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BT Tradespace to offer enhanced e-commerce

Small businesses are to get the chance to sell products and services more easily to consumers, after BT announced enhancements to the service

BT Tradespace, the service designed to help small businesses set up an online presence, is to make it easier for its users to sell directly to the consumer.

The free service, which launched in April of this year, already enjoys a tie-in with the online payment service PayPal, but its upcoming evolution should make it easier for consumers using the site to search for, by way of example, chocolates, rather than businesses that make chocolates. This will be done by making the search capabilities on the site more powerful in the coming months. BT has given no specific details yet about the search enhancements.

BT Tradespace has not so far advertised to consumers, leading to "relatively low" traffic to the site's 28,000 business user profiles, admitted Ivan Croxford, the head of BT Tradespace, on Monday. However, BT will start to advertise the service to consumers within the next couple of months, Croxford said.

Although details remain unclear, it is likely that the sales enhancement to Tradespace will go under the banner of "Marketplace" — although some confusion might lie in store given the existence of BT Applications Marketplace, a portal for buying and selling hosted software.

The near future will also bring greater integration between Tradespace and BT's more traditional online and paper-based directory services, according to Bill Murphy, the managing director of BT Business.

Speaking at Monday's London launch of Small Business Week 2007 — a collaboration between BT, the Royal Bank of Scotland and the British Chambers of Commerce — Murphy revealed that BT would be "adding more and more e-commerce capabilities to [Tradespace] as we go forward".

"We are close to a tipping point," Murphy said later of the service's take-up rate, speaking to ZDNet.co.uk. "You are going to see us do more advertising to consumers." He added that his team had been working with colleagues on the directory side of BT, and that it was likely that businesses' Tradespace addresses would soon be listed alongside their entries in standard paper directory books.

Another Tradespace enhancement, due to roll out towards the start of next week, will be that of increased capabilities for social networking between users. Croxford explained that this would allow, for example, fabric designers to set up a group in which to discuss their trade and make contacts with suppliers.

Croxford also claimed that some users were finding that having Tradespace profiles alongside their own company websites was benefiting them in search-engine rankings. "Today, just having a website alone does not cut it," he added.

However, not all aspects of BT Tradespace are doing so well. A big part of the rationale behind the site has been to offer "Web 2.0" features like podcasts and video blogs to users, but Croxford admitted that the take-up of such features has been low.

Despite BT Tradespace's 28,000 registered business users, there have been just over 7,000 written blog posts in the six months of the service's existence. That time has also seen barely more than 300 videos uploaded, along with just 200 podcasts. Although he admitted it was a "challenge" to engage users in this regard, Croxford nonetheless insisted that the "people who are using the tools the most are reaping the benefits".

Murphy said the Web 2.0 revolution would only happen "one customer at a time", and would be fuelled by users' evolving practices in their personal online social networking.