I bend but do not break.

Those six words, penned by poet Jean de La Fontaine in 1668, describe one of the most important strengths of a small business: The ability to be flexible. This ability to react rapidly is one of the most important differences in small versus large companies.

Our search world is undergoing changes of tidal-wave proportion. One only needs to look around to see increased search complexity. In a world where change is dramatic, those who can adapt to the new conditions quickest have the best chances for success. “Survival of the fittest” has evolved into “survival of the nimble.” Small businesses and their collective ability to bend finally have a chance against the link-monger corporations online. The sooner the small business owner realizes this strength the sooner she/he can exploit it. Here’s how:

What’s coming: Third generation search and more options

First generation search algorithms were based largely on content directly on the web page itself. Think back to AltaVista around 1999 and remember how easy it was to achieve results merely by inserting keywords on the page. Due to heavy abuse of keyword stuffing, this generation passed quickly and in its place rose engines based on link analysis.

These second generation engines, led by Google, considered linkage data heavily in the ranking algorithm. This second generation approach prevented the easy spoofing of search results by increasing the weight of “off the page” criteria. Now we are entering a transition period where our second-generation engines are incorporating the beginnings of third-generation search technologies like personal data and search history. Add to that rich stew of search technologies, social search, collaborative search, and the rise of local and other verticals, and suddenly there’s a whole new recipe for succeeding on the web. Sure the link kings are still winning the link wars, but options for smaller companies are bubbling to the top.

It is in this more complicated, dynamic environment where flexibility and rapid response becomes an advantage. This new landscape has the potential to level the online playing field for small businesses.

“Not only will the unimaginable happen, it will happen faster than you can imagine. Change comes hardest to those with the deepest traditions.”

- Mario Marino, founder of Legent Corporation

Add the phrase “and the highest levels of bureaucracy” to the end of Marino’s phrase and it should strike fear in the hearts of every big business. This statement was made over ten years ago about the information revolution, but there is a loud and clear warning that all businesses should hear. The online marketing landscape is changing, and your business marketing strategy must adapt.

Applying theory to action

Unless it’s the rare David, a small business won’t win going head to head against a Goliath corporation with its deep pockets and endless resources. To compete with these giants requires smaller companies to better understand their strengths and weakness and then wage marketing wars in ways that favor their strengths.

Like Apple and its “Think Different” campaign, the small business needs to create a culture where thinking out side the box is encouraged. Fresh creativity and ingenuity are key advantages in a changing environment. Staid conventional thinking combined with a fear to take risks can turn into a serious disadvantage in a dynamic world because it fosters doing business as usual when the rules may have changed.

As the small business learns to think differently, it needs to develop the boldness to act on its ideas. Being the first to adopt a new strategy, pursue a new niche, or develop a new product brings with it the potential to reap huge benefits. Big companies will eventually adopt (or acquire) new ideas that are successful, but due to their risk-adverse nature, they may be slow to transition giving the small business a window of opportunity to maximize its position. The on-going challenge for the small company will be staying alert to changes and being prepared to exploit that next new opportunity.

What are some examples that a small business could follow to be more nimble online?

Think Niche. A niche market is a specialized segment of a larger market. The niche can be geographic, industry level, or any nook and cranny segment of the market. One interesting example of a niche market that has been successful online since 1996 and has over 50,000 satisfied clients in over 130 countries is OstrichesOnline.com. Who would have thought there was such demand for ostrich feathers?

Think Local. Despite the success of the super malls, local businesses are still near and dear to consumers’ hearts. A 2005 study by the UPS Store and Mail Boxes, Etc. found a full 93% of respondents had a desire to support local small businesses and that desire factored into their buying decisions.

Today, there are a plethora of local search engines and other verticals targeting local markets. Many local engines will list local businesses free of charge. Small businesses should also take note that local online groups and local community forums carry a lot of weight for the hometown crowd.

One local hairdresser was elated when his client list suddenly started to soar. He had done no advertising, didn’t own a web site and, in the past, only picked up two to three new clients a month. After averaging six new clients a day for a couple of weeks he started asking how they had heard of him. He quickly learned that the local town forum (which he didn’t know existed) had a long thread going about how great a hair stylist he was. The posts were complete with testimonials and before and after pictures from his clients. Word of mouth advertising isn’t new, but this particular medium was brand new. In this case, the web forum was only a few months old.

Think Creatively. Yes, that means… outside the box. Look for unusual teaming arrangements that could result in mutually beneficial marketing relationships. Perhaps two businesses in close proximity to each other team for the greater good. A coffee shop and a garage promote each other’s businesses: The garage’s clients enjoy their favorite lattes at the Internet cafe coffee shop next door while they wait for their cars to be finished. Each agrees to mention the other’s business on their respective sites and in their offices. It’s a recipe where everyone wins, especially the consumer.

Want more ideas? In future articles, I’ll discuss activities small businesses can participate in that make a positive difference in their marketing. You’ll also learn from real-world case studies of small businesses that were able to successfully compete on the web. Until next time: Happy marketing!

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

Related Topics: Channel: Search Marketing | Search Marketing: General | Small Is Beautiful

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About The Author: is the President and CEO of KeyRelevance.com, a full service online marketing agency that has been helping businesses succeed online for over a decade. Christine and her team of experienced search marketers offer a variety of services including Pay Per Click Management, Search Engine Optimization, Conversion Enhancements and Analytics Support.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • http://www.adapt.com/blog Erica Forrette

    More great stuff from you guys at SE Land! Small business definitely need to be nimble, and that nimbleness helps to contribute to the creative executions and partnerships that you suggest.

    FYI, just saw this post today as well, interesting commentary on one of your suggestions: find a niche.
    http://akugel.wordpress.com/2007/02/08/does-the-long-tail-pave-way-for-small-business-utopia/

  • http://technomarketer.typepad.com Matt Dickman

    Christine,
    You’re right on the money here. Being nimble is the key in being successful. There are more ways to be relevant using ad technology/RSS/custom creative/etc. We can be hyper-personal and really reach people with meaningful messages.

 

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