Small Business and Search: Where’s the Return?

My last couple of columns have focused on how social media can help you meet your goals as a small business owner.

But what about search itself? Search and social are drawing closer and closer, both in terms of technology and usage. But we don’t have to worry about that level of abstraction to answer a simple question: can search marketing work for my small business?

While the question itself may be simple, arriving at the answer requires understanding and consideration of a number of factors. So before we try to answer it, let’s look at search a little more closely.

Why Search?

Search marketing, whether pay-per-click (<>PPC) or search engine optimization (SEO) is often seen as a cornerstone of any online marketing campaign. Indeed, of almost any marketing campaign these days.

There are many ways to approach it and many things you can accomplish from it, but, looking at it in its simplest terms, it differs fundamentally from almost every other marketing or advertising method in human history (including social), in one simple but powerful way:

Instead of trying to interrupt or distract people, you are putting in front of them the very thing that they are looking for at that moment.

Sounds Great, Right?

On paper, it’s wonderful. Can’t go wrong. In practice? Not quite so simple. And that’s doubly true for most small enterprises where, unless you’re successful or lucky, tight budgets, time, and other resources tend to amplify any problems.

However, search marketing can work wonders for small businesses. For many, it’s probably the single best marketing investment possible, but you have to look at it carefully before jumping in the deep end.

So, what kinds of things are worth considering before taking the plunge?

Keywords, Keywords, Keywords

Keywords are make-or-break for any campaign. Precise figures aren’t important at this early stage, and I won’t go into keyword research in detail here (there are plenty of good tutorials and articles already), but you should have a good grasp of the following:

  • Are there enough terms associated with my niche, and do they drive enough volume? It might sound amazing, but there are niches — often narrow and specific niches, admittedly — where there is little to no search activity, or at least not enough to justify a full campaign. This is often the case in areas such as specialized financial services or high value commercial equipment. It’s hard to estimate what “enough” means in this context. Roughly speaking, you need at least 1,000 queries per month across the search terms that you’d want to target before you even start to think about SEO. At least.
  • Do they bite? There are also niches where, although there are plenty of queries, there’s low commercial intent. Again, this will vary massively from niche to niche, but it’s common to find areas where people simply don’t buy from search or from the web in general. These are typically areas where contacts and sales are made through referrals, and where the personality of the seller (i.e., you) is important. This isn’t closely related to cost, but is closely related to how bespoke or personalized the product or service is. Unfortunately, these are often areas in which small businesses, and especially sole traders, tend to operate.
  • Are the queries commercial? Closely related is the issue of informational queries versus commercial queries. For example, the search “solar panels” has a high search volume, as people are interested in the technology and it’s often mentioned in the media; but not many people are actually looking to buy them. So your volume can look great on paper, but less so in practice.
  • Is the meaning clear? Language, and especially the English language, is such that many words have multiple meanings, often completely unrelated. This might not affect your niche at all, but if it does, it can be a real killer, as queries for alternative meanings of the word in question can swamp the meaning you want to target. It can also have a big impact in cases where a brand has appropriated an everyday word from the language (e.g., Apple). The crossover of different niches can also cause serious problems, as you’ll be competing with your own natural competitors, and companies from another niche altogether.
  • How competitive is the niche? As a general rule of thumb, the better the match between a particular niche and search marketing, the more competitive it’s likely to be. That’s just the way the marketplace works. Again, that can be a special problem for small businesses, especially if the big boys are dominant in that area, but it doesn’t mean that any worthwhile niche will be too competitive for you. You just need to look carefully at who the top ranked players are, and ask yourself if you have enough budget and staying power to wrestle enough of the market from them to make it worthwhile for you. For example, if you’re a local web designer, there’s no point trying to optimize for web design related keywords — the results pages will be dominated by big national players. Also look for the presence of spammers or companies buying links cross into your niche — you probably don’t want to go there if they’re hanging around.

To Be Continued…

In part two, we’ll look at the time spans and financial burdens of getting into PPC and SEO, and ways out of tricky situations. We might even get close to answering our original question. See you then!

Join us for SES San Francisco August 16-20, 2010 during ClickZ’s Connected Marketing Week. The festival is packed with sessions covering PPC management, keyword research, search engine optimization (SEO), social media, ad networks and exchanges, e-mail marketing, the real time web, local search, mobile, duplicate content, multiple site issues, video optimization, site optimization and usability, while offering high-level strategy, keynotes, an expo floor with 100+ companies, networking events, parties and more!

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