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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Duly Noted: Local Business Paid Search Tips

In the type of corkscrew-like irony we've come to expect reporting on media who report on other media...

I was looking forward to seeing the finished version of Ilana DeBare's SF Chronicle article after she called to ask about how local businesses can use paid search to best effect. In effect, "paid local search" options compete directly with mainstream newspapers' ad models. Remember, we heard recently that the SF Chronicle itself is struggling, and laying off considerable numbers.

I liked some of what I saw in the article, but other tips seem to talk down to small businesses a bit. Do we expect too little of the "local" business? Some of the "local" businesses I frequent do tens of millions in business; others are at least in the low millions. That's more than many broad-based, but not very viable, online entrepreneurs are able to achieve. We're not talking about a hot dog stand all the time.

It's a bit of a myth that local businesses who don't do "online" business are ill-advised to pursue paid search. And if they don't, is there any business with a website that would find it particularly onerous to build in at least one decent measurement of buyer intent, such as a lead form, appointment form, etc.? Sure, many will just phone the hair salon. But Pure MedSpa takes online information requests and appointment booking requests, and so should many of their competitors, even if they only have a single location.

Obviously, if you're watching every penny, you don't want to burn money needlessly. But from what I've observed, in the chaotic world of the local and partially virtual business, a bit of mad money probably can't hurt in goosing your online presence. Take Shelly Purdy, a local jewelry designer in Toronto. These are medium-priced items, but by no means small-ticket. Now that e-commerce is enabled on the site, you might think - great, it would have been silly to buy paid search before, but now it's a good idea. But what if Shelly has a competitor who really doesn't emphasize online jewelry sales? What if that competitor is doing $2mm a year in sales, and spends a couple hundred thousand dollars a year on various promotional methods, including craft shows? Would it be so wrong to set aside $10,000 for paid search keywords, targeted tightly to a small geographic area, aimed at driving visitors to the showroom, a special event, or special promotion? But it's unmeasurable!! Gaahhh!! $10,000 out the window!! Hmm, $10,000 isn't all that much considering all the other unmeasurable marketing they already do.

So in my opinion, it's high time we raised the bar for "local" businesses and expected them to study the online targeting options in more depth. Saying "paid search isn't for you if you don't have a clear online outcome" is giving lazy people an out. Perhaps some of those online outcomes need to be built or pursued.

Similarly, I'm not too impressed with the notion that a business-to-business advertiser might not want to bother with online because the old-school network of "business cards" and "rolodexes" is the ticket. Face-to-face is cool, but this is 2007, and people search. Want to rake in more business than the other junior commercial real estate brokers who are relying on the old traditional methods? Get visible online. Take the time and trouble, and reap the reward.

So in the spirit of high expectations, here are some of my favorite current resources that should help small businesses or local businesses study ways of improving their online presence:

In my opinion, here are at least four things out of the long potential to-do lists that ought to have been recommended to local businesses:
  • Google Local Business Center is free. People increasinly use Google Local Search, and maps, so you want to show up here. Get a listing. Upgrade it if you know how. And wait, did you see that Google actually facilitates the process of creating a coupon so you can see if your local paid search ads are working? So much for excuses about "unmeasurability"!
  • Make sure you're covered on key local vertical sites. If Toledo.com is important to your local audience, get visible there. Just make sure you understand what you're paying for.
  • Be aware that your reputation is going to be affected by how you appear on the latest generation of local business search and consumer review sites: Yelp, InsiderPages, CitySearch, Judysbook... you get the idea. Figure out whether free "claimed" listings will enhance your image. Consider upgrading your listing for added visibility.
  • Do conventional, but localized, online and offline public relations (in a savvy way). This is especially great if you have a website and you can get folks to point to it. For this, maybe find a local boutique PR firm. Again, perhaps not for the very small or very boring, but if you're very small and very boring, why am I even writing about you?
A longer discussion is at what size of business is it viable to have a quality website designed for you - and what type of website? What functionality is required? Should you blog? Twitter? Listen to your inner voice here as you study what you can. There are tens of thousands of restaurant listings in my metro area. Do any of the owners blog? Twitter? I really don't know. Will they in the future? Don't know either. Is it vitally important for them to do so? Well, no, but culturally, personally I'd take some guerrilla vlogging from a head chef over a canned flash video treatment any day. But culture is culture. Most of these businesses should be mastering the basics rather than worrying about the bleeding edge stuff.

Having your own cyber-business opinions helps. Why abdicate your online personality solely to some disinterested web design firm who is expected to give you an "online presence"? The concept of an online presence sounds pretty static to me. Nope, you've gotta take ownership of this stuff and work with that firm - if you can find a good one. So that leads to a broader question: can you cost-effectively outsource a good portion of your marketing efforts if you're a small local business? Yes, but I think you'll need to get lucky. There are probably 1,000 people on the planet qualified to help you without doing counterproductive stuff. It's tough to find them.

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