially for Millennials and Gen-Z. Indeed, 79% of them fear being a victim of online fraud, and 73% of them are worried about the use companies make of their personal data. In addition, 25% of both generations have already ended a relationship with a company because it was unable to protect their personal data. 

What this means is that Internet users are becoming increasingly educated about their data, and it is quite possible that data protection will become a criterion for purchasing decisions. If this were to happen, SMEs that make data protection one of their priorities could be favoured by the Millennials and Gen-Z. 

How do SMEs build their websites?  

For SMEs that already have a website, 40% of them have decided to collaborate with an agency, whether it be in web design or UX. 

smb_website_10

This seems to us to be a good strategy, which we encourage and support. 

Indeed, digitalisation has created a lot of new opportunities for SMEs, but it has also brought its share of complexity. The one does not come without the other, and it is necessary to understand this complexity in order to fully grasp the opportunities of digitization. 

And we are convinced that the best way to do this is to surround ourselves with the right people and to build strong relationships with experts who can advise us. That’s why Sortlist exists, because we want to play a role in helping SMEs, and any company in general, to stay up to date with digitization by working with the best providers on the market. 

More details on this study

The study on which this article is based was conducted between May 19th and May 21st, 2020. Specifically, Sortlist interviewed 500 SMEs, divided between France, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain. These SMEs are companies with less than 250 employees and do not exceed 50 million euros in annual turnover. Finally, the respondents of this study were either managing directors or owners of an SME.