Google plans a drive to help Middle East businesses get online, starting with those in Saudi Arabia.
Un-wired Saudi firms to get boost from Google
Google has plans to get Saudi Arabian companies on to the internet as many businesses in the kingdom do not have an online presence.
The "Getting Saudi Businesses Online" initiative will launch later this year, and is expected to be rolled out to other countries in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena). It will be similar to Google schemes elsewhere in the world, such as "Getting British Business Online".
The scheme in the UK promises to "create a website for your business in 15 minutes, for free". It offers free domains, website templates and email addresses.
While the details for the Saudi Arabian programme are still being finalised, it will offer some financial benefit to businesses, said Ari Kesisoglu, Google's regional manager for the Mena.
"It's online presence 101," said Mr Kesisoglu. "We want to help businesses get online. It's to make it extremely easy, and to give them some financial benefits so that it's cheaper than doing it in the normal way."
While many larger companies in Saudi Arabia have websites, smaller operators have been reluctant to venture into cyberspace.
"There is a big corpus of businesses that have nothing to do with online. And we want to help change that," said Mr Kesisoglu.
The initiative will start in Saudi Arabia in December, before being rolled out elsewhere in the region. "Getting Saudi Businesses Online is obviously for Saudi, but we'll do it for other countries," said Mr Kesisoglu.
In Saudi Arabia, only 41 per cent of the population use the internet, according to the International Telecommunication Union. The percentage of small businesses online is believed to be even lower.
Such businesses are losing out on their share of the booming global e-commerce industry. According to JPMorgan, global e-commerce revenues are forecast to grow to US$680 billion (Dh2.49 trillion) this year, up by 18.9 per cent from last year.
Mr Kesisoglu said Google's initiative would be a precursor to more Saudi Arabian companies starting to transact online.
"We don't want to run before we can walk," he said. "Businesses need to be online, before they do online business."
He acknowledged that the e-commerce industry in the Mena region was still in its "infancy".
"When I look at e-commerce, there are only a handful of players in the market," said Mr Kesisoglu. "This is not really discouraging, because every single country goes through the same phase."
Encouraging more Middle East businesses to venture online would benefit Google financially, because the US web-search giant makes most of its revenues from online advertising.
Mr Kesisoglu insisted that monetisation was "not the only motivation" behind the Saudi initiative.
But he acknowledged that the growing use of the internet in the Mena region was boosting Google's coffers.
"The revenues that we make are very parallel to the user growth. So it's a very fast-growing market," he said. "There are a lot more businesses to come online. So not only are the users clicking more on the existing ads, we are going to have more businesses in advertising. So we have a double growth path ahead of us."