How the internet fuels small business rip-offs

By Mark Riley on May 30th, 2012

Back in the analogue era, before the internet was even conceived, life for the small and medium enterprise (SME) was relatively straightforward: all you had to do as a window cleaner in Norwich was paint your phone number on the side of your van and take out a year-long ad in the Yellow Pages. After that, it was just a question of going down to the pub, getting to know the locals and maybe joining the odd round-table quiz night. Your annual marketing budget probably did not exceed £150 and there was no need for any outside expertise or consultants.

Today, however, the humble SME is at the mercy of an army of heavily “inverted commas” experts. These self-appointed consultants are cleverly exploiting a very small knowledge gap that prevents the small business owner from having the confidence to grasp digital marketing. These people hide behind a lexicon of pseudo-professional bollocks.

Thus, the humble Norwich window cleaner is bombarded with an alphabet of jargon such as SEO, PPC, CPA, CTR and FBM delivered by the SEMs and SMEs, masquerading as professionals – the latter of course being “search engine marketers” and “social media experts”.

It’s the social media experts who are the most invidious. In fact, a whole cottage industry is springing up whereby one can attend an hour-long webinar and then charge oneself out at £150 an hour as a “Facebook marketing expert”.

(I was at a wedding recently and pretended to be from the other side of the digital divide. A charming wide boy with too much hair gel explained that he could set up a Facebook page for my business. It would normally take three days but he could do me a special offer and would only charge me two days. Result!)

The smorgasbord of local digital marketing solutions being offered is eye-watering. Your average plumber or florist now has to contend with online directories, classifieds, getting on Google natural results, paying Google and Bing for clicks, being on Twitter and Facebook while thinking about Groupon, and, oh, did someone say QR codes? Punctuating this journey are companies well trained to take you for 50 per cent of your intended spend just to get you out of the gate.

Then the industry invents “algorithm updates”, with affectionate names like Panda, Penguin and Venice, just to make sure you don’t get too comfortable. For the older tradesman it must feel like opening up the old paper Yellow Pages, looking for the advert he paid for and seeing a blank page. The message is now: “Oh, sorry, Mr Car Mechanic, an algorithm came in the night and rubbed out your ad. But if you pay us enough we can try and get it back.”

Not surprisingly, the lifespan of a small business client is very limited for most of the suspect agencies, so they become boilerplate pressure sales houses, fighting 90 per cent churn rates just to stand still. Is that “snake oil” I hear you mutter?

Here’s a quick word to the wise: do not ever pay an agency to do your on-page SEO work. Your web designer should do that. You wouldn’t buy a car without a brake cable, so don’t buy a website which is not SEO-enabled.

Also, do not pay an agency to link-build. Any paid-for link is going to get you into trouble with Google and any genuine link is called public relations – in other words, get yourself a PR agency. If you are using someone else to manage your PPC account, find out how much they are creaming off the top. There are still cowboys out there taking 50 per cent of your budget. That’s just wrong.

Please, please, don’t pay for a Twitter account or Facebook page. If you really can’t cope, ask your five-year-old nephew to do it.

Finally, don’t get talked into a monthly retainer for anything. The dangers you are warned of are illusory: if you stop paying your expert, your company won’t fall out of the sky. All the work is normally done in month one: after that, it’s all cheese to them and no burger for you. None of this is hard. It can be time consuming to get to grips with the basics, so go on a course by all means. But buy the fishing rod, not the fish.

The industries above are worth many millions in the UK alone. They have employed lots of sharp operators. There are, of course, reputable agencies out there, where integrity and transparency rule. But the fact that integrity has itself become a leading sales motif on most digital marketing websites is itself a damning indictment.

How many other industries, except perhaps recruitment, have to plead honesty just to win your businesses? Pity the hard-working, industrious, backbone-of-Britain, small business owner. Fish and barrel come to mind.

I often wonder where all these “experts” came from. What were they doing before? Life coaching? Selling fibre optics? Double-glazing? One thing’s for sure: the internet seems to be breeding these con men like bloody rabbits.