Pay-Per-Click Tools for Small Businesses

            Managing online paid-search-term campaigns can be like water torture for a small-business owner: A slow drip of tedium, choosing keywords and deciding what to pay for each on services like Google AdWords and Microsoft adCenter.

For the uninitiated, paid-search campaigns involve advertisers paying a fee, usually based on clicks or views, to have their links placed high on search-engine results pages. They typically bid on keywords or keyword phrases. Users can find themselves guessing at the words those searching for your products or services might enter into Google, Bing, Yahoo or other search engine. All for the prospect of having your short bit of linked copy appear across the top and on the right side of a web-search results page.

Bigger companies often have help from pricey pay-per-click automation and management services and perhaps professional search marketers. But small and midsize businesses face a tougher task in finding affordable support for paid-search marketing. Programs exist, but none are easy in my view. Or even that affordable. So to get a feel for the best choices in a tight market, my assistant Alex and I tried out three lower-cost paid-search marketing tools.

Related: Pay-Per-Click Return on Investment Calculator

Our take? Yes, there are some paid-search marketing tools that can help, but pay-per-click marketing is still no trivial matter. Here's what we found.

ClickSweeperFree 14-day trial; paid service starts at $50 per month for up to 1,000 keywords


What you get: A relatively deep, but affordable, pay-per-click bid-management tool. ClickSweeper, by Santa Clara, Calif.-based Varazo, supports Google, Yahoo and Microsoft accounts and offers a nice set of features to optimize your keywords. Four automated bidding strategies let users prioritize keyword bids based on cost, ad ranking, number of conversions or return on investment. There are analytics tools that can increase the cost, and ways to manage actual ad copy and create performance alerts. You can also generate reports and graphs to track which keywords work and which don’t.

Why you might like it: It’s flexible. Overall we found that ClickSweeper strikes a good balance between automatic bidding and user control. You can let the tool do the bidding for you, or if you need to micromanage a few keywords, you can enter bids manually. There is a nice sense of direct control over your spend.

Why you might not like it: It’s complex. That’s partly due to the nature of the pay-per-click beast, but there are numerous menus, tabs and options to set for every keyword. So gearing up the service can feel as onerous as trying to manage your AdWords campaign with no help. ClickSweeper does offer a set of tutorial videos. They’re dry and watching them takes time, but they can get the job done.

What to do: If you are outgrowing Google’s Adwords tools, ClickSweeper is logical step. Just be sure you give yourself plenty of time -- and patience -- to figure it out.

WordStream for PPCFree 7-day trial; paid service starts at $299 per month to manage up to a $10,000 monthly ad spend.

WordStream for PPC

What you get: A great suite of Google AdWords campaign-building tools. Boston-based WordStream offers a pay-per-click management platform that lets users easily build ad campaigns from scratch or fine-tune campaigns with some cool keyword analysis features.

Why you might like it: Ease of use. WordStream simply shines at managing keywords. A long list of powerful keyword research tools helps you decide how to build your campaigns and write ad copy. And WordStream does a nice job of suggesting new or related keywords, and recommending words to avoid. We especially liked the way the tool helps to effectively group keywords, one of the trickiest parts of search-engine marketing.

Why you might not like it: Simplistic keyword bid management. WordStream does a good job of tracking how keywords perform, but users might miss the opportunity to assign complex rules and goals for bidding that are available in some other services. So you can waste money, unless you have a firm grasp of your bid strategy.

What to do: For ongoing paid-search-marketing efforts, Wordstream makes a lot of sense. It offers a nice mix of cost and features for a more sophisticated pay-per-click marketing effort.

Related: AdWords Express Takes Pain Out of Local Online Advertising

ClickableFree 15-day trial; paid service starts at $499 per month.


What you get: What amounts to an entry-level, top-end paid-search tool. If your business invests significant money in paid-search marketing, then Clickable is for you. You get a top-line PPC management tool that works with Google, Yahoo, Bing and even Facebook. It even -- for an additional $300 per month -- will assign an employee to help you design ad strategies -- that’s actually an affordable option, considering the cost of paid search.

Why you might like it: Clickable offers a powerful mix of features well suited to most small business needs. It generates daily bid recommendations based on revenue goals. Custom reports track and compare whatever data you’d like and turns it into a neatly branded presentation. The bulk keyword editing tool quickly manages your ad copy and campaigns simultaneously across different search engines, which can be handy for an advertising blitz. And social media gets its due: Facebook marketing tools also help your business break into what some are calling “F-Commerce.”

Why you might not like it: While Clickable may look affordable compared with sophisticated paid-search marketing, it isn't low cost. Expect to spend about $10,000 a year. And you still might feel constrained. Bottom line: Clickable may not be the best choice for smaller shops or those just wading into paid search marketing.

What to do: If you are looking for value over a full-service paid-search marketing agency, or if you feel comfortable running your own paid-search marketing internally, Clickable is an intriguing option. Just make sure you know the pay-per-click market, and have the money to invest. With up-front costs this steep, a return on investment might be tough to find.