Survey: Less than 20% of SMBs Trust Their SEO and PPC Firms

What is trust and how is it achieved? This is a difficult question — more difficult than it appears.

Trust is arguably central to the acquisition and certainly the retention of small business (SMB) advertisers. And tonight at the LSA’s Think Tank networking event in Dallas we tried to confront the question of trust directly but in a very tactical way.

I introduced the topic by citing an interesting and very recent piece of UK SMB research from Bing and agency Latitude White, presented at the SIINDA conference in Prague a week ago. The study polled 311 SMBs of different sizes and industries about a range of digital marketing issues.

Latitude White SMB distribution

Source: Latitude White-Bing (2015)

The survey found that “only one in five SMEs (18%) … trust SEO and PPC agencies.” In other words less than 20% of business owners trusted their marketing services providers and 82% didn’t. The numbers are directionally similar in the US market.

This stands in marked contrast to the value that SMBs in the UK placed on SEO as the top digital marketing method after email.

At Think Tank tonight we asked attendees (between glasses of wine) how one instills confidence and trust in SMB buyers of marketing services, especially against the backdrop of a noisy marketplace and many similar, competing solutions. The following are what some of the attendees said about how to gain or regain the trust of business owners (not in any specific order):

  • Face to face sales contacts (premise sales)
  • Verticalization of sales to “speak the language of the customer”
  • Knowing the customer’s business and particular digital marketing needs
  • Trying to genuinely understand the customer and her challenges
  • Being able to listen to the business and not just sell
  • Demonstrating competent knowledge of the products being sold
  • Being able to connect to the customer through a shared local institution or third party relationship
  • Being “authentic” with the SMB
  • Being able to show how this product/solution helped a business in the same industry or similar situation (e.g., testimonials or related case studies)
  • Setting reasonable and clear expectations and following through with fulfillment
  • Storytelling that allowed the business owner to identify with the sales rep
  • Maintaining a positive company online reputation

While this list is not exhaustive it’s pretty complete. Do you agree with it? Do you disagree?

It’s interesting that so many people at the Think Tank event emphasized the value of premise sales reps and 1 to 1 selling, at a time when many media companies are trying to reduce costs and can’t afford outside reps.

At one point in the evening a ReachLocal attendee made a very interesting statement: “Getting the meeting is much harder than getting the close.” Do you agree?

Do you see any additional tactics or obvious holes not identified in the list above?

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14 Responses

  1. Great piece Greg. Thank you.

    In the same survey study, we came to a conclusion regarding building greater trust between the SMB and vendor was to focus on:


    Teach them how PPC/SEO etc works, the mechanics, what skills are used etc. This education will enable the SMB to make smarter decisions, support efforts from the vendor and lift any cloud of uncertainty.


  2. Sadly they don’t trust them because generally they are looking for a “deal” sometimes because they cannot afford services, typically because they don’t understand the costs. However, what happens more often than not is they go to “cheap” service providers who promise the world and either fail to deliver or use blackhat techniques to rank the site (and they are gone when the penalty hits). Sadly this is as much on the SMB as the bad providers. We upped our client site traffic 70% since we started and their two years with us are 2 of the best years on record. We don’t charge too much, but we are not cheap. Until SMBs can get it out of their minds that they can get good services cheap, this will always happen.

    1. This problem falls under the category of “education” but also “integrity.” Providers need to be clear and set reasonable expectations and they need to help SMBs understand what’s necessary, how much it will cost and how long it will take. One of the problems is that the market isn’t transparent and there are lots of dubious vendors misrepresenting what can be done out there.

  3. Some of the problems are that the bigger players are some of the worst. Reach Local who are mentioned in the article use aggressive sales techniques and the work is diabolical. We have picked up maybe five clients who have previously used Reach Local and I have never seen such costs and such a mess. in the UK are no better and they aggressively sell PPC which they do (badly) via AdWords Express. To make matters worse they push additional listings to businesses that damages citation consistency and natural visibility in organic search results.

    Then the small companies are still pushing network links and offer zero transparency (often for good reason).

    It’s still a jungle out there and businesses need to choose wisely!


  4. Unfortunately, Google has a good deal of culpability in this arena. Some of their partners, including those recognized as Google “award-winners”, are quite untrustworthy and commonly use quite aggressive sales tactics. Heck, the company Google is now suing, Local Lighthouse, was the recipient of at least one Google Partner award. People complained about them for years before something was done.

    There are still plenty of these types of outfits on the Google partner list who don’t understand and probably don’t care to understand the products. They are trained to sell, sell, sell and use barely legal sales tactics while tossing Google’s name around to gain trust. They make us all look bad.

  5. It’s sad that so many SMBs don’t trust their marketing vendors. Transparency and education is key to overcoming distrust in clients. Letting them know the how and the why of activities and being transparent about results is fundamental for building that trust. Even when results aren’t as great as expected, it’s important to show clients the real results. Access to marketing data and metrics is critical for SMBs. We love giving our clients access to all of their marketing metrics so they can make informed decisions and see how much our hard work is paying off.

  6. The number of 82% is a little surprising to me I thought it would be closer to 50% however with that being said I believe a lot of this comes from SMB’s working with the Reach Local’s YP’s and Yodel, they love to churn and burn and don’t seem to care. I am glad to say I was fortunate enough to hook up with a great group of people that care about doing the right thing. We have always practiced education and transparency and have over an 80% retention rate. I am actually going to start a group on LinkedIn that is all about educating the SMB’s on digital marketing. This will be a place where all business owners can ask questions about SEO, SEM and anything digital marketing related, and get straightforward answers with no sales pitches.

  7. Problems are always there because of “Education” and “Trust”.. Vendors or Service Providers should explain and educated their clients regarding SEO and PPC efforts. So that they can go ahead with right decision.

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