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Microsoft falls short of aiding small businesses

The software giant shelves one of its marketing services for small business, acknowledging it can't help those ventures surmount the financial advantages of their larger competitors.

Microsoft shelved one of its marketing services for small businesses this week, acknowledging it couldn't help those ventures surmount the financial advantages of their larger competitors.

Microsoft's bCentral site aggregates content and services geared toward small businesses. On March 15, bCentral launched a trial program to offer such firms the chance to buy placement among search results on Microsoft's MSN Search site.

Search engines have long sold corporations prominent placement in search results. For example, an auto company could pay to show up at the top of the thousands of results returned when a visitor searches on the keyword "SUV."

bCentral ended its trial this week, conceding that it could not market to small businesses keywords that were both available and effective.

"We found that we couldn't really do an effective job with good pricing," said Jonathan Weinstein, director of marketing for bCentral. "The larger companies have locked up the better keywords. Most of our smaller group of trial users weren't getting the kind of traffic results that they wanted."

The failure of bCentral's keywords trial comes as small businesses take an increasingly skeptical look at predictions that the Web would level the playing field between large and small companies. As reality has diverged from hype, small businesses have realized that big companies still have the financial muscle to win at marketing with search engines.

"The MSN Search group primarily sells advertising to larger businesses," read an explanatory email Microsoft sent this week to bCentral keywords registrants. "To avoid disappointing those larger customers who are paying more, the MSN Search group would have to reduce the size and prominence of your keyword listings and/or raise the price. Given this, both Microsoft groups agreed that it would be better for you if we discontinued our Keywords service."

Microsoft is referring its keywords trial participants to GoTo.com, which charges for its keywords on a per-click basis.

bCentral's keywords customers said the problem wasn't in the keywords Microsoft was able to offer them, but in the service's technical administration.

"We started trying to use it, but every time we signed up for a keyword it would write back saying it was having technical difficulties," said Jason Schindler, co-owner of Web design firm Silverscape Technologies in Gainesville, Fla. "We found words that worked and we were happy with it, but they never got the system working. They just never got their act together."