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Free program to put businesses on the Web

Su Kang is no stranger to the Web. Armed with coding skills learned as a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art, she is building a website for the family-owned Sweet Melon Cafe on Charles Street.

Kang, a 23-year-old graphic design major, says she understands the business value of having a website, but “a lot of people think it’s difficult.”

A program launched in Maryland Thursday aims to correct that notion — for free.

Maryland Get Your Business Online, a partnership between Google, small business solutions firm Intuit and the state, seeks to help the 53 percent of businesses operating without a website.

“The perception that getting online is complex, costly and time-consuming has prevented many Maryland small businesses from taking the first step,” said Scott Levitan, Google’s director of small business engagement. “This program makes it fast, easy and free for businesses to get online.”

Business owners can build a website for free for the next year by registering at www.MarylandGetOnline.com, where step-by-step instructions help owners get the site online.

Mountain View, Calif.-based Intuit, partnering with Google, also hosts the website — again, at no charge — for a year. After one year, domain ownership and monthly hosting fees are assessed, but owners can cancel their service at that point.

“As a leading provider of small business solutions, we have witnessed the growth small businesses have seen from getting online,” said Jennifer Creager, product manager at Intuit. “We are excited … to help them create a customized presence that represents their unique brands.”

Jamie Hill, a Google spokeswoman, said the search giant started the program to improve its user experience by increasing the number of local businesses that appear in search results.

“This is about breaking down the barriers for small business,” she said.

Kang, who has built websites for other businesses, too, said one such barrier is a lack of understanding about what use a website has in the business realm.

“Sometimes they don’t know why they need one. They say, ‘Just make one for me,’” Kang said. “The most important thing I ask is ‘what is the most important content their client is looking for?’”

Raj Patel, owner of Cherryvale Liquors in Reisterstown, has that question. He said the program could be useful for his 10-year-old business, but he’s not sure what he would do with a website.

“It’s good to have it, but I’m still a small guy. I’m not sure if it would benefit me or not,” Patel said. “It might, but I never tried it. … Cost is first. I don’t need to spend any extra money.”

The online business program tries to give owners like Patel an opportunity to test the waters. A training event at the Legg Mason Tower on July 17 will explain to business owners how to effectively grow their web presence.

About 200 business owners have attended similar sessions held in other states.

In a statement Thursday, Gov. Martin O’Malley said the program was an important service that should help the economy as it slogs toward modest recovery.

“Getting every Maryland small business online is one more critical step we can take together to stay competitive and expand opportunity in this rapidly-changing, 21st century economy,” O’Malley said.

That’s why Kang, whose mother Josaephine Kang has run Sweet Melon for about eight years, wants the family business to have a strong web presence.

“We are using [the] Internet, not just on laptop computers, [but] we are using it from iPads or iPhones,” Kang said. “People want to look up anytime, anywhere, and that’s the most important thing.

“I think [the program] is a great idea to teach [the] public [to] be more aware of the power of a website. I think it can be a very powerful tool.”