This article is part of our TechRadar North column, a series focusing on the of the North of England's digital sector.
Whether you're running an ice-cream van business or a promising web-development startup, growing your online presence is vital in allowing potential customers to find out about your brand.
However, according to a new report released by government think tank IPPR (the Institute for Public Policy Research), many of the UK's small-and-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are lacking the digital skills necessary to be more productive online and sell beyond their immediate area.
The report argues that the state must do more to provide SMEs with training to close the skills gap between them and larger businesses, while highlighting the positive work done in this area by Google UK's Digital Garage pop-up workshop since 2015.
Without such initiatives, it says that the so-called northern powerhouse, which aims to redress the north-south divide, will be less productive than it could be.
Start me up
Started in Leeds in March 2015, Google's Digital Garage project was set up to help individuals and companies develop their digital presence, providing skills and training to more than 200,000 businesses over two years. That includes anything from attracting visitors to their website or social media page, to growing their customer base and increasing sales.
It operates on a temporary pop-up shop model and has so far visited Manchester, Newcastle, Birmingham and London, with Glasgow currently playing host until November 17. Ongoing sessions continue to be held in Leeds at the Futurelabs co-working space when there is sufficient demand, with the next seminar due to take place on October 27.
According to the report, the Digital Garage's one-to-one mentoring sessions were the most popular type of training provided among participants surveyed, with 65% saying that they found it 'extremely useful'. Also popular were the workshop presentations given by Google mentors, which were found to be 'extremely useful' by just under 39 per cent.
To find out more about what drives Google's initiative, TechRadar spoke to Becky Boyd, who was hired as the first Digital Garage trainer.
TechRadar: How did you get involved with Google's Digital Garage?
Becky Boyd: Google approached people like myself who have been working in the industry across digital marketing. They passed on everything we needed to know in regards to SEO and other Google-relevant knowledge, which we then taught to businesses and startups. The idea is that they can come in and sit down with a mentor or trainer and have one-to-one sessions and 10 seminars for free.
What's in it for Google?
We're asked that quite a lot. I think that everyone can benefit from everyone having digital skills. If your site is doing the best it can, for example, then it's going to get found much easier by potential customers on search engines — therefore it makes Google Search better. It's probably a long game that Google's playing there, but I think that making sure Europe has a great digital skill set just benefits everyone in tech, which I think ultimately benefits Google.
What seminars do you provide at the Leeds Digital Garage?
Our seminars cover two main areas: Tell Your Story Online, which is about how to present your business online — whether it's through your website or social media — and making sure it's sharable and mobile-friendly. The second one is Reaching New Customers Online, which is about making sure a website is fully optimized. We can also look at Google My Business, Adwords and other pay-per-click methods to make sure they're all working together nicely. There are also presentations around Google Analytics and other areas.
What level of tech knowledge do visitors tend to have?
We have a good mixture. Some people are starting out and don't know anything about tech, but every now and then we also have established businesses with more than 500 employees coming in. They're still lovely and often have similar problems to small businesses and need help understanding something, or if they've going down the right avenue with it, so it's a great mix.
It's interesting that people from big businesses don't seek help internally. Do you think they're too scared to ask?
There's a little bit of that. You get that across the board though — particularly with something like SEO. People are afraid to admit that they don't understand that a lot of the time. Whether a director, HR or marketing employee, people from large companies often want reassurance and perhaps an opportunity to refresh their team so that they have a good whole baseline knowledge.
How much of a factor is training being provided for free in drawing people to the Garage?
It's essential for a lot of people. Many businesses that I speak to say that the cost of finding training is a worry, and a lot of the time people don't know what they need to know. In their mind, going to a marketing company or web agency for that is terrifying because they would have to immediately pay a grand, which isn't in their budget.
Does having Google's brand stamped on the workshop increase trust with visitors?
Yes — having Google's stamp has really helped the project. People come here for Google experts — it draws people into the room as people believe that the company knows what it's doing as it's such a success.
Why do you think the mentoring sessions are so popular?
They are usually driven by the people who come along to attend. They often need help from Google and aren't sure what they will be offered but are happy for us to take a look at their website. Rather than telling them to look at this or that, we will usually offer them advice and what can be improved upon. That could be anything from what their search rankings are, or what they need to get a business idea off the ground if they want to do it online.
IPPR's report says that the mentoring sessions, although a success, are highly resource-intensive. Do you think that the workshop could achieve even more if it dedicated more time to them?
You would need to ask Google about that. For me, it's hard to say — it's not always feasible as you need to make sure that trainers are placed in the right area to benefit it. It's like anything — if something is free there's always the danger that people won't turn up. We sometimes have that, and it's important that we are where people need us to be rather than sending five of us out for one-to-one sessions and hoping for the best.
Do you provide any training on the hardware side - specifically with Google's products like Chromebooks or Android devices?
We were given Chromebooks to work with and they were really handy as we could work anywhere with them when on tour. However, on day one we were told not to "sell Google", because that's not what Digital Garage is about -— and that was nice to hear. People would come in and ask us which products we thought were better, but our response was always based on what they wanted it to do rather than our preference.
What other cities do you think Digital Garage might visit?
Google's always looking at places where there's a lack of digital skills and need some love on the digital spectrum — they're super keen to run them where they've not been before. The pop-ups are are Google's way of being able to hit areas in the North where they might not have the facilities to set up shop for six months at a time.