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Small Business and Search: Where's the Return? (Part 2)

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Pay-per-click (PPC) or search engine optimization (SEO). Which one is right for your small business?

When you're trying to decide how search marketing can work for your small business, several factors must be considered, such as keywords. Is there enough volume? Are they competitive enough, but not too competitive?

Obviously, when you're first considering a campaign, you don't need to do in-depth research or prioritize specific keywords. You're simply trying to get a feel for how viable your campaign would be.

Small businesses generally have relatively tight marketing budgets, so you'll need to know how quickly you can get a return on your investment.

PPC vs. SEO

Although you're trying to achieve exactly the same thing with PPC and SEO -- putting your sales messages and brand in front of people making relevant search queries -- the methodology couldn't differ much more. Chalk and cheese, in other words, but both are potentially useful.

You don't need a detailed understanding of how each works to get a feel for which would be a good match for your business. But you have to understand the basic features.

PPC features:

  • Immediate return (although it should also improve over time)

  • Completely measurable

  • Actions have immediate effects and can be tied to particular results

  • The traffic (and therefore overall result) is limited by your spend -- switch the spend off, and the result disappears immediately

SEO features:

  • Return can take months or longer even to begin to be realized

  • Very "fuzzy" process

  • Actions are often connected to specific results only loosely and with a high latency

  • In the long term, traffic can potentially far exceed what you would get through PPC on the same budget, and will keep going long after you switch off the spend

Clearly, SEO is a long haul, and you'll have to chuck money at it for months before you even know whether it's working. Sounds tough, right?

On the other hand, you'll know whether PPC will work for you fairly quickly, but you'll need to keep spending if you want to keep the results.

Or, if you prefer the glass-half-full angle, SEO has great long-term potential, whereas PPC will give you a quick return and tight control over your spend.

Time Scales

This is a moment every SEO company selling to a small business has to face: answering the question, "How long until I see a return on my budget?"

SEO is a fuzzy process, so there's no hard and fast answer (it depends on your budget -- more money means that more work can be done more quickly). However, as a rough rule of thumb for an average small business in an average niche, starting with a spread of keyword rankings:

  • Rankings should start to improve in the first two or three months.

  • Keywords are in high enough positions to start driving more traffic after six months.

  • Hitting the top three positions for important keywords (therefore driving significant traffic) after 10 months to a year.

With any luck, things might start to happen more quickly, but it's wise to start with a fairly pessimistic scenario. Remember, you're not only up against how much you can spend, but also Google's (and the other engines') latency.

While spiders frequently crawl the web, it can take a long time for them to act on what they find, especially if they don't trust a site so much. If you're starting with a brand new site and domain, this effect can be a near deal-breaker -- it can take Google months to pick up the site at all, let alone rank it (although there are things you can do to mitigate this effect).

So, if you've got the budget (and stomach!) to work on SEO for at least six months before seeing any real impact, and your keywords look good, then SEO is definitely for you. It can have a tremendous impact on your business if you have the time and patience.

If that doesn't sound like your cup of tea, then starting with PPC is probably a good idea for you (again, if the keywords are a good fit). You can control the budget in fine detail, scaling up if the campaign is successful, and see a quick return on your investment. And you can always start SEO later, with the added benefit of in-depth knowledge of your keyword space gained from your PPC campaign (this is a common strategy).

So Where's the Return?

To answer the original question... well, not surprisingly, it really depends on your niche and business. But armed with basic information and knowledge of the time scale involved with both SEO and PPC, you should be able to make a sound decision for yourself.

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