Small Businesses Get Blunt Advice on Search Marketing

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NEW YORK -- Dana Todd's candor catches your attention.


Here's what the executive vice president of La Jolla, CA-based interactive agency SiteLab told attendees yesterday at ad:tech New York.


"The generation of software we have both at the low end and the high end suck," Todd said to an audience of small business marketers looking to bone up on search marketing.


Todd should know. Besides her job at SiteLab, she is president of the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization.


Her admission was refreshing. And it added that much more credibility to the tips she offered small businesses that wanted to use search.


Todd's advice was directed to attendees whose companies generate $1 million to $15 million in yearly revenue. About 40 million to 50 million businesses nationwide operate in this revenue band. Their average annual budget on advertising is $5,000.


With such limited resources, small businesses have to think more strategically, Todd said. They must pick a search specialist even as they pick their battles. These firms must know their base dollar values: lead focus, visitors, sales and e-mail options. They should spend small and reinvest. And they must use their talent wisely.


She emphasized the importance of knowing the base values.


"It's OK to guess, it's OK to use your gut," Todd said.


Small businesses certainly need help. One out of two firms does not use an agency for their search marketing needs, according to a recent JupiterResearch study of 636 small business executives.


Todd ran through a list of reasons small businesses use an agency. Eighteen percent selected search engine optimization strategy, 16 percent SEO implementation and 10 percent each for pay-per-click search strategy and PPC implementation and management. In other reasons -- which could overlap -- 15 percent used an agency for search engine marketing performance tracking and 3 percent checked the "Other" box.


Two statistics were eye opening: Ten percent of respondents used an agency in the past but currently do SEM inhouse. And 56 percent said they never used an agency for any SEM services.


The study also focused on what worried small business owners. The top two concerns: tool-related issues and increasing competition for rankings. Rising prices for keywords was next, along with tracking effectiveness. Equally worrisome to this market was managing PPC campaigns on multiple search engines and choosing keywords.


So what has Todd learned from small businesses' pain?


First, don't rush into SEO or PPC efforts. Firms first should do their homework with tools and tracking. Second, pick one or two product lines to advertise, especially highest-margin items. Third, use geo-targeting if the firm's footprint is local. Local targeting capabilities are improving.


Also, ensure the site is converting at least 1 percent. Her formula: leads/total visitors = conversion.


"This is a lot of work," Todd said. "This is something you need to task your Webmaster [to] measure."


Finally, test and refine until the firm gets the search campaign right. Only then should the marketer expand its search efforts.


Todd advised not to skimp on tracking and reporting tools, research on keywords and competitors, testing, process and training. She said firms should spread duties across multiple departments to leverage skills.


Also, small businesses should create separate PPC budgets for high-traffic words. And they should use bid management tools but check frequently. Freebie tracking tools from search engines like Google or Yahoo are better than nothing.


As Todd noted, though SEO has the best return on investment, it's often overlooked. Small businesses should seek outside help even as they train their inhouse Web team to keep up with trends. Hiring staff with technical and linguistic skills is an asset.


"SEO is free money," she said.


Mickey Alam Khan covers Internet marketing campaigns and e-commerce, agency news as well as circulation for DM News and DMNews.com. To keep up with the latest developments in these areas, subscribe to our daily and weekly e-mail newsletters by visiting www.dmnews.com/newsletters
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