The Advantages Of Being Small

One of the reasons SEO is such a killer marketing strategy is that a small business can compete with, and often outmaneuver, a big business.

Compare the costs of a SEO campaign vs any other marketing channel. Television? Radio? Print? How much would it cost to get worldwide exposure using any of those channels?

We're all sold on search marketing. However, there are other advantages that the small business enjoys. In this post, we'll look at a few of those advantages, are see if there are any natural synergies with search.

First, let's consider boats.

Given a choice between being in a speed boat or being in a supertanker, which would you choose? In a storm, I'd probably rather be on the supertanker, as it can weather the waves better. However, the supertanker has a number of disadvantages. It can take a long time to maneuver, it requires a big crew to sail it, it is sluggish, it is expensive and monolithic.

The speed boat, on the other hand, can zig and zag, change direction at will, only requires one person to operate, uses a lot less fuel, and it's fast.

The small business is like the speed boat. The small business can do things the big business cannot. Speed and agility are the key weapons of the small business.

So that's the shipping metaphor beaten to death. Now let's look at the specific advantages of the small business, and marry these to search marketing strategies.

1. Exploit The Niche

A small business can focus on a very narrow area and make a profit. Big business often cannot do this, as a big business requires larger markets in order to provide enough return to cover overheads. Focus on narrow, well-defined areas in which you perform well. Ignore everything else.

Once you've identified and established your niche, it makes your SEO task a lot easier. Do you really need to rank for those competitive terms? Possibly not. You only need rank for those terms that relate directly to your narrow niche.

But what if your niche is competitive? Try narrowing your niche further, or change the niche.

For example, real estate is a competitive area. Real estate is Los Angeles is a competitive area. But the level of competition in small, well defined geographical areas is much diminished. Sure, there is less traffic, but if you're a small business, with a well-defined geographical market, how much traffic do you really need to turn a buck?

2. Strategic Partnerships

A small business can easily align with other business. Big business can be slow to do this, often due to legal issues and long sign-off procedures.

If a strategic partnership makes sense for your business, also consider the benefits in terms of SEO. If you align with an established company, ask for a write-up and a link. Announce the partnership by issuing a press release. Make it easy for your partner to talk about you, and they'll do your link marketing for you. Outsourcing can achieve much the same thing. If appropriate, have those to whom you outsource link back to you.

3. Reduce Overheads

A small business, especially an internet small business, can run on next to nothing. You need a computer. You need an internet connection. You need some time and effort.

In a down market economy, big companies spend a lot of time and effort slashing costs. The small business usually runs lean anyway, so whilst the big business is pre-occupied with restructuring and layoffs, you can focus on developing new territory.

One of the first cuts companies make in a down market is to cut marketing spend. This is often a mistake, as I outline in Eight Reasons Why Now May Be The Right Time To Invest In Your Site. What you're not spending on maintaining overhead, you can dedicate to the strategies that earn you money. There is some indication that we can expect the price of PPC to come down over the next year as some big companies, who often run PPC strategies aimed more at building brand awareness than return per click, reduce their marketing spend.

4. Bootstrap

Bootstrapping means a self-generating or self-sustaining process.

In terms of business, that means that growth is funded from - and remains in line with - revenue. Possibly one of the most successful recent examples of bootstrapping is the Wikipedia Foundation.

Take a look at Wikipedia's recent financial report.

Wikipedia have few employees. Many of those employees were brought in relatively recently, and only as the project scaled up. The Wikipedia Foundation reports $3.5 million in costs, and has a turnover of over $7 million.

A bootstrapping approach to SEO/SEM might be to focus on revenue. Pay only for those clicks that make you money, and quickly cut the losers. Once you know which keywords make you money, THEN start your SEO campaign, focusing only on these terms. Repeat and scale up.

5. Direct & Personal

A small business can offer expertise, direct to the customer. The customer can talk directly to the person who makes all the decisions. Try doing this with a big business. A customer might get no further than a lowly paid graduate. There can be a lot of value to the client in dealing with a small operation.

Get personal. People are tired of anonymous, faceless companies. The small business can easily make a service more personal. Small means the founder deals with a far greater percentage of the customer interactions. Small means the founder is close to the decisions that matter and can make them quickly. When a visitor arrives via a search, impress upon the visitor they are dealing with a small company. Some small companies like to give the impression they are much bigger than they really are, but this is often a mistake. The customer is going to find out soon enough, so the initial impression will smack of dishonesty.

In your title tag and ad copy, emphasis the advantages of being small. Personal service, direct accountability, and availability. The people who want to deal with a big business will have gone elsewhere, anyway.

Say it once. Say it loud! I'm small, and I'm proud!

Except if you're a guy on a date...

6. Adaptation

A small business, like the speedboat, can change direction in an instant. You could be doing something totally different tomorrow than you do today. A big business cannot do this.

Always be on the lookout for new markets, and the tide of change in existing markets. Make trend-spotting a regular activity. Use keyword tools and other research methods to give you insights into new and developing markets.

7. Make Staying Small A Strategy

Decide which clients make you the most money, and cut the rest. In other words, deliberately stay small.

I've heard of a number of companies doing this, and here's one example:

"Incredible Foods quickly landed one of the biggest accounts of all: Starbucks. "They were opening new stores in northeast Ohio and Pennsylvania in 1998 and wanted me to distribute a single product, a crumb cake," says Christy.But as Starbucks locations multiplied, Christy's workload ballooned. Revenues reached $3.4 million in 2005, but soaring overhead wiped out Christy's profits.

That year, Christy decided to cut the cord. The (Starbucks) account generated 48% of Incredible Foods' annual revenues, but Christy believed that he could run a stronger company without Starbucks. So he shrank the staff from 13 to six, eliminated one of his two offices, and focused his marketing attention on local customers who closed deals with a handshake, generally without resorting to squadrons of lawyers and accountants.It paid off. Last year Incredible Foods posted an 11% increase in profits on revenues of $2.2 million, and Christy expects a 22% revenue increase this year".

Staying small can actually be more profitable. And a lot more fun. Check out Seth Godin's book "Small Is The New Big".

8. Design & Strategic Flexibility

This is a big one.

Anyone who has ever worked on an established corporate site will know the difficulty involved in reorienting the site towards SEO. There are meetings. There are conflicts with various stakeholders. Designers will be reluctant to change their ways. Copywriters will be reluctant to change their ways. Management may fail to grasp the benefits of SEO. In such situations, it is easy to lose focus, and compromise the SEO strategy.

It happens all the time.

Then, there is the small business. If there are few - or only one - of you, then it is much easier for you to incorporate good SEO. Not only can you compete with the big business, you can thrash them.

Use your speedboat to maximum strategic advantage.

Published: November 3, 2008 by A Reader in marketing


November 4, 2008 - 3:55am

excellent article, this has been my approach to SEO since the beginning. I dont feel the larger companies are worth the strain compared to the hero you feel like when you make a major difference in a small company's success.

Besides, its less work ;)

November 4, 2008 - 4:47am

A perfect post for someone who's running a SEO company single handed.

November 4, 2008 - 6:58am

Hey Peter.

Great one. Keep up posting content like this :)

November 4, 2008 - 10:46am

Excellent post Peter! I deal mainly with smaller businesses and really found your analogy to be spot on.

November 4, 2008 - 11:04am

Peter everything seems great, except finding a niche with a lot of people searching for it and little competition.

Anyway Great Post!

November 4, 2008 - 12:07pm

Aron, Even though if wouldn't have said in this article, ...Fish-Pond image says EVERYTHING!

Very Nice Article...


November 4, 2008 - 1:29pm

Nice viral idea; the big boat and the speedboat.

November 4, 2008 - 1:31pm

Great post Peter - I've ALWAYS impressed on prospective new clients how small our company is. Small is great for all the reasons you mention. We've been in business for many years and have no wish to be big. Our quality lies in our smallness.

Big is a salesperson writing a phone message for a developer who's stuck in a meeting for 3 hours, and forgets to give him the message. Big is an approval process that delays a simple task for a day. Big is where a developer resents how much the company he works for profits from his work. Big sucks.

November 4, 2008 - 1:46pm

I can change or update my website in the blink of an eye. That's because I am the only person who runs it. I can cut through the red tape and I don't have to report to anyone or give updates.

November 4, 2008 - 5:09pm

Quality material here Peter. Funny you should mention market size and offline businesses, since I was just talking about what it means to be remarkable, statistically (email me if you want to check it out).

One other advantage of being small is that you don't need to compete for resources amongst many departments. In corporate online marketing, you have to compete with the display ad group, email, analytics, etc.

The Glider Guy
November 4, 2008 - 5:14pm

I've got visions of SEO gunboat pirates running amok on a bluechip corporate supertanker, showing them who's the daddy.... it's a nice sight!

November 5, 2008 - 10:24am

that was an awesome post cheers - really liked the speedboad analogy too :p

yet another ben
November 5, 2008 - 10:53am

Hi Peter,

This is a great post with some brilliantly clear analogies.

It almost provides an excellent pitch when talking with small businesses to keep them positive about the SEO process, answering the question: as a small business, how can we compete online against xy corporation? which is a fairly frequently asked quention for many SEO consultants I can imagine...

Thanks Peter,


November 5, 2008 - 11:17am

I read all the comments and have a feeling that this post is encouraging small business to well, remain small business.

I don’t think Peter meant exactly that.

If Larry Page and Sergey Brin never dreamt big and would have been happy being small business owners – Google wouldn’t have been what it is today!

I think the post describes the benefits of being small, but not necessarily to stop dreaming big!

Think Big Even If You Are Small!

Welcome Obama – Glad that you Dreamt BIG!

Dilip Shaw

November 6, 2008 - 12:25am

Yep. There are advantages in being big too, else no company would ever grow big.

Thanks for the nice comments, all....

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