Should Small Businesses Really Avoid PPC?

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On Monday, Media Post’s Search Insider published an article titled, “Small Businesses to PPC Search: Drop Dead.” This article takes an interesting tone, one of caveat emptor for small businesses using PPC as a viable marketing option. When I read this article, I envisioned the author holding a massive red stop sign yelling “DON’T DO IT” to any small business owner who happened to walk by the proverbial PPC booth. Not to be blatantly contrary, but I don’t think that this was a fair and balanced look at how small businesses should approach PPC. I’ll broach each section of the original article individually.

In my view, many of these people have a damned good reason to stay clear of PPC…

There’s no faster, easier way to lose money.

Alright, I’ll concede that PPC is a pretty simple way to unload some cash. If you blindly set up a PPC account with little concern for researching the medium and best practices, than yes – you can lose money. But that’s just it – this statement isn’t giving credit to the SMB owner who approaches PPC intelligently, performs his/her research and has a plan in place. But as stated in the article’s introduction, small business owners are not stupid. To quote one of the article’s comments, “They usually are very savvy…” To me, this notion that small business owners will simply waste their money is a short-sighted scare tactic.

Dabbling in search is dangerous.

Mmhmm. And what’s your point? Nothing in this paragraph tells me why search is dangerous. I see that $500 a month won’t get you far. I see that a small sample size of data will make it difficult to test campaign variables. I can’t argue with either of those points, but tell me – how does that make search dangerous? Working for an agency (if you didn’t realize it already, I’m not an SMB owner) I actually manage an account that has a $500 monthly budget. I know how far that goes – and it has the potential to garner multi-million dollar deals. It all goes back to approaching PPC intelligently with a strong sense of research and planning. The small business owner who managed this account before me actually did a decent job of managing this account – he merely came to us looking for help qualifying his traffic and amplifying the effectiveness of his landing pages.

As for the comments on testing, I find this frustrating. OK, so the data pool won’t be as deep for the SMB owner – how or why should that detract them from giving PPC a shot? The big-dogs will have heaps and heaps of data to really hone in on what works best for their business. But why does that automatically mean that it’s dangerous for small businesses to use PPC? For anyone touting that search is dangerous – I’ll leave you with this: owning and operating a small business is dangerous. Owning a business, implementing a successful marketing strategy… all of these things carry an element of risk. You can’t succeed if you don’t try.

There’s very little low-hanging fruit left.

I’m with Steve (the article’s author) that the “let’s make PPC search seem easy” message is out of place. PPC is not easy. Anyone who states otherwise is a fool! And once again, I can’t argue with “there’s very little low-hanging fruit left.” YES, more people are advertising. YES, PPC is hard work. YES, you’ll need a usable, conversion friendly website. YES, you’ll have to do your research. Anybody with a decent head on their shoulders would say, “Yes, that makes sense. If I want to reap the PPC rewards, it won’t be easy and I’ll have to work hard to get the results I want.”

I would also offer up a counter-argument. Most of the reports regarding search engine usage implies that more, and more, and more people are using search engines. The common, every day user is getting better at developing useful search queries (long tail, whoohoo!). And truth be told, the search landscape is diversifying.

Just take local search for example (which is a small business wonderland). The same day this Search Insider article was published, Matt McGee discussed the rise of local search queries at Search engine users are developing the skills to more easily find what they’re looking for. SMB owners in turn can very quickly and efficiently develop geo-targeted PPC strategies to capitalize on these trends. And many more small business owner/advertisers can make tremendous strides by following the PPC basics – and will see good (maybe even great) results. Again – it’s all about the research and approach taken with PPC.


As far as MSN’s hand-holding tool is concerned, to that I say, “meh.” I, too, am often wary of the search engines providing jumpstart services to novice PPC managers. Sometimes these tools/services come from an honest place, other times there’s an element of brainwashing to grow an army of advertisers who will do what they’re told. But enough of my paranoid ramblings – back to the article in question. To sum up, the points made in this Search Insider article aren’t necessarily wrong. Where I see fault is in how the information has been presented. It comes off as “just because PPC is not easy, you shouldn’t do it.” That’s the wrong message to send to small business owners! They’re a smart bunch of people, and they instead should be given practical advice on getting started: Do your research. Know your goals. Create a plan. Stick with the basics. Be smart and be patient.

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8 thoughts on “Should Small Businesses Really Avoid PPC?

  1. JJ Hendricks

    This is a great rebuttal to that article. As a small business owner who has started some PPC campaigns on my own and developed them into money making ads, I can say without a doubt that small businesses should try PPC.

    It does take effort and experimentation. When I started I chose one product to advertise, five or six keywords, and 3-4 ads. I didn’t make much money $100 in ads, but I learned a ton. After two months I had the ads and keywords refined so I was making money on them. Then I expanded into other products and tweeked those.

    You definitely don’t want to start off with an unlimited budget and thousands of keywords, but starting off focused and small can yield really big results once it is expanded.

    I think the big risk for small business is NOT doing PPC ads. More and more customers come from search. Missing out on those customers is a huge lost opportunity.

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  3. Justin

    I have been involved with managing about 20 PPC accounts for small businesses and yes it works for our clients, the jury is still out as to how well it works for us as a marketing firm but that is another story.

    We typically focus on service based businesses in relatively small geographic areas, construction contractors, painters, pool cleaners, etc. We take the best practices from larger national and international accounts and tweak them in an abbreviated manner for local accounts.

    Usually we find that a certain term or two will yield the most valuable traffic and MAY be all that is needed (balancing keyword breadth and effectiveness can get tricky fast so keep your eyes open = analytics so your ROI is good).

    We often use city name modifiers (although Google has suggested against it in geographically limited accounts) we find it works. Example: clients service + city name. Well researched keywords in conjunction with a strong ad (look at the other advertisers on your terms and make yours stand out while retaining quality) will drive qualified traffic to your landing pages. What we have found is that a landing page with a strong offer can convert well.

    One of the trickiest things is tracking phone calls. Our estimates are that 65% to 85% just make a call and never fill out a form or any other internet traceable conversion. Key thing to capture the lead here is to put your phone number on the landing page for small local businesses.

    We find that Yahoo! and others can supply decent traffic especially on a local level so it might be smart to play with numerous PPC accounts (Google first) even if your budget is tiny.

    The summary above is admittedly abbreviated but hopefully can supply a rough outline for anybody thinking of doing some local PPC. Every opportunity to be visible and to sell must be explored and we have found that it can be done in a very profitable manner for even the smallest local businesses. Good luck and thanks for the initial post PPC Hero. We love you guys and read your emails and website daily!

  4. JohnJohn Post author

    @ JJ,

    I think you’re exactly right – the biggest risk for an SMB owner is to NOT give PPC a chance! Thanks for your insights.

    @ Nick,

    That’s what I’m hoping for! SMB owners need to be given the proper expectation about PPC – but they need to give it a shot, too.

    @ Justin,

    I think your comment could be it’s own blog post… nice! You make a good point with finding the balance between “keyword breadth and effectiveness.” And in regards to phone tracking – there are options for that. The simplest would be to have sales people ask how the customer found the business (archaic, but it works). But there are also more eloquent solutions that work will track phone calls down to the keyword level (i.e. ClickPath, Voicestar, Telecapture, etc.). Thanks for your comment!

  5. CustardMite

    I don’t think that the size of the business should determine whether you should try PPC or not, it’s your ability to manage the account.

    If you decide to do it yourself, you need a few things:

    1) Time. If you run a small business that leaves you little time to spare, you won’t be able to optimise your PPC campaign. And you’ll almost certainly lose money.

    2) Analytical ability. If you can’t interpret data, and draw conclusions from it, then you can’t do PPC. If you assign someone else to manage the account, make sure that they are qualified to do it.

    3) Understanding. Before you start, you need to read up on it – and not just the Adwords exam. Learning as you go along is expensive at best, and there are many things that you just won’t realise. One mistake can be the difference between making money and losing it.

    4) A decent product range, with good prices. People will shop around, and there’s no point in paying for clicks if you can’t convert them…

    In reality, a lot (most?) small businesses would probably struggle to manage a PPC campaign in-house, but here’s a thought…

    When our agency first started out, we were looking for clients, and took on a local restaurant. They only had a £5 per day budget, and paid in free food. But the campaign was highly successful, and they got excellent returns on their spend.

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