Reporting on a study of internet portals in rural Scotland, the paper examines the discrepancy between the much theorised use of the internet to afford external market reach to small rural firms, and the consistent and prevailing evidence that the rural economy is sustained by locally-oriented trade. The study combines data from portal operators and rural firms that use portals and finds from both that greater importance is placed on maintaining local interest to facilitate local trade than fostering external market orientation. However, both suppliers and users of portals identify that local orientation of the portal also increases the effectiveness of externally-oriented marketing. Thus, rather than a focus on attracting external markets, a balance of local and external orientation is best placed to foster value-adding business activity. From a theoretical perspective the importance of the local when applied to rural small firms' internet use is largely neglected, but its importance, as observed in the current study, suggests a rationale for developing theory that better explains the role of the internet for rural firms. © 2011 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.