SMBs Need a Lot of Help Online

I attended The [California] Governor’s Conference on Small Business and Entrepreneurship last thursday at the Oakland Convention Center. One of the sessions I sat in on was about social media and online marketing. It was the mirror of an identical session in the morning that I was unable to attend.

The panelists included representatives from Google, Yelp, Twitter (where I got the sticker), Cafe Press and the California Restaurants Assn. Each panelist got to talk for about 5-10 minutes and then there was a Q&A session.

While there was some sophistication, the Q&A session revealed just how much help most SMBs need. Yelp’s Vince Sollitto, who was on both panels, said that the earlier session had a higher level of sophistication and greater engagement.

I took a lot of notes but I’ll summarize and provide a few observations.

More people in the room had a facebook page than were AdWords advertisers. But about 3/4 of those in the audience were on LinkedIn.

Google’s Claire Johnson spoke repeatedly about claiming listings on Places and about search marketing. It became clear however that most of these folks were very far away from search marketing.

Most of those in the audience were familiar with and used Yelp as consumers, but only a few had used the business tools. Yelp’s Sollitto said Yelp had 31 million uniques and 10 million reviews. He addressed the issue of negative reviews by saying, “negative reviews are an authenticator” and provide credibility — ironically. Not sure if those in the audience bought the argument. When he cited the URL,, however, lots of people wrote it down.

Francesca Helina of Twitter talked about tweeting “on the go” and discussed Twitter apps as the best and most convenient way to tweet. She hinted at a number of services for SMBs to come and discussed Twitter’s window sticker. She briefly mentioned Promoted Tweets, but focused on the free service. She referenced two accounts (@smallbiz and @Francesca) where marketing on Twitter and best practices would be showcased.

John Goddard of the California Restaurant Assn said that 73% of CA restaurants were independent. He talked about how many have adopted social media and Twitter in particular. “A lot of chefs are blogging” and building social media strategies around their blogs, said Goddard.

I was somewhat surprised to see how many in the audience were using Google alerts (roughly 1/3) as a basic form of reputation management and review monitoring.

Café press extolled the virtues of search marketing saying “30% of our business from Google search.”

The moderator, a woman from Palo Alto Software, threw around tips and jargon that were generally way over the heads (from my perspective) of the audience. Indeed, most of the discussion from the podium was more advanced than the people in the room — sometimes painfully so.

This is an extreme example, but one woman asked for advice on what types of content would make her website (which she hadn’t developed yet) interesting. This reflected to me the very basic level of understanding — or lack thereof — of online marketing possessed by some small businesses.

One older woman, selling Japanese medicinal herbs, talked about her frustrations with consultants who made big promises about SEO and high rankings (There’s a ton of that going on out there.)

I conduct surveys of SMBs and talk about their issues frequently in the abstract. But it’s very helpful to be in a room like this from time to time to see the challenges they confront in a very direct way. For them the world is only getting more complicated and, while there is growing awareness and sophistication in some quarters, the smallest SMBs need a lot of help — a lot.


Related: Google offers a co-branded (with the SBA) site/tutorial on online business marketing fundamentals.


8 Responses to “SMBs Need a Lot of Help Online”

  1. MiriamEllis Says:

    Hi Greg,
    I really enjoyed reading this article and it concurs with my own daily work experience helping small business owners. It is very much the exception, rather than the rule, that they understand even the basics of what they will need to do on the web. Sometimes, I start to feel a bit like a school teacher who must start from square one each September, teaching new students the basics of math, reading, science or what have you all over again. Happily, I enjoy this teaching process, but it has definitely engendered my belief that small business owners need very real help, starting with step one of choosing a good domain name.

    It really does irk me to read of stories like that of the woman at your conference who is having a bad experience with SEOs contacting her herb business. I mean, come on, Japanese herbs is about as niche as you can get. Doubtless, sound basic advice is all this woman would need to obtain high rankings for her terms, particularly if she is local. Really makes you wonder what the so-called SEOs are doing for her if her business is lost on the web.

    Thanks, again, Greg, for the enjoyable read.

  2. Greg Sterling Says:

    For every great SEO consultant there are others who aren’t and may mislead about what they can achieve.

  3. SearchCap: The Day In Search, May 10, 2010 Says:

    […] SMBs Need a Lot of Help Online, Screenwerk […]

  4. Nancy E. Wigal Says:

    Greg, this is great reporting. My experiences mirrors what you’ve written. SMBs are starved for information on how to use social media for marketing and SEO to show up higher in local search results. I’m still surprised at how many never knew they could claim/create local business listings with Google, Yelp and others.

    I’m sorry that the discussion was more non-technical. To me, this is one reason why SMBs think SEO is voodoo magic or too technical to deal with. Once I break SEO down for them, show them some examples, then apply to their website, they get it.

    Thanks for a very interesting look at a typical event.

  5. Greg Sterling Says:


  6. Rob Gemmell at AlikeList Says:

    Greg, so glad you posted this. Several of us spend a lot of time talking to local business owners and managers. We’re continually reminded how important it is to make tech easy for non-tech people, especially busy ones.

    These challenges represent enormous potential for any service, or organization, with an effective online marketing solution that’s also easy to understand and use for the majority of SMBs. Most local business owners I know feel the same way about their doing their online marketing as they do about their accounting –or visiting a dentist! The know they’re important though they consider them anxiety-loaded distractions that pull them from doing the work that keeps their customers, clients and patients happy.

    A common sentiment heard: “I wish that just keeping my customers happy was enough, and word of mouth would do the rest.” Hmm, what a concept…

  7. Scott Wolfgang Says:

    Hi Greg,

    do you know any good dashboards that tell you how many visits your listing gets on the various directory sites such as yelp, citysearch, etc. It would be great to have a unified dashboard to show what sites are driving traffic to your various online presences, especially if you don’t have a website. Until an SMB can compare the various channels, I don’t think getting them to pay a $300 monthly fee for an enhanced listing is really ever going to take root. In the case of my wife’s business (she’s an MD), Yelp wanted $300 a month for 500 impressions. That seems absolutely nuts to me despite the fact she has a high price point product. I’d rather pay to do things to enhance her listing page (maybe add a video) that would actually increase conversion of those that got to Yelp through a Google search.


  8. Greg Sterling Says:


    I know that Clickable is aiming for something like this and some of the other channels, such as Yodle, offer a version of this. But not in the way you suggest to my knowledge today

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