Ashland has the strongest online small business community in Oregon, Google announced Monday, naming it for the second year in a row as Oregon’s “eCity” and one of 50 nationwide.

Sen. Ron Wyden, Rep. Peter Buckley, Ashland Mayor John Stromberg and representatives from Google and the local business community attended a celebration of the designation Monday morning. Noble Coffee Roasting, decorated with large helium balloons in Google’s trademark primary colors, was filled to overflowing with more than 100 people as the aroma of coffee and baked goods drifted in the air.

Selected eCities in each state are “digital capitals,” Darcy Nothnagle, Google’s public affairs manager for the western region, said in a phone interview from her Seattle office prior to the announcement. Results reflect the “strength of small business — how likely they are to have a website, blog, to sell from the website, if it’s a local-friendly website. These (eCities) had the strongest digital presence.”

The cities recognized are best at using the web, Google decided, “to find new customers, connect with existing customers and fuel their local economies."

Google had Ipsos, a market research firm, select the top five cities in each state with the highest AdWords penetration relative to population size. AdWords, an advertising program that is Google’s largest revenue generator, is what puts ads, in the form of “sponsored links,” on search results pages when anyone “Googles” a search term.

Then, focusing on small businesses with no more than 50 employees, Ipsos looked at how connected the businesses are on the Internet by checking whether the business is listed in an online directory (such as Yellowpages.com, manta.com and findthecompany.com); has its own website; has a social network presence (such as Twitter or Facebook); allows people to make purchases through the website; has a blog; and how well it scores on www.howtogomo.com, which measures how mobile-friendly the website is.

Google focused on small businesses, Nothnagle said, because small businesses account for half of the nation’s economic activity and create half of all new jobs.

“When you have a robust online business community,” she said, “it’s great for the economy. Businesses online grow twice as fast and hire twice as fast as those not online.”

Google began the eCities recognition program because of the “important role in growing businesses and the economy” of the Internet, Nothnagle said, adding that “97 percent of American Internet users actually look for local goods and services online, whether they’re looking for Shakespeare tickets, a haircut or restaurant reservations.

“What we want to do in Ashland is highlight a great local example, Noble Coffee, that’s using the Internet. The business started online, selling roasted coffee online, before they even opened the coffeehouse.” That way, Nothnagle said, Noble Coffee could have customers “from Boston to Bermuda.”

Boosting Ashland

Recognition of Ashland’s Internet connectivity prowess benefits the community in other ways, said U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden.

“Being a digital capital shows you can leverage the Internet to grow more well-paying jobs,” he said, after giving a nod to the “incredibly, incredibly progressive (Ashland) Chamber of Commerce, and its Ashland Business Resource web page (www.ashlandbusinessresource.com).

“There’s no more important job than creating more high-skill, high-wage jobs, so people can buy a home, send their kids to college — and maybe take a skiing vacation,” Wyden said. “This is a way people all over the country can say, ‘we could have good jobs, a high quality of life by coming to Ashland.’”

“When I hear us called a digital capital,” Ashland Mayor John Stromberg told the crowd, “I feel the whole state tip to the southwest corner.”

He moved to Ashland, Stromberg said, partly because it had its own fiber optic network.

“I said, ‘these people are with it and they’re smart,’” Stromberg recalled thinking. He said that town-owned network has attracted many businesses that use the Internet.

The Google award isn’t the end of the story, said Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland. “You ain’t seen nothing yet,” he proclaimed, saying Southern Oregon University, the Chamber of Commerce and others part of an innovation conference at SOU in the spring will help propel increased Internet and economic development.

He cited readingaboutme.org, a reading program developed in Southern Oregon, as an online project developed locally that, he said, will “move into schools statewide.”

Repeat winner 

Ashland is one of just seven cities nationwide to repeat as an eCity from last year’s list.

“The digital economy is pretty fluid,” Nothnagle said. “Cities are likely to rise and fall year by year.”

Appearing on the list for a second consecutive year, “shows Ashland’s got something pretty special,” she said.

When businesses have a strong digital presence, Nothnagle said, they’re “not only reaching people right in their own community, they’re also reaching customers in new markets. When you’re online, we know you’re going to grow.”

Other cities named to this year’s eCities list include Emeryville, Calif.; Bellevue, Wash.; Hayden, Idaho; Missoula, Mont.; Sarasota, Fla.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; and Little Rock, Ark. Google declined to say what other Oregon cities were in the running.

This is the second year Goggle has announced eCity title winners. The cities other than Ashland to make the list for both years are Homer, Alaska; Zionsville, Ind.; Mandeville, La.; Solon, Ohio; Sioux Falls, S.D.; and Charleston, W.V.

Cities that made the list in 2013 but not in 2014 include Atlanta, Ga.; Princeton, N.J.; and New York, N.Y.

Local entrepreneurs

Google’s Nothnagle said the event’s host, Noble Coffee Roasting, was chosen partly because of its strong Internet presence.

Noble was founded in 2007 in Talent with a coffee roasting machine set up in the garage of Carolyn and Jared Rennie. The Rennies turned to the Internet to set up a system where people could order online by Wednesday and have fresh-roasted coffee beans delivered by “the coffee fairies” to their doorstep in Ashland or Talent on Friday morning, Jared Rennie said.

The delivery system ceased after the Rennies opened their café on Fourth Street in Ashland in May 2009, but they continue to sell beans over the Internet, as well as wholesale to local cafes, lodgings and markets.

Blackstone Audio, an audio book company founded in a garage and moved to Ashland partly because the Oregon Shakespeare Festival meant there are a lot of actors available to tape books, now employs “just over” 170 people in the Ashland area , said Josh Stanton, the company’s chief executive officer.

“Things are going really, really well,” he said. The company does its own manufacturing inhouse and also sells in brick and mortar stores nationwide as well as online, and is now marketing direct to consumers at downpour.com, which offers audio book downloads.

“After this,” Stanton said, “I’m going straight back to work to bring the (eCity) title back to Ashland next year."

Reach Daily Tidings editor Bert Etling at betling@dailytidings.com or 541-631-1313. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/betling.