Taking The Fear Factor Out Of Paid Search For Small Businesses

A friend recently presented me with a tiny kitten she and her daughter rescued from a busy intersection. This kitten was not particularly adept at walking and would occasionally fall over, but she kept trying, using her tail to keep her balance and become more skilled at walking.

I can hear you ask: What in the world does my new kitten have to do with paid search for small businesses? As I observed the kitten’s progress, I found myself comparing her transformation to that of a small business venturing into paid search marketing for the first time. Small businesses, like the kitten, need to start slow, practice, and use their tails (their tail words, that is) when starting out in paid search.

In this article, I’ll explore some of the obstacles that keep small businesses from venturing into the paid search arena. I’ll then recommend a series of initial first steps you can take to gain confidence and proficiency using this advertising venue.

Myth versus reality

In talking with small business owners, one theme I hear repeated frequently is that small businesses are afraid of investing and losing their life savings in paid search. They’ve heard horror stories. They’ve found the whole concept confusing and a bit overwhelming. To the uninitiated, the prospect of using paid search can be daunting. Sometimes, when we don’t know much about something, we hear one negative comment and it grows into a monster in our minds.

In November 2007, Microsoft adCenter released research results looking at why many small businesses avoid using PPC. Although the study was conducted with UK small businesses, it reveals insights into perceived obstacles that many small businesses (SMBs) around the world might face when testing the PPC waters.

According to the Microsoft study, 44% of SMBs did not participate in paid search marketing because they thought it was too time consuming. In addition, 56% thought it was too expensive and 33% felt it was just too complicated.

If you’re running a large, complex campaign across multiple engines, PPC can definitely be expensive, time consuming, and complicated. Large scale PPC can be so complex you may need third-party PPC management software to give you the visibility into what’s actually happening in your account(s). However, this is the extreme case and almost never applies to small advertisers.

Many SMBs with limited budgets run paid campaigns with great success. Small campaigns with a few long-tail, niche keywords may bring all the traffic you want. There is no rule that says you have to have a large campaign and whopping budget for PPC to work for you. The engines will encourage you to spend more, but the ultimate decision about the right amount of traffic and the extent of your budget lies with you.

Arm yourself with knowledge

Before you start something new, it’s always a good idea to do your homework. That usually means conducting a little basic research. If you’re like most small business managers, you don’t have a lot of time to devote to marketing. You’re usually so busy working in your business you don’t have time to work on your business.

The good news is, doing a little research is just that—a little research. It doesn’t mean you have to do research for a dissertation, but a bit of background reading can shorten the learning curve and help you understand the overall concepts of any topic, including PPC.

There are a number of good primers available on paid search. If you like books, my all-time favorite PPC book is Andrew Goodman’s Winning Results with Google AdWords. Online resources that provide good PPC starter information include Google’s own AdWords Demos and Guides, Jennifer Laycocks’s insightful article “Five Common Paid Search Mistakes That Can Sink Your Campaign,” and the many great articles in SearchEngineLand’s Paid Search column area.

Learning to walk before you run

When you’re first starting something new, be it riding a bike or running a pay-per-click campaign, you should start out slowly. Beginning with a small PPC campaign minimizes risk and gives you the opportunity to understand the basic mechanics of how the process operates.

Learning by doing is one of the fastest ways to master a new subject. Since the engines have made getting started in paid search easy, there’s really no reason not to give it a go. Interestingly, many small businesses haven’t even tested paid search to see firsthand whether it works for them and to judge just how complicated it truly is. They simply read the horror stories and bow out before ever discovering whether this advertising medium would benefit them.

One statistic from the Microsoft research that was particularly startling was that “78% of SMBs not conducting search marketing are aware of the web-based tools available to them yet 92% of those businesses have not even attempted to set up a campaign.”

Small businesses can find comfort in this statistic because it proves they are not alone in their fear of paid search. It should also serve notice to those of us who live and breathe “search” to remember that the rest of the world is still in the infancy stage about the wonders of PPC.

Microsoft also found that over a third of the respondents held the misconception that it would take a day or more to set up a campaign. Ironically, the self-service basic configuration that most of the engines have followed makes it easy for a new advertiser to open an account and start advertising in less than an hour.

Use available safety features

What many small business owners might not know is that there are numerous safety features available within a PPC control panel. Those horror stories of people who ran up thousands of dollars in PPC debt in only a day typically come from people who didn’t take the time to learn about and set the available safety parameters.

You have control over what you spend, when you spend, and how you spend. What’s more, you can stop the campaign at any time with the click of one button.

Google allows you to set a daily budget so you can control the media spend. The daily budget is the dollar amount you are willing to exhaust each day on a particular campaign. Multiply the daily number by 30 to know what your maximum monthly amount will be. If you’re uncomfortable with the number, lower your daily budget to an amount that allows you to sleep soundly at night. As you gain confidence that the PPC advertising model is improving your return on investment (ROI), then you can inch the daily budget upward.

When you first set up your account, there are a few campaign parameters that will require your attention. This is one case where the default values are often not what you want.

For example, a small business starting out should turn off the “content network” (In Google, the default setting for the content network is “on”). The content network will display your PPC ads on every site that signs up for inclusion. In Google, part of the content network is called AdSense. You’ve probably seen these ads on other websites. Turning the content network off will limit your ads to showing only on the search results pages, not on millions of other websites. You can always include the content network later, but for those who wish to start slow, this is the best way to go.

Another way to limit clicks (and thus limit how much you spend) is “day-parting.” This is the practice of scheduling delivery of your ads at specific days and times. For example, if you run a small business that is closed on Sunday, it may not make sense to run PPC ads that drive phone calls to your office when there isn’t anyone manning the phones. The AdScheduling feature in Google allows you to select the specific times and days that fit your needs.

One downfall some small businesses face is opening their PPC ads to too broad of an audience. For instance, if your company builds swimming pools in Texas, you don’t need to advertise to homeowners in Michigan. PPC campaigns offer local and regional businesses the ability to “geo-target” their ads. Targeting by geographic location is a way to get the ads in front of local shoppers and avoid showing your ads to people outside your area.

Monitor your performance

When first starting out be sure to watch your account closely, especially those first critical hours. If something is configured incorrectly, it will likely show up early on. The quicker you catch a problem that could cost you money, the less expensive your campaign will be. If things aren’t going well, then simply “pause” the account (click just one button labeled “pause”) and the campaign will immediately stop while you figure out what needs to be corrected.

Define success—in your terms

Before you begin any PPC campaign, you’ll want to decide what needs to happen for your campaign to be successful. Obviously, you’ll want to make more money than you spend. When you’re starting out with paid search, it’s easy to get wrapped up with the idea that clickthrough rate is your most important metric. In fact, the engines encourage this line of thinking because it puts money in their pockets. Clickthrough rate does play into your quality score and affects the price you pay for each click as well as your ad position. It shouldn’t, however, be your top metric. As an advertiser who is paying for every click, you want traffic that converts: you don’t want just any ol’ traffic. Thus, tracking conversions (PPC clicks that ultimately turn into specified actions) is more important than clickthrough rate.

To properly track conversions, you need to first identify what a conversion is. To different sites it can mean different things. A conversion could be a customer filling out a form, whipping out a credit card and buying something, or simply downloading a white paper. You have to have a predetermined measure of success in mind and have the tracking in place to gauge it so you can tell if your PPC is working.

Google and some of the other engines provide conversion-tracking options where you can add JavaScript to a thank you page in order to record the successful conversion from a PPC ad. If you’re a small business this may be the easiest way to go. Once you see what’s working, log into your account to view the performance data (all located in one place). Keywords that are converting well should be left alone. However, keywords that are not pulling their weight should be turned off.

Selecting appropriate keyword phrases

Selecting the keywords for your advertising campaign is a critical first step in cost-effective search marketing. If you’re a beginner to paid search, here are a couple of tips. Don’t use single words. What’s more, avoid broad match search, at least in the beginning. The reason for both is the same: they can deliver unqualified traffic.

Broad match search in Google can be especially dangerous for a small business on a limited budget where every click has to count. Google’s broad match is a very liberal, expanded match where the connection between the displayed ad and the keyword is often not obvious. (To read discussions about Google’s broad match option, type in “expanded broad match problem” into Google.)

Watch for inappropriate traffic

Using an analytics program to oversee your performance is another exceptional way to monitor the success of your pay-per-click advertising. Cost is no longer an excuse for not having an analytics tool. Google Analytics is free and is an excellent program. Many large companies have concerns that using Google Analytics is passing coveted conversion data onto Google. But for a small business that has a more restricted budget, the benefits outweigh the risks. Having a free, good analytics program that will share your data with Google is better than not having any performance metrics at all.

Once you get the analytics program in place, you’ll want to keep an eye on your “bounce rate.” This *may* be an indication of inappropriate traffic. It could mean the landing page isn’t in sync with the PPC ad and/or the keywords, or that the visitor’s expectations were not met on the page. Either way, a high bounce rate can signify a waste of money and should be a red flag that spurs you to take a closer look.

A useful tactic that can reduce inappropriate traffic is including qualifying words in the ads. This is a technique used to weed out unnecessary or inappropriate clicks. If you’re selling a luxury item and you want to discourage clicks from people who are geared toward bargains, you might include a phrase such as “starting at $XXX” to key the visitor in that this is not a discount product. Qualifying visitors beforehand will save you money on unqualified clicks.

Karon Thackston’s ebook, How To Write Successful PPC Ads, is geared specifically toward writing paid search ads and can show you several techniques for qualifying visitors through your PPC copywriting.


Are you ready to expand your online presence? It may be time to test paid search advertising. Done carefully and with close monitoring, PPC can be a cost-effective way to drive high-quality traffic to your web site. Test the PPC waters gradually, then ramp up your spending once you feel comfortable and have gained some experience.

Oh! Are you still wondering what happened to my kitten? She perfected her walk and has become extremely proficient at PPC, too! Seriously, she’s thriving and is now quite the little acrobat!

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

Related Topics: Channel: SEM | Search Ads: General | Small Is Beautiful


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.

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