Shift of the Big 3: Professionals Continue to Flock Online

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Over the last two years, doctors, attorneys, and contractors (referred to as the “Big 3″ in this article) have stepped up their movement away from some forms of traditional marketing and are now shifting into Internet marketing and lead generation. They are quickly learning the ins and outs of this new medium, including running aggressive SEO and PPC strategies in-house or through SEM agencies, as they bring more dollars online to drive advertising ROI and new lead generation. Those involved in SEM need to be aware of the new competitive playing field and the continued convergence into online by the Big 3. The market is competitive, and only aggressive, smart strategies will work.

For over 50 years, the medical practitioner, legal, and home services industries (including contractors, plumbers, electricians, etc.) have invested the majority of their advertising dollars into Yellow Pages, TV commercials, outdoor billboards, and print ad campaigns. However, according to The Kelsey Group’s Annual Forecast (2007-2012), some traditional forms of advertising – including the print Yellow Pages – are on the decline, with Internet advertising expected to climb. Interactive advertising represented $22.5 billion in total spend in 2007 and is expected to balloon to $62.4 billion by 2012.

While the Big 3 have relied on traditional media advertising in the past, the shift to online is proof that they see the future of ad spending as a hybrid of sorts, where many consumers turn to the Internet for research on local service providers rather than flipping through a print directory. With a computer in the majority of US households, and over half the nation already using broadband Internet services, more people are beginning to access consumer information online, most frequently through search engines and online directories.

The Big 3, however, have been slower than other industries to make this transition. While other businesses offer a straightforward product or service, the Big 3 offer more referral-based products within the service industry. Consumers need more information when it comes to making a decision about which physician to use, which contractor is best to re-roof their home, or which attorney can handle their legal needs, than they need to decide which restaurant to go to or where they might purchase the newest gadget.

However, a savvy business owner is aware of the need to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to consumer practices, and that curve is a shift to a more Internet-minded consumer. Instead of asking a neighbor for an opinion on who might be the best contractor for a renovation, consumers are turning to message boards, local reviews, and referral reports to find the best fit for their need. So, instead of putting more ads in print directories, more commercials on television, or more billboards on the highway, the Big 3 have started integrating the Internet into their local advertising plans.

The ensuing fallout from this transition has led to a battle among those competing in a given location, and the battle is taking place on search engines like Google, Yahoo!, and MSN. Not only are local competitors fighting for customers, they are also fighting for prime real estate online, better known as high search engine rankings.

Let’s take a look at the how the battle is playing out in the current landscape of a Google results page using the keyword phrase “boston plumber.”

1.      We get 308,000 results.

2.      We have a maximum number of advertisers on the page (approximately nine).

  • On average, these advertisers are spending $2-$4 per click.
  • Eight of the nine advertisers are locally owned plumbers competing against each other, and one of these advertisers is a nationwide plumbing franchise.

3.      We get 10 local listings (the one-line listings) at the top of the page. All of them are actual local businesses with websites, reviews, and other local directory listings.

4.      In the top 10 organic results, we get mostly nationwide directories/lead brokers.

  • Seven of these results include MagicYellow, CitySearch, SuperPages, Yellow.com, etc.
  • The remaining three represent some local city websites and actual plumber websites.

This data begs the question – why are there so many nationwide directory/lead broker sites in the organic results? Smart Internet pioneers understood years ago that a shift to online had potential, and they developed these portal websites primarily to attract organic positioning. Because of the slow transition online, however, individual contractor companies have yet to make enough inroads in organic search optimization to beat out these directory sites. As these companies continue to shift budgets into organic search, directory sites will be pushed to the second page by perceptive contractors who see the value in higher search placement.

One industry that has already made the shift past the directory listings is the medical field. The organic listings portfolio in the medical services vertical looks completely different from that of the previous “boston plumber” example. As Tim DeBacco, Director of Marketing at NU/HART Hair Clinics, states, “In the last two years, my understanding of search and its function as a marketing tool has increased tremendously. Now, in every seminar I attend, I hear about search engine marketing and its effectiveness in targeting local customers. While we still invest in some traditional media, we get many – if not most – of our new customers via search engine referrals.”

To illustrate the difference, let’s take a look at the current landscape of a Google results page under the keyword phrase “phoenix cosmetic surgery.”

1.      We get 429,000 results.

2.      We have a maximum number of advertisers on the page (approximately 8-10).

  • On average, these advertisers are spending $2-$4 per click.
  • Seven of the eight advertisers are local cosmetic surgeons competing fiercely against one another.

3.      We get three local listings at the top of the page. All are actual local businesses with websites, reviews, and other local directory listings.

4.      In the top 10 organic results, 9 out of 10 are local businesses.

Why are there so many local websites in the organic results of Google in the surgery category? Do major directory websites not target the cosmetic surgery vertical? Absolutely they do. Is it safe to say that surgeons on average have more dynamic websites, and invest more money online? For the most part, yes. In general, are physicians more open to technological change?

Let’s see what industry veteran Robert Baxter has to say. Baxter is President of Surgeons’ Advisor, a web-based marketing company for cosmetic surgeons and was recently a featured speaker at the Facial Cosmetic Surgery conference in Las Vegas. He said, “I discussed the increase in search engine referrals to client sites, and the strategies that are instrumental to their success. I walked out of there with more business cards and customer interest than I can even handle. The level of competition for first page rankings is at an all-time high. What’s more, established clients talked about young surgeons who seemingly came out of nowhere with strong Internet strategies and aggressive budgets.”

Speaking of smart marketers and sophisticated shifters, let’s move on to attorneys. More like medical practitioners than home-service providers, attorneys have been quicker to embrace the Web, particularly in the last two years.

Here is an example of the first-page results on Google under the keyword “phoenix dui attorney.”

1.      We get 5,420,000 results.

2.      We have a maximum number of advertisers on the page (approximately 10).

  • On average, these advertisers are spending $36-$45 per click (ouch!).
  • All of the advertisers are local DUI attorneys.

3.      We get 10 local listings (the one-line listings) at the top of the page. All of them are local attorney websites, reviews, and other local directory listings.

4.      In the top 10 organic results, 9 out of 10 are local attorney websites with one nationwide lead broker site.

Personal injury veteran Anita Robb, of Robb & Robb LLC, says, “Search is the most effective marketing tool we have at our disposal. We’ve been in this business for over 25-years, and we’ve found that search engines have been able to drive us the most qualified and relevant clients to date. When it comes to quality and ROI, we trust search.”

So, what does this mean for the search engine marketing industry, and how does it affect search engine optimizers, interactive agencies, and the rest of the brainiacs that “get” search? The level of competition within these industries is rising at an incredibly fast rate, and standard on-page SEO, link building, and paid search strategies by themselves are not enough. These industries are trying to balance out the benefit of directory listings, while trying to place above them. They are battling against one another for higher rankings, while figuring out what it really means to be online. And they are looking for a way to incorporate the traditional word-of-mouth referrals that they are used to in a technological way.

A good portion of the Big 3 are investing in the range of $5,000-$10,000 a month, with some spending considerably more in SEO and PPC with search and interactive agencies. The local competition is tough, and not to be underestimated. Aggressive and new link-building approaches are key for organic results. Landing page optimization and video integration are necessary to maintain healthy PPC conversions and stave off hungry PPC competition. As Google and Yahoo!’s first SERP fills up with aggressive competitors, the window of opportunity closes for those in the Big 3 not already in this crowd. Pushing the stronger of these competitors aside will be difficult, which means that older, cheaper strategies simply won’t work.

About the Author

Joe is Managing Director at iAcquire, where he oversees corporate development and business strategy. Joe has over 12 years experience in the search engine marketing industry. He co-founded Submitawebsite.com in 1997, served as a Vice President, Media at iCrossing for 3-years, and sold Submitawebsite to Web.com (Nasdaq:WWWW) in April 2007.

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  1. Great post. We are actually seeing the same trend. And we love it. Many of our new clients are professionals (doctors especially) trying to navigate the internet. Just yesterday I ran across a new "access the doctor by email" service on a health care provider's site. It makes total sense to open the portal to your practice by marketing on the web. Lise Lise's last blog post is: http://www.companystoryandbrand.com/2010/10/07/small-and-nimble/