Yahoo is revamping its e-commerce platform to make it easier for small businesses to open and manage online stores.

The company will unveil the first stage of the project today by introducing two new 'wizards' for designing stores and adding inventory details.

The automated guides feature intuitive interfaces, templates, layouts and menus that hide programming complexity from users, a Yahoo official said.

In addition, the stores built with the wizards are automatically optimised for search-engine spiders, said Jimmy Duvall, director of e-commerce products at Yahoo's small-business unit.

Yahoo plans to extend this initiative, which it calls Open for Business, to areas such as online payment and shipping in early 2007.

The wizards are intended primarily for small businesses that have baulked at the technical difficulties of setting up shop online, Duvall said. They represent an improvement over an existing set of Yahoo tools called Store Editor, which require more technical knowledge but will remain available to merchants.

The market for hosted e-commerce services is getting crowded, so Yahoo must continually improve its offerings to remain competitive against rivals such as eBay's ProStores, said Sonal Gandhi, a Jupiter Research analyst.

While the new wizards aren't spectacularly innovative, Yahoo is right to focus on simplifying e-commerce tasks, she said. This resonates with small businesses because it reduces their need to hire outside help, Gandhi said.

It's no secret that small businesses often lack the time and expertise needed to create, run and maintain an online store, according to analyst Greg Sterling of Sterling Market Intelligence. "Creating an e-commerce website has been a historically complicated proposition for small businesses," Sterling said.

At the same time, small-business owners realise that having a web presence is essential because their customers and competitors are online, Sterling said.

Yahoo isn't the only vendor courting small businesses with the promise of simple and intuitive products. On the hardware front, Dell launched new servers last month aimed at small businesses that it said are easy to set up and maintain.

Meanwhile, Google wants to boost its online advertising business in this market via a partnership it struck last month with Intuit, which makes accounting software for small businesses.