Popular Internet sites like Facebook and Amazon track use of their Web services to better target advertising.
Now local businesses, even those without Web sites, can monitor customers' online behavior, too.
This month, Google launched its online Local Business Center to help small businesses manage their Google search listings and track information about their customers.
The free company listings show up in relevant search queries at the top of Google search results, often accompanied by a business address, contact information and sometimes reviews. They also appear in Google Maps.
Companies can now monitor how often their business listings appear within Google results, how many times users click through to their Web sites and the most popular search words that lead users to their listings.
The free tool also lets local businesses see where customers are coming from by giving the ZIP codes of origin when people search for directions using Google Maps.
With people using Google to find out where to eat and who's the most reliable mechanic, companies could have a lot to gain with the new business tool.
"A lot of these companies that are going to be using the Local Business Center don't have Web sites," said John Zajac, a spokesman for the Better Business Bureau of West Florida. "It doesn't mean that they could not benefit from the exposure and from search engine optimization."
Not only will they be able to customize their listings and provide more information about their services — businesses can also use search data to attract new clientele.
"I don't think anybody uses the Yellow Pages anymore," said Charlie Urbizu, owner of Charlie's Scooter Depot in Tampa. "Everyone is going to the Web, even the old guys like me. In fact, they delivered the Yellow Pages to the house, and I just threw them in the garbage."
Urbizu opened his store in 1983, and he got a business Web site developed three years ago. He said he would be interested in anything free that could get more traffic in the door.
Eileen O'Brien, owner and director of Suncoast Dance Academy in St. Petersburg, said she would also be open to trying the service.
"We ask when people come to our studio: How do they hear about us? So we would be interested in knowing about how they got to our site," she said.
For Jerilyn Stein, president of Memories in Chocolate Inc. in Largo, information about what people are searching for on the Internet would help her new chocolate shop.
She said a hot search item on the Web these days are brownie pops — balls of brownies on a stick — an item with which she can expand.
"It kind of helps you fine-tune where you might spend advertising money …," she said. "If people are looking for that, maybe I need to expand that particular line of products."
For-profit businesses are not the only ones contemplating using the service.
The Calvary Chapel of St. Petersburg uses Google Custom Search on its Web site as well as Google Maps and Google Analytics, an online platform that lets developers monitor site statistics.
"I think for our particular market, as far as nonprofits — especially for churches — I think we are ahead of the game. Not just with Google, but in Web development in general," said media director Dustin Marr.
He said the church has received a large response from its YouTube and Facebook pages. Marr said his church will soon take advantage of Local Business Center.
"I think to stay alive in this Web-driven society … it's absolutely essential to use every single tool we can get our hands on," Marr said. "Especially with Google, because they are the biggest Internet business out there."
Online behavioral advertising has raised some ethical questions.
At the recent Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference in Washington, D.C., Google, which collected more than $5 billion in ad revenue in the first quarter of the year, faced criticism for allowing its advertisers to target Web surfers using search queries and personal e-mails.
Balaji Padmanabhan, an information systems professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, said the definition of privacy differs for each company as well as each consumer.
"I think privacy is what a person thinks is just theirs and what shouldn't be shared with a third party," he said.
"That line differs for everybody. … A while ago, people didn't know what exactly was being tracked, but now they know and they assume."
Businesses are going to feel heightened pressure to use consumer data, he said.
"I think many years back, people would give businesses the benefit of the doubt, but I think now with the younger generation people are assuming that businesses are tech-savvy and know these kind of things," Padmanabhan said.