We all know Facebook is huge—more than 800 million active users huge, in fact. Social activity is seeping into many facets of today's business, but it remains to be seen if Facebook's dynamic pages have the power to impact (or even replace) the role of traditional business websites.
Businesses have and will continue to turn to Facebook for online marketing, but is it a good idea to leave the traditional dot-com website behind?
In large enterprises, it may be an easy question to answer. Most websites at bigger companies are a complex beast where integration between back-end databases and systems—often proprietary or legacy—and your website is crucial. Here, Facebook alone clearly just doesn't cut it.
Where Facebook can potentially work as a stand-alone Web presence is with the small businesses and entrepreneurs of the world.
A study of small businesses and social media by Network Solutions showed that small businesses that use social media were rather optimistic about seeing a pay-off with social activity. In its "State of Small Business Report," Network Solutions report that nine percent of small businesses plan to eliminate their traditional website due to social media.
Granted, nine percent is not a staggering number, but when you consider that the United States alone is home to more than 27 million small businesses, it's apparent that some do see value in using Facebook as a primary Web presence.
Why Facebook Is an Alternative to Traditional Websites
As with most free online services-such Gmail or WordPress-Facebook is attractive to small business owners because it's quick, easy and free. Since coding and HTML skills are not required, you can create a decent Facebook Page for your business in minutes without needing IT staff or tech support to get it done.
Proponents of Web marketing and commerce services like would like you to believe that all small businesses need a website, but in truth not all do. Take a local family-run landscaping business, for example. Having a website isn't likely to bring herds of new customers, so this kind of business could use Facebook to build a local online community of fans and use important demographic information.
According to Facebook, there is really no "typical" small business on the social networking site. In an email with CIO.com, a Facebook spokeswoman said, "We've seen all types of small businesses use Facebook, such as restaurants, coffee shops, retail stores, online cosmetics retailers, sports equipment and music stores."
So, for some small businesses using Facebook instead of building a website makes sense: It's an easy way to make your phone number and address available to Internet users and reach out to customers. Being free, it is especially attractive to cash-strapped businesses that need an online presence.
Why Facebook Can't Replace Most Websites
Diane Buzzeo, CEO and founder of Ability Commerce,> an ecommerce software provider, says she thinks that Facebook and websites will continue to merge, but she doesn't believe that social media will ever replace ecommerce and search engines.
Right now, ecommerce on Facebook (or F-commerce if you like buzzwords) is a lightweight offering that doesn't provide a true ecommerce experience for the customer.
At best, F-commerce can showcase new or top products from your online store, or special and limited edition items offered by big brands. You can incorporate a small store-like Page (called a "shopping tab") or dynamic business landing pages, but these apps are not the full-featured product catalog you're going to need to manage on your own ecommerce website.
"I think social media is unbelievably valuable with a huge potential for getting information and advertising value in social media, but then you need to bring people back to the store to place the order," she said.
One thing Buzzeo said she expects to become more powerful is for businesses to integrate links from Facebook shopping to their website shopping cart. If a customer looks at a product on your Facebook shopping Page, the item would be added to their cart on the ecommerce website, when the customer is logged in.
The Facebook ecosystem is new and the platform is constantly changing. Peter Kim, chief strategy officer of SaaS-based social business solutions company, Dachis Group, said this is a lot like a business-leasing property.
"Your page is real estate on Facebook's page and you have to play by their rules. Some changes are rolled out with little notice," he said. "If you have a small business, it might be easy to get a page up and running but difficult to maintain over time-not only from a community management, but a technology perspective as well."
Don't Choose One: Integrate
Right now, experts don't see a big move towards replacing a business websites with Facebook Pages-even within the next five years. The big shift is in integrating the two.
Even Facebook agrees. According to the social networking giant, potentially, dynamic Facebook Pages could replace static websites for small businesses, but Facebook says most businesses use the social networking platform in conjunction with their own website for maximum reach and exposure.
Kim said that it's a good idea to use Facebook as part of an integrated presence but would recommend that business owners not use it as their only source of online business presence.
"You can have it to connect to people but first and foremost the relationship is built between the user and the Facebook platform, not your company," he said.
He also said that a business should have a website and use tools, like Facebook Connect, to take advantage of the connections, sharing and the social graph that's created, but you still have that focused relationship with customers on your own business website.
Based in Nova Scotia, Canada, Vangie Beal has been covering small business, electronic commerce and Internet technology for more than a decade. You can tweet with her online @AuroraGG.
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