A Fresh Look at Business.gov

The government Web site Business.gov, which offers an array of resources for small businesses, has been updated to include state and local search capabilities.

Small business owners now can search for information from state and local government Web sites, as well as federal Web sites, from a single search box. The site is managed by the Small Business Administration, which worked with 22 federal agencies and 54 states and U.S. territories to incorporate their latest data.

I typed into the search box "starting a business in Rockville, Maryland" and relevant results were returned from the city of Rockville and Montgomery County.

I found a host of helpful, direct links from the state and local Web sites about getting a business started. Additionally, a box automatically pops up that says "Permit Me," allowing an aspiring entrepreneur to research which permits, licenses and registrations he might need for a particular field. I chose "electrician" and was delivered online a very detailed explanation of how to go about becoming an electrician in Rockville. However, I think users would benefit if the site offered more direct links to particular fields and was better alphabetized. For example, there are just 10 fields currently ranging from "beauty salon" to "plumber."

People "usually start thinking about what they have to do [to set up a business] where they live," said Nancy Sternberg, program manager of the Business Gateway Initiative. "A lot of times when you start [a business] you think what do you do locally and where do I go to get a business license. We feel like stretching from federal down to local areas is really trying to pull it all together for [users]."

Business.gov is based on Google's Business Custom Edition Search Tool, but the "beauty of Business.gov is you're searching on compliance-related information and it is federal, state and local - it's all government," said Sternberg. "You could certainly search Google or Yahoo, but the search results you get are going to be more voluminous."

To check that out, I typed in "opening a business in Rockville, Maryland" into Google's homepage and got 1.8 million results, including an enormous amount of unhelpful, misleading and confusing clutter.

A basic version of Business.gov was launched in October 2006 as a "linking site" that took users predominantly to information provided by the Labor Department. For example, the site highlighted for small businesses the importance of posting workplace safety posters - the lack of posting them is the most frequently fined item in a small business, Sternberg noted.

After conducting quarterly business focus groups to assess user feedback, the Business Gateway Initiative redesigned the site. Google became very interested in how the initiative was customizing its search tool and now the two are collaborating on a case study paper explaining the process.

Business.gov plans to update the site regularly with information and editorial content at least every other week, said Sternberg. It currently has some novel content - like direct links to the states that offer small business ombudsmen.

Many government-sponsored search tools are sparse and underfunded, or their funding gets phased out just when people begin to rely on them. Business.gov is funded by 22 agencies, with the entities that are big regulators - such as the Labor Department and the IRS - shouldering more of the cost. It is housed at the SBA.

After tinkering around with the tool for a couple of hours, I came to the conclusion that the site could be very beneficial for start-ups. It is easy to use and a lot easier to read than a lot of government Web sites. Plus, it can help a small firm right in their own neighborhood. It has the potential of becoming a very powerful site if it gets the attention it deserves - from both the public and its contributing agencies.

By Sharon McLoone |  February 22, 2008; 1:59 PM ET
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