ForLeaseSign.pngFrank Reed had an interesting post on his Frank Thinking blog, lamenting how small businesses seem to avoid search marketing. They spend their money on Yellow Pages ads and other older forms of marketing that might not bring the best return on their investment. So, with the U.S. economy focusing every small business on making more from less, why is it that Internet marketing, and search marketing in particular, is so scary? What can we do to help small businesses take advantage of the Internet?

I am not a researcher (and I don't even play one on TV), but from talking to hundreds of small business owners over the years, I have some theories:

  • The Internet is still too hard. Most small business owners are not comfortable with technology, because it still requires too much expertise to operate, sucking up time and money they don't have. Time will solve this, because younger owners have more technology experience and because technology does get easier each year (I swear). We should expect that business owners that don't use computers will be suspicious of Internet marketing. But most small business owners have at least made their peace with computers, so what else is holding them back?

  • Internet marketing is scary. No matter what you try, there's too much to know to avoid looking like a fool or even breaking the law. Yellow Pages ads, trade show brochures, weekly circulars, and other tried and true small business marketing programs are at least understood. Sure, you could screw something up, but it's hard. But with search marketing, you can blow money on paid search and get no sales. You can send out e-mails the wrong way and run afoul of the CAN-SPAM act. You can breach some Internet etiquette and be a laughing stock. No, for some, it's just too dangerous.

  • Inertia. I honestly think this is the big one. Small business owners are the busiest people I know. They spend so much time just executing what they already know how to do that they are ill-equipped to spend any time thinking about something new.

So what can we do?

For one thing, we need to realize that small business owners couldn't care less about being experts in Internet marketing. They don't care what the trends are. They don't care what's hot. Mostly, they care about how they can learn as little as possible and be effective. And honestly, that's what all of us should be concerned about. If we can't explain the value of Internet marketing in terms small business owners can understand, they should ignore us.

But we also need to make Internet marketing easier—especially search marketing, which is so basic to any business. Why is it that the easy-to-use facilities that create Web sites don't help with organic search marketing? Or help business owners analyze the metrics that matter?

They don't. You still need to find your own Web page builder, do your own optimization, learn what JavaScript means so you can get metrics, and a dozen other tasks that we experts take for granted. But each one can baffle a perfectly intelligent small business owner.

It's time that we added the automatic transmission for Internet marketing. Do any of my readers know any examples of truly easy-to-use tools that help businesses sell, not just create a Web site?

July 23, 2008

Mike is an expert in search marketing, search technology, social media, publishing, text analytics, and web metrics, who regularly makes speaking appearances.

Mike's previous appearances include Text Analytics World, Rutgers Business School, SEMRush webinar, ClickZ Live.

Mike also founded and writes for Biznology, is the co-author of Outside-In Marketing (with James Mathewson) and the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (now in its 3rd edition, and sole author of Do It Wrong Quickly, named by the Miami Herald as one of the 11 best business books of 2007.



Thanks for the mention. I really feel that this area is untapped in the sense of helping folks get over the hurdles you mentioned. There are a few folks besides yourself like Matt McGee and his Small Business SEM blog that try to talk to this market but I often feel like it's still search marketers talking to other search marketers about small business search apps. Honestly, I feel the SMB (small medium business) owners pain because I am one myself (and I wish I played one on TV!) so I realize time is hard to come by. This is a paradigm shift issue for the SMB's of the world and those that adapt will succeed. Those who don't may survive but they won't thrive. The internet has the opportunity to be the great equalizer for SMB's but it could also create a "Success Gap" between the Do Use Search and Don't Use Search camps that will be hard to ignore.

Thx Mike for the interesting post. I have also been following this local search and internet marketing riddle for a while, and have arrived at a strategy of Video SEO / online commercials for local businesses. If one makes a base assumption that above all else the biggest bang for a local marketers buck online is appearing in the organic links on Page One of Google, then producing and posting an 'online commercial' makes great sense. No website needed, very clean and simple. But yes the inertia and fear factor make this online commercial / Video SEO strategy one that has to be evangelized one customer at a time.


This makes sense to me, but I am sure you are right that it is a slow process, because not only do small business owners have little experience with the Internet (on the whole) but also they don't have a high comfort level with video. But their teenage kids do.

Thanks so much for your excellent post. I am a local search marketing specialist, and I am still amazed at the confusion about the whole issue.

Many people have gotten ripped off by seo companies who scam people and they also get a bad taste in their mouth. They are then reluctant to market on the internet.

The yellow pages are outdated.. and will continue to become more archaic over time.

I am trying to build my local search directory and I hope that it will be successful. I hope that business owners will see the value of what I do.

I think that more and more people are learning about the internet. My parents are in a 55 and over community... and they all surf the net

Thanks again

This is a great post and the one topic I talk to my new and current clients at length. Over the past 18 month when a new client signs up for a new or redesigned Website, we always include in their package SEO and SEM programs. Many of the redesign clients want to opt out of that part of the program because they don't understand the importance or relevance of search marketing. As such, it takes a little educating to help them understand that it's not enough just to redesign their Website, they need to engage in search marketing as well in order for their business to thrive.

We hear the same arguments as everyone else, the small business owner doesn't have time to do it so, we do it for them, at a fair price. We have offered a few tough clients the service on a trial bases (if they didn't get any response from our efforts, they didn't have to pay our fee for the SEM) to prove that it works and now they can't buy into it enough.

Don't overwhelm your clients with jargon and technology when talking to them about the process, just show them how it works. A good case study can be helpful here.

Take the fear out of the equation helping your small business client with the program and both of you will be winners.

Hi Mike, I come from 30 years of entrepreneurship and I can tell you from experience that most small business people are very good at their trade, such as auto repair or carpet cleaning, but lack critical business management skills. Many of them fail because they don't have the time or expertise to collect the money they are owed for good work they have already completed. They think that simply doing really good work will bring them success, but that is just aspect of running a profitable small business.

Another hurdle to overcome is that many of them are mavericks who can't stand working for someone else and/or think they know more than their bosses/managers do. I don't mean that in a bad way, either, because in many cases, they do know more.

Anyone trying to sell to these folks will do well to keep these traits in mind. Thanks, Mary

In my opinion Social Media Marketing is a powerful tool for any DIY business owner. However, when you use other types of online media to supplement your growing Social Media network one can make this tool all the more powerful. One way to supplement any Social Media campaign is by using Video Ads to convey your message to viewers. There are a number of sites out there like that allow you to upload your video ad content for free while simultaneously working to optimize your video ads based on keywords relevant to your business. You can then use these very same links as track backs in your Social Media Campaign. A very effective method.

Right now I am seeing more business “giving up” being online and trying to “save money” but not using the Internet. This is the wrong thing to do. A lot of small businesses don’t fully understand SEO. They think it’s dirty, that SEOs are snake oil salesmen, that it’s out of their budget, or that it’s something they don’t need to worry about because they’re not a major brand. The truth is, the Internet has changed the face of business and leveled the playing field for everyone. By investing in SEO, you allow your company to show up for those targeted local searches, while also putting yourself in the position to compete with the big dogs

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