Microsoft has unveiled a commercial networking site where small businesses can promote their products and services and interact with potential customers and partners primarily using Skype.

The new website, called Skype in the Workspace (SITW), is free and already being used by about 500 small businesses that began participating in it during its six-month beta period, Microsoft said yesterday.

Skype lets users communicate via IM, group video conferencing and IP telephony, and Microsoft hopes that the SITW site will show entrepreneurs, startups and small businesses how they can use Skype to increase sales, find new customers, market their wares and connect with experts for advice.

After joining the site with a Skype or LinkedIn account, companies can post invitations on SITW to potential customers and partners interested in learning more about their business via Skype sessions. Users can also share their SITW actions on their Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter accounts.

Microsoft bought Skype for $8.5 billion in October of last year, and has said from the start that it has big plans for it beyond maintaining it as a separate service.

Earlier this week, Microsoft stunned many industry observers with its announcement that it will close Windows Live Messenger next year - except in mainland China - and that its users need to migrate over to Skype. Microsoft is also busy working to integrate Skype into its enterprise productivity and collaboration products, including Office, Lync and SharePoint.