Do SMBs Still Need The Middleman To Advertise?

Having worked in the local search space for a while, I am often asked how is it that SMBs are so slow in adopting self-serve systems in their online advertising. And indeed, in the age of Internet advertising, when anyone can purchase keywords on search engines, is there really a need for a middleman anymore?

While an important function of these middlemen is to convince the local plumber or dentist to spend their hard earned money on online advertising, they also help guide the SMB owner through the planning phases of the ad campaign, explaining the various options and helping to optimize the campaign.

In this post, I will review a number of local search platforms, from the traditional to the new, and examine the complexity that is involved in advertising on them.

Print Yellow Pages, the forefathers of SMB advertising, are relatively easy to understand – in order to gain visibility, an SMB has to purchase a large ad on the first page of his category. Pretty straightforward and simple:

Print Yellow Pages Ad

Online Yellow Pages have added new features to their offerings, but the concept is still mostly the same – visibility is determined by size and placement of the SMB’s ad:

Superpages ad

Local Search Sites such as CitySearch have added yet another level of complexity with features such as performance advertising that require some additional explaining.


And then we get to what many regard as the most effective form of local online marketing – search advertising. Search Engines have opened a whole new spectrum of options that make it far more difficult to understand and manage local ad campaigns. There is constant discussion on what SMBs should do to rank better (a couple of weeks ago, David Mihm posted his second volume of Local Search Ranking Factors – 27 experts analyzed and evaluated 49 criteria). Many SMBs may think that if they appear “first” on Google Maps in a certain relevant search, their job is done… However, this is often far from true.

Take for instance the following searches, conducted a few minutes apart, and the results they generate.

Search 1: plumbing contractor los angeles

plumbing contractor los angeles-small

Search 2: plumbing contractors los angeles – note that “The Best Plumber I Ever Had”, #1 from the previous list, is nowhere to be found.

plumbing contractors los angeles-small

Search 3: cheap plumber los angeles

cheap plumber los angeles-small

Search 4: emergency plumbing los angeles, ca – and here is “The Best Plumber I Ever Had” again…

emergency plumbing los angeles, ca-small

There are many more possible searches in this category and it is very likely that each of them will yield different results. Small, seemingly insignificant variations of a keyword (e.g. from singular to plural) or a geographic modifier (adding “ca”) can change the content of the 10 pack. This inherent complexity has bred a whole new class of companies like ReachLocal, Yodle and Webvisible, that help SMBs effectively manage such campaigns.

Looking at the development in the local advertising industry, from print to online, and even within the online world, it is clear that if anything, local search advertising services are getting more complicated. It is ironic that the question of whether mediators are still required in this industry has intensified in parallel to the ever growing complexity of online advertising. A complexity that for now, for the majority of SMB owners, can be overcome only with the help of… a middleman.

Being a big believer in self-serve, I predict that one day these complicated ad services will also be automated into systems that mask their complexity and enable users (SMBs) to simply enter their needs and budget and get the right solution. However, that will take some time and until then, the middleman will remain a critical component of this eco-system.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Other | Small Is Beautiful


About The Author: is CEO at Palore, a provider of local businesses' advertising data and information on their online activity. He also blogs at The Palore Blog. This column is researched and written by the marketing department at Palore, which is led by Hanan.

Connect with the author via: Email


Get all the top search stories emailed daily!  


Other ways to share:

Read before commenting! We welcome constructive comments and allow any that meet our common sense criteria. This means being respectful and polite to others. It means providing helpful information that contributes to a story or discussion. It means leaving links only that substantially add further to a discussion. Comments using foul language, being disrespectful to others or otherwise violating what we believe are common sense standards of discussion will be deleted. Comments may also be removed if they are posted from anonymous accounts. You can read more about our comments policy here.
  • nickstamoulis

    Hi Hanan, Excellent post! I tend to think small businesses can handle many offline local advertising efforts on their own but online, I think many folks do still need assistance. The main reason I tend to think this is because many of the same aspects apply to online and offline local advertising, such as: understanding the target audiences, offer, timing, etc. but online is different world and it is very easy for a small business to spend/waste their media budget very quickly if they don’t know what they are doing…

  • Jay Ehret

    Well, not sure about your automation prediction. There is really no media yet that has achieved real automation. Things just keep changing, especially in search.

  • http://mattmartone mattmartone

    I agree with Nick. Since offline is less complex, most SMBs can and should handle it.

    When it comes to online, the complexities can be daunting for a small business owner without experience. Sure she can create an account and pick keywords. But an SMB is likely to waste money and spend way to much time on the learning curve: spending on irrelevant or poorly matched keywords; never to figure out the value of negative keys.

    In my opinion, local search is creating an opportunity for local search consultants to set up shop in a similiar manner to accountants and lawyers. I did it in Newark, NJ because SMBs need the service, even its its just a set up and monthly or quarterly review or optimization.

  • Marcus C

    The biggest factor I find with SMBs is their available time to manage these campaigns. Not only do they need the time to figure out what they want, but then they need to take the time to do good keyword research. What makes these systems complex is understanding the research that makes your campaign perform the way you want. They just don’t have time to learn a new “business.”

  • Ina

    “A complexity that for now, for the majority of SMB owners, can be overcome only with the help of… a middleman.”

    Or if the middleman is invisible. If you use a service that makes this easier for the small business owner, while not taking the attention on him.

  • Hanan Lifshitz

    Nick, thanks for the comment.

    I think we can all agree that for most SMBs self serve is still not here. But I do envy that company that will eventually build a truly simple automated ad management system for SMBs with clear ROI. While many great SEM companies are working on it, Borrell’s recent churn data ( suggests that we’ve still got some work ahead…


Get Our News, Everywhere!

Daily Email:

Follow Search Engine Land on Twitter @sengineland Like Search Engine Land on Facebook Follow Search Engine Land on Google+ Get the Search Engine Land Feed Connect with Search Engine Land on LinkedIn Check out our Tumblr! See us on Pinterest


Click to watch SMX conference video

Join us at one of our SMX or MarTech events:

United States


Australia & China

Learn more about: SMX | MarTech

Free Daily Search News Recap!

SearchCap is a once-per-day newsletter update - sign up below and get the news delivered to you!



Search Engine Land Periodic Table of SEO Success Factors

Get Your Copy
Read The Full SEO Guide