SMBs, Paid Search And Self-Service

One of the most challenging aspects of local search is small business (SMB) advertiser acquisition. Everyone is aware, especially Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, that the US SMB market is where the advertiser volume is: almost 99% of US businesses qualify as small businesses (here defined as < 100 employees).

According to the US Small Business Administration (SBA), more than 20 million firms qualify under the definition above, with almost 19 million of those having no employees at all!

Paid search was built by small businesses, which discovered its effectiveness long before the Fortune 1000. I’ve estimated that as much as 70% (perhaps more) of Google’s advertiser base qualify as SMBs. And while Google is moving “upstream” to try and capture more major branding dollars, it’s equally concerned about gaining more small business advertisers, as are Yahoo and Microsoft.

But the lack of a local sales force has made it difficult to deeply penetrate the SMB market. By contrast, the new AT&T, for example, will have roughly 3,500 local sales people. Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have relationships with yellow pages publishers and others, which they’ve used as channel partners to gain small business advertisers they would otherwise have been unable to directly acquire.

Accordingly, one of the raging debates in local search concerns “self-provisioning” or “self-service.” The question is: how many SMBs will sign up directly for paid search and how many must be acquired through a “push” channel (local sales force)? There are those convinced that a sales force is absolutely necessary to acquire any meaningful penetration in the SMB market.

In the end, I tend to agree — “DIFM” (do it for me) is more powerful than “DIY” (do it yourself). But I also think that larger numbers of SMBs will do some form of self-service as those tools and entry points become more pervasive and simpler to use.

Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have all been implementing simplified processes to gain SMB adoption. Google has AdWords “starter edition,” which offers a simple landing page, simplified budgeting and keyword tools. The company also did a novel deal with Intuit’s QuickBooks, embedding AdWords in the software workflow. Yahoo’s Panama has comparable tools and the company also has flat-fee advertising on Yahoo Local. Microsoft has AdCenter sign up via its Office Live SMB domain registration and website building tool.

But what is reasonable to expect from SMBs in terms of actual numbers?

Let’s take a real world example: Kudzu. Kudzu is a local search site owned by Cox Enterprises, which started in Atlanta, Georgia and is now in four cities across the US.

Georgia has roughly 813,000 SMBs, according to the US SBA. That number represents almost 98% of all businesses in the state. The greater metropolitan Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta area is where approximately 50% of those businesses are located.

Kudzu, for several reasons, experienced unusual success in getting SMBs to register and augment the information provided on the site. Kudzu GM Tom Bates reported that the site had 20,000 local businesses that actively registered.

The Kudzu figure represents about 5% of greater Atlanta area businesses according to my calculation. This is not the number of advertisers mind you, just businesses that have registered and changed or added information on the Kudzu site. But getting them to register is a step in the process of getting them to advertise.

As online marketing becomes essential for SMBs more of them will be motivated to make more effort to advertise online. And as online marketing and paid search become simpler to adopt more will adopt it accordingly. In other words, a kind of movement toward the middle will take place.

I somewhat aggressively forecast in 2006 that within five years about 10% of US SMB advertisers would be doing some form of self-service. But let’s assume the number is somewhere between 5% and 10%.

The question then becomes between 5% and 10% of what? It’s not exactly clear what the right number is. Consider that the US yellow pages industry has 3.2 million “advertisers” according to industry reports (but define advertiser). And yellow pages are the single largest vehicle for SMB advertising. But, as mentioned, there are more than 20 million SMBs in the US (25.85 million when you use a broader definition of SMB).

If one uses 10 million SMBs as the “addressable market,” that would mean between 500,000 and 1 million US SMBs self-provisioning online ad campaigns in some fashion, according to my projection. If on the other hand one uses an addressable market figure of 15 million that would mean between 750,000 and 1.5 million within five years.

Currently there are approximately 500,000 (give or take) paid search advertisers overall.

Of course, this does not consider how many businesses will be brought into paid search or online marketing indirectly through local directories, verticals and small agencies, which are the primary ways that most will appear online. And those numbers will ultimately be much larger than self-service.

Related Topics: Channel: SEM | Google: AdWords | Microsoft: Bing Ads | Yahoo: Search Ads


About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

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  • Cohn

    What tactics did Kudzu use to get the 20,000 SMBs to

  • Solomon Rothman Web Design Search Engine Marketing

    Until the technology and ability to setup a campaign, track conversions, and modify your website for SEM becomes more common place, small businesses will need a local sales force to “convert” into PPC advertisers in any great number. You would be amazed at how many small businesses I’ve worked with who barley even understand the most rudimentary elements involved in SEO / SEM, yet alone are in any shape to be success in setting up their own PPC campaign. Most small business websites don’t even have a strong call to action and wouldn’t convert the traffic anyways. If you deal with mostly tech companies you’ll get spoiled by having somewhat educated customers. Go ahead and call your local insurance agent/hotel/used car dealer/ restaurant/merchant/boutique/hair dresser/insert small business here and you’d be surprised at the number of individuals completely naive of basic internet technology. Their salvation lies in “do this for me”, because they’re in no shape to do it themselves, plus many of them are already overworked in their current occupations.

  • Patrick Schaber

    Greg – great article about small business. As a small business marketing manager using paid search I can say that not only did I not have a salesperson introduce me to paid search, but I couldn’t even get any live support until recently (after I started spending more). Many small businesses need to search this out themselves to stay in the game and compete.

  • Tony Comstock

    I just tried Google’s self-service adword program, with results taht were some sort of mix of Kafka, Dada, and Ionesco.

  • Erica Forrette

    Great points made about penetrating the small biz market! The engines (particularly Google) have made it fairly easy to get online and set up a campaign (assuming a biz has a site already, that’s a challenge to begin with – many smb sites are just “brochureware” sites with no good conversion action as has already been noted by Solomon Rothman.) But I would take this article and the comments a step further – what do smb’s who actually get their PPC campaigns set up, do after that? Many, with no idea of budget management to ROI or CPA goals, just bid to position and get hosed on spending tons of budget on clicks, with little to no results. So the battle for these smb’s with regard to search marketing is actually two-fold – get them on line with search, and then help them efficiently manage their own campaigns.

  • Martin Garcia

    Yahoo’s flat-fee pricing should help demystify and remove some barriers to advertising locally online.

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