The vast majority of Canadians turn to the Internet for research before buying a product or service. Yet, many financial advisors and other small businesses are neglecting this tool’s immense potential for getting their name out there in front of prospective clients.

Of the approximately two million small businesses in Canada, roughly 1.2 million don’t have a website, according to Mountain View, Calif.-based Google Inc.’s Canadian division. Cost and a lack of technological know-how are among the top reasons why these firms haven’t bothered to launch a website.

But as the Internet becomes an increasingly prominent part of everyday life for Canadians, you can’t afford to ignore it. Says Andrew Swartz, a spokesman with Google Canada in Toronto: “We’re at the stage where if you’re a business, whether it’s an independent advisor or any kind of business, a website now is like your calling card. Businesses won’t be found if they aren’t where customers are looking for them.”

The process of creating a website is easier and more affordable than you might think, thanks especially to a new program called Get Your Business Online. Google Canada has teamed up with the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, Royal Bank of Canada and six other organizations to launch the program as a way to encourage businesses to develop an online presence.

The GYBO program allows you to create a website for your business with a personalized “.ca” domain name for a full year, free of charge, along with resources and support along the way. Participating businesses also receive a $75 credit toward Google AdWords, a pay-per-click advertising program.

The project’s aim is to eliminate barriers that may be preventing you from getting online. “We need to show people it’s not that complicated to get a website up and running,” says Mike Michell, national director of small business with Royal Bank in Toronto. “And the cost does not have to be a huge factor.”

The GYBO program uses a website-building service called Yola, which walks you through a simple process of selecting a domain name, choosing a template, adding content and publishing your website.

“Do not be concerned about the level of knowledge you think you need to set up a website, because it truly is not that complicated,” Michell says. “It’s built so that you can do it yourself relatively easily.”

Suzanne Barwick, an independent financial planner in Montreal, was surprised by how easy it was to create a website through the GYBO program: “As I’m a financial person and not a marketing person, I wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. But it was extremely easy.”

Barwick created her website in July as a way for prospects to find her after she left PWL Capital Inc. to launch an independent practice, SKB Conseil. At PWL, Barwick had found the company’s website to be an effective way of bringing in business.

“These days, I don’t think anyone looks through a telephone book,” Barwick says. “I think the only way they find a professional is on the Internet.”

Indeed, Google Canada’s research shows that 86% of Canadian consumers will research products and services online before they buy — and about 20% of all Google searches are related to purchasing a local product or service.

“If you are not online, then I have news for you,” Michell says. “Your competitor, who is online, is going to get that next client.”

A website also can help you build credibility, says Kevin McLeod, founder and CEO of Yardstick Services Inc., a Vancouver-based consulting and web-design firm. “To position yourself as an expert and someone who can be trusted,” he says, “you have to show that you have the knowledge and experience. One of the best ways to do that is by showing off your knowledge and experience through your website.”

McLeod recommends the GYBO program as a good way to get started in building an online presence. But he suspects that users will restricted to having a fairly basic website on the Yola platform.

For your website to be most effective, McLeod says, it should include more than just your business profile and contact information. He urges businesses to create dynamic websites that features unique content that’s updated on a regular basis.

As an alternative to the GYBO program, McLeod suggests using an open-source content-management system such as WordPress or Joomla, which allow you to build a slightly more comprehensive website. These platforms, although similar to Yola, are easy to use and affordable; your only costs include the hosting of the site, which can be as little as $5 a month.

Participants in the GYBO program can renew their domain names with Yola after the first year for an annual cost of $29.21; or they can transfer their domain name to another web-hosting service. IE