New ways for small businesses to advertise online

Many small-business owners have been disappointed in the return on their investment in Web ad programs, but Google Boost and other new services might help them attract new customers.

Web analysts have been predicting a boom in online advertising for almost as long as there has been a Web. After years of steady growth in online ads, the long-awaited boom could be just around the corner.

According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and PwC US, U.S. online ad revenues increased 17 percent in the third quarter of 2010 over the same period of 2009, reaching $6.4 billion, the highest quarterly mark ever recorded.

While online video ads and more traditional banner and pop-up ads continue to generate increased revenue, the text ads that accompany search results still represent the largest piece of the online-advertising pie. IAB's numbers for the first half of 2010 indicate that search ads accounted for 47 percent of all online ad revenue--the same percentage as in the first half of 2009.

But these revenue numbers could be dwarfed soon. New online ad services are targeting small businesses, many of which have been reluctant to adopt Web ads. Two reasons for the slow rate of online advertising by small businesses are the perceived low rate of return for the ads and the time required to manage an online-ad program.

According to Pete Barlas of Investor's Business Daily, Google and other search providers are attempting to overcome the hesitance of small businesses to buy Web ads by making it easier to select keywords and pick up other search engine optimization (SEO) tricks. Just as important is the rise in location-based services that offer discounts and rewards to customers who check in when they visit an establishment.

Google recently released a new component of its Google Places service intended to make it easier for small businesses to benefit from online ads. Google Boost is currently available only in select U.S. markets, but for as little as $50 per month the service promises to deliver three-line text ads in the Sponsored Links section of search pages when people in the business's vicinity search for the terms they specify.

Google Places sample ad
Google Places lets small businesses place ads in the Sponsored Links section of search results that may include a star rating and custom tags. Google

Google Boost and Google Places are closely tied to Google's AdWords service, so current AdWords customers can integrate the two accounts. However, AdWords offers many more management and reporting options, as well as many different types of ads.

Help for businesses connecting online ads to offline sales
Measuring the effectiveness of Web ads is more difficult for businesses that sell through brick-and-mortar stores and via the telephone. The key is to find ways to convince customers who buy through traditional channels to visit the company's Web site, and preferably register and sign in to their personal account. This can help businesses confirm that their online marketing led to an offline sale. Search Engine Watch's Adam Goldberg describes various techniques organizations can use to link their online and offline marketing efforts.

Small companies looking to get their feet wet in the online-advertising world will find helpful advice in Chris Silver Smith's Locals Only blog on Search Engine Land. Smith acknowledges that SEO has become the province of search professionals who use a wealth of techniques designed to raise a company's Web profile via paid ads and organic search listings. However, the post includes links to several search-optimization primers that will be helpful to business owners.

Local newspaper offers to sneak businesses into Google News
One online advertising service introduces an entirely new local wrinkle--unfortunately, it's a wrinkle that tramples all over the (increasingly tenuous) separation of editorial and advertising content. Columbia Media Enterprises, which publishes the Columbus Local News site for residents of central Ohio, has teamed with an Internet marketing company called Share Velocity LLC to offer the Biz Visible local-search service.

Each month, Biz Visible's PR Optimizer service will create a 500-word article about any local business that signs up. Because the ad will appear on the local newspaper's site as a regular article, it will be indexed by Google News and will potentially appear in the news service's listings along with straight news stories.

An executive for the company is quoted as saying the goal is to share the newspaper's "trusted-source advantage" with local businesses. But what becomes of that trust when readers--and news-indexing services--determine that what a site presents as a news story is in fact an advertisement?

According to the Columbus Local News story, Share Velocity founder Darla Walker calls PR Optimizer the "community newspaper's killer app." It seems to me the one thing the app is likely to kill is the newspaper's reputation for honoring the separation of editorial and advertising. Perhaps such a notion is outdated in the Wild West that the online-advertising world has become, but I'm one of the holdouts who believe integrity still matters in the news-publishing world.

About the author

    Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.

     

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