It's funny how coincidences of timing occur amongst competitors. Last October, for example, Google rolled out Boost--its largely automated local advertising engine for smaller businesses that don't want to manage their own keywords--in three test markets. Two days later, Microsoft announced that advertisers could run campaigns across both Bing and Yahoo from its unified adCenter site.
Just last week, Google began offering free phone support to its AdWords customers. On Monday, Microsoft rolled out the Bing Business Portal in beta. The service offers free Web pages for businesses and replaces the Bing Local Listing Center. AdWords and Bing Business Portal are not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison--the latter has more in common with other free online real estate such as Google Places or Facebook Pages. But they do share a common target: Small businesses, which have become the grand prize in the ongoing duel for search dominance.
The move to offer phone support for AdWords was made specifically with small business customers in mind, according to Deepak Khandelwal, vice president of advertiser operations at Google. "Small business is a key area for us and will continue to be a high-growth area for us," said Khandelwal in an interview. "We'll continue to invest in that area."
There's a similar message coming out of Redmond. "The small business advertising market is important to Microsoft," a company spokesperson wrote in an email. While noting that the beta version of the Bing Business Portal doesn't currently offer adCenter services, the spokesperson added: "Bing Business Portal and Microsoft adCenter are committed to helping businesses build customer volume, and will look for opportunities to integrate our services more closely in the future."
The upshot--and potential upside--for small or midsize companies is that the major players are starting to work harder to earn and keep SMB's online advertising business. They don't have much choice: While Google remains the leader in search, recent data indicate the unified Bing-Yahoo platform is gaining ground. The latest Experian Hitwise numbers show Google accounted for upwards of 64% of Web searches in March, while the combined Bing-Yahoo made up about 30%. That's still a nice lead for Google, but it marks a three-point decline in the company's search share from February, with Bing-powered searches adding 5% to their portion of the market. And then there's Facebook looming large on the horizon. The company's categorization as the social network usually excludes them from search standings like those kept by Experian Hitwise, but that doesn't mean Facebook isn't also taking dead aim at small business ad budgets. Research firm eMarketer recently estimated Facebook's 2011 online advertising haul would exceed $2 billion in the U.S., and twice that amount worldwide. Like Google and Microsoft, Facebook appears to be more actively seeking out small business marketers: They were recently a key partner in American Express's Small Business Saturday campaign, for example, serving up $1 million in free ads to participating businesses--which was really just seven-figure ad buy of its own, intended for a very specific audience.
While Google's addition of phone support for AdWords might at first seem unremarkable in terms of adding value, it signals a recognition that smaller businesses need to see a meaningful return on their paid search investment, even more so than their big business counterparts. Otherwise, they're not going to keep buying up keywords--they can't afford to. If a small business earmarks, say, $10,000 for online advertising--and has to stretch that for its entire fiscal year--that doesn't leave much margin for error.
Microsoft's adCenter has its own, slightly different version of live phone help called QuickLaunch, which it offers to advertisers who commit to spending at least $500 per month. QuickLaunch, though, is a one-time deal--once an advertiser completes the program, they have to take the reins with adCenter's self-service tools. Facebook leans heavily on self-help channels, though its Ads Team page reads: "Some advertising accounts may be eligible for a dedicated account manager." My take: Most smaller advertisers don't spend enough to qualify. The AdWords phone line appears to be the first that offers ongoing consulting to any current advertiser--essentially functioning as an outsourced online ad agency for small businesses that don't have the in-house resources.
"[Small businesses] do often need a little bit more support than some of the larger clients," Google's Khandelwal said, noting that AdWords phone support goes beyond things like forgotten passwords to include consulting in areas such as initial account set-up and ongoing campaign performance. "AdWords is a great product, but it does take some time to get used to and build expertise."
With truly free services such as Bing Business Portal, Google Places, or Facebook Pages, the question for smaller businesses is usually: Why not? There's not much risk in claiming a listing on any or all of them. Value-added services such as person-to-person consulting, on the other hand, are geared more toward answering a pared-down version of the same question: Why? As in: Why should a small business spend the money?
As the search giants--and the broader online advertising industry--endeavor to come up with good answers to that question, it's safe to expect that various launches and enhancements will continue to carry the airs of "Whatever you can do, I can do better." So be it. If it means better results for your online dollars, you win--regardless of who ultimately trumps the search game.