You Gotta Pay, If You Wanna Play


Local businesses have had to adapt to a major shift in Google’s first page search results. The change is simple to see and understand, requiring a different approach, mindset and budget than what was required just 5 years ago.

You gotta pay, if you wanna play.

Google pioneered the concept of internet advertising. With its pay-per-click formula, companies could compete for top placement in the “shaded” area at the very top of the page, paying by the click for the privilege of enhanced exposure to potential customers. These paid ads which took up both the very top, side margin and bottom of a given search results page, were placed and curated specifically to drive action. 

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The middle section was where SEO came in, with thousands of marketers creating content, engineering websites and working hard to ensure that their client’s web pages were ranked highly in the section below the ads.

This formula remained consistent for years, with SEO marketers adapting to the algorithmic changes which Google rolls out many times each year. A small business looking for a solid internet presence could claim the free real estate, that was its Google business listing and other class A directories like Yelp, Bing and Yahoo, making sure that those pages were built out properly. From there, using their website as the canvas, SEO marketers would add new relevant content, blogs, dynamic page structure and backlinks, reporting on rank versus keyword each month.

Over at Facebook, as the platform caught on like wildfire, businesses began to build their own pages, first as a misconfigured personal page with a business name, then as an actual business profile. These early business pages were powerful, enabling the owner to use Facebook as a digital megaphone to promote their company to anyone who “liked” the business, for free. Just as marketers began to rely on this new platform as a way of driving their message, Facebook began their business ad platform, pulling back what had been free and building a very robust set of ad tools, available for a fee, based on the market.

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Back to Google, where as time went on, the first page results began to change. The paid ads were still up top, but now large paid directories began cluttering up that most coveted organic real estate. Angie’s List, Yelp and Thumbtack now resides in those spots on many searches, (sandwiched between the pay-per-click and organic) with ads stuck into the list, clandestinely so, but there nevertheless.

Beginning in 2019, Google turned up the heat on advertisers once again. The launch of the Google Guarantee and Google Screened programs via Google’s Local Services Ads threw a new monkey wrench into the mix. Pay-per-click ads, map results (some paid), high value directories, all were still present, but the Local Services Ads section came in and upended things once again. 

Today, finding an organically ranked, small business website on page one of Google is nearly impossible. What used to reside above the fold, towards the middle of page one, is now on average, several pages back, meaning…. where things go to die.

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To summarize this, small businesses looking to generate new leads from their online presence and ads must have a “paid ad” strategy of one kind or another. The right way to go about this is up for debate and marketers will share a myriad of opinions as to what the best approach is, but the bottom-line is that to compete today means you’ve got to pay. Facebook, Google, Angi, Yelp and others are all viable options, and of course depending on your industry or profession, these platforms will vary, but the premise remains the same.

Google has realized how valuable every piece of real estate is and slowly but surely has moved away from enabling businesses to stand out without paying for the privilege.