Last week at the Small Business Marketing Unleashed conference, small business owners (and a handful of marketers) came from around the world (literally) to learn more about marketing themselves online. We decided to open the show with a tag-team panel approach aimed at helping attendees go into the show sessions with the right perspective. Search engine marketing, blogging and social media are wonderful; but if you're a small business doing it all yourself, you need to approach things from a unique angle.

Based on all of the search marketing and social media marketing blogs out there, it would be easy to come to the conclusion that everyone and their brother is spending every waking hour working on ways to improve their rankings and their social media presence. It's true that some businesses, even of the small variety, are spending an inordinate amount of time working on their search marketing and social media marketing approaches. That doesn't mean you have to, though.

One of the things we aimed to get across to attendees during that opening session was the need to balance the time you spend marketing with the time you spend building your business. It's easy to get caught up in the fun of Twittering or the conversation on a blog and forget about the need to write payroll checks. We've all heard the phrase "The cobbler's children have no shoes," but in the world of online marketing there's also the risk that the cobbler's store will have no shoes. Why? Because he's too busy building out his Facebook page.

With that in mind, I want to highlight two of the points we made during that session.

Realistic Expectations of Success

In my own opener, I gave a brief explanation of The Pinocchio Effect to attendees.

You see, deep down, search engines want nothing more than to be real boys (or girls). That's right, it's that simple. As search engine engineers gain more and more ability to tailor the algorithms, their ultimate goal is to help the search engines make choices the way that people do.

I explained that while algorithm chasing is certainly possible (the industry does it all the time) it's not the best use of your time if you have a business to run. Since search algorithms are always moving toward replicating human judgement, it's enough for most small businesses to simply focus on delivering the best content and experience for their users. As long as they build search friendly sites, rankings tend to follow.

That's oversimplifying it a little bit, but overall it's a better idea for small businesses to learn the basics of SEO and to learn how to get involved in the conversation of social media than it is for them to obsess about innovative new marketing campaigns. That's where I gave attendees the same advice I gave the industry several years ago; stop obsessing about rankings.

Imagine, for a moment, that other marketing industries had set themselves up with similar expectations. That email marketers were considered unsuccessful if you didn't make the top ten list in terms of visitors to your site, that public relations professionals were a failure if you weren't one of the top ten stories of the year, that television commercials were a failure unless they resulted in more store visits than all but ten other companies in their industry. Starting to sound a little silly?

Of course it does! Marketing is about finding new and innovative ways to present a product so that it drives purchases. It's as simple as that. Commercial marketers work to capture an audiences' attention in a way that keeps a company top of mind when the need arises for their product. Direct mail advertisers seek to capture a potential customer's interest with a compelling enough offer to create a sale or at least an inquiry. In the world of traditional marketing, results are measured by ROI, not by some arbitrary "top ten" achievement.

My reminder (and my words of encouragement) to our attendees was of the need to focus on results. Rankings, are not results. Rankings are "achievements." Results are what shows up in your bottom line at the end of the month. If you don't have top rankings, but you have more search traffic and more sales than you did the month before, you're in a great place.

Tinkering Verses Fine Tuning

The other point made that morning that bears repeating in this article was Matt Bailey's analogy of online marketing and working on cars. Matt explained how much he enjoyed working on his vintage VW Bug. A little tinkering here, a little clanking there and eventually, he might get the engine going. In Matt's mind, small business DIY marketing is a lot like working on his vintage Bug. Many specialty search marketing blogs and many of the top conferences are not designed for this type of "tinkering." According to Matt, these kind of shows at designed for NASCAR pit crews.

Small business web sites tend to need "big, clunky changes" like writing unique title tags, or making sure you have the right redirects in place to keep both the www and non www version of your domain from showing up in the search engines. Large sites that have teams of search marketers working on them deal with high-performance tactics like Page Rank sculpting and multivariate landing page testing . Matt likened this level of SEM focus to NASCAR teams shaving millimeters off of cars to make them more aerodynamic.

While those millimeters will certainly speed things up, they're just not necessary for his VW Bug. In fact, if Matt spent the amount of time and effort on his VW that NASCAR crews spend on their cars, he'd never have time to take it for a drive and enjoy his hard work. Small business owners have to walk the fine line between knowing how to make the car run well and still having time to drive it places. Your average small business owner doesn't really need to worry about PageRank funneling or multivariate testing; they need to know about things like title tags, keyword selection, blog strategies and how to set up Google Alerts to watch for social media chatter.

Learn, but Don't Obsess

While we did spend two full days packing our attendees brains with as much information as we could, the focus was on teaching them the tactics and techniques that could be realistically implemented. In fact, at the last minute I renamed my Social Media Marketing talk "Social Media Conversations" because I realized it would be better to give them a true overview of their social media conversational options and to pair it with some advice on how to listen to the conversation and respond to it. Most small businesses don't NEED to dream up complicated social media marketing techniques. They simply need to leverage those networks to gain feedback, respond to customers and build up contacts. As they experiment and learn, they'll gain the experience needed to take things to the next level.

Really, that's how small business should approach all of online marketing. Learn the basics, experiment, get practice tracking the results and move on up from there. Start working on your site with a lug wrench and a floor jack, not a computerized diagnostic system and a lift.

April 28, 2008

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.



This is so true!

I can't count how many times I've gotten into discussions about things like filenames and search engine friendly URLs only to end with "first you need to address the fact that your home page is one big image"!

The problem is that the basic blocking and tackling of search marketing aren't sexy enough.

The reality is most small business websites see HUGE improvement with just the basics. Especially on the local level it's amazing what a well formed title tag can do.

What an excellent recap of what sounds like a fantastic conference! Your discussion of rankings vs results is very similar to what I discuss with my clients. Seems so many are focused on "being #1", as if that is the only badge of a successful website.

Thanks for sharing this!

I ADORE the NASCAR analogy!!! I'm going to be using that one for quite some time!!!

"Let's focus on putting WHEELS on your vehicle before we start lining up sponsors for your car!" (For the newbie blogger who wants to make millions using Google Adsense with the "welcome to wordpress" post being the entire content of the blog.)

Sounds like a great conference! These are great points and given all the things I have going on, I decided to hire a frim to help me with this. It's not an easy/quick process but we are slowly coming up in the rankings and because we sell such a unique product we'll have to wait and see if when we appear on the first page for certain key words, that will translate into sales. Hopefully so.


As a small business owner (with one!), and someone who is very reliant on my website to help 'spread the word', your blog hit home on many levels! Great information, thank you!

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Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > Focus on Ranking Improvement, Not Domination