SEM Is Really Scary to Businesses

Fear manifests itself in different ways within organizations and people. This week, a weird confluence of events reminded me just how scary search marketing (both paid and SEO (define)) can be for marketers. According to a Microsoft adCenter study, “seven in 10 small-business owners who participated revealed that they would rather try to do their own taxes than start a paid search marketing campaign.”

That’s incredible. I used to do my own taxes and, while they are completely doable if you have your instructions handy, it pains me to hear that PPC (define) search is considered worse.

(As a quick aside, I highly recommend more than ever this year that you take the SEMPO State of the Market survey. Survey responders get an early look at results, and in this economic climate, it will be even more valuable to get that look into what the results were. Of course, supporting your industry is also a good reason. Last year’s survey is available for download from the SEMPO site for the general public.)

The Microsoft study clearly indicates that business owners are conflicted about PPC search and search marketing in general. According to the study, “59 percent of small businesses with Web sites don’t currently use paid search marketing, and of those, 90 percent have never even attempted it.” Yet, “nearly nine in 10 (86 percent) small-business owners surveyed felt that they could be missing opportunities to grow their business, while three in four believed prospective customers could be searching online for the type of service their business offers.” Wow, they know they’re missing out yet are paralyzed by fear.

Further findings from the Microsoft study include:

  • Nearly nine in 10 (89 percent) feared keywords may become too expensive.
  • Eighty-one percent questioned if paid search marketing is the best use of their marketing budgets.
  • One-quarter of respondents believe paid search marketing is too complex.
  • Twenty-one percent thought it would be too time-consuming.
  • Thirty-five percent felt they would need an agency to help set up a search marketing campaign.

How did our industry get so scary?

Clearly, PPC search can get complicated, particularly for larger marketers running lifetime-value-based regression and segmentation models. But for many small businesses, particularly those with a Web presence, PPC search is fairly straightforward, or should be.

Perhaps the search engines need a separate wizard-based setup screen for small businesses to assist them in setup. Or the search engines could charge a setup fee and do the work.

The problem with a search-engine-driven solution, though, is the temptation at the search engine might be to set a broader geographical range than the business really needs, increasing spend and reducing the return (which is so much more difficult to measure for small retail and local businesses). So perhaps the market for locally focused SEM (define) agencies is far more robust than one might imagine.

SEO and its surrounding mystique has also scared the pants off many marketers. Conference managers, book marketers, and the SEO spam you get in your inbox all like to play up the voodoo-like element of SEO. However, the fundamentals should be taught to all site designers and can be explained to a non-geek audience. Even my session description for the NTEN NTC non-profit conference makes SEO seem more difficult than need be.

At my SES Chicago session on advanced paid search techniques, it was clear the audience didn’t widely share the same definition of “advanced.” For many, the advanced techniques were unattainable and for others the advanced stuff seemed like old hat.

Another trigger that got me thinking about the SEM marketplace’s craziness was an RFP (define) I received today from a major retailer. The RFP treated search marketing services (as well as many other forms of digital marketing) as if one were deciding between two catalog-printing houses or direct-mail letter shops.

Sure, it asked for references at the end, but what company is going to provide a bad reference? Do marketers actually think that, like printing, after you eliminate the obvious poor choices, the remaining vendors are all the same with regard to delivery of value?

Instead of recognizing that there might be technology differences among vendors, the RFP asked all search marketers incredibly simple questions, mainly about pricing. Yes, bidding on keywords in a real-time marketplace seems conceptually easy, but larger organizations often oversimplify it during the vendor selection process. Conversely, an earlier RFI asked about the ability to execute tactics that wouldn’t have had any material impact on a campaign’s outcome in comparison to unasked tactics that could add 30 percent efficiency.

I hope we can eliminate the confusion and misinformation within the marketplace at the small business and enterprise levels in 2009. Doing so would make this industry a lot less scary for many businesses operators who could benefit from it.

Related reading

Screenshot shows a Google search for outdoor grills, the shopping ads shows images with “in store” showing the product is available nearby.