Ask the guy at your local dry cleaners or mechanic shop or bakery how he gets the most out of Google AdWords. Odds are he'll give you a sideways look and ask, "Google Ad-whats?"
When it launched 11 years ago, Google's AdWords was a straightforward product. Advertisers could buy search terms, and Google would display small ads every time someone searched for those words. It was a lot like the classifieds.
Today, AdWords generates the vast majority of Google's revenue. But it's also become incredibly complex to use. A whole "search engine marketing" consulting industry has emerged just to help AdWords customers make the right choices on which keywords to buy and how much to bid.
That's why last summer, Google launched a "lite" version of AdWords called "AdWords Express,"  that's both easier to understand and faster to use. And last spring, it introduced free phone support to help AdWords customers learn to use the product. That service is now available in about 70 countries around the world.
"We are making it a priority now to ensure small businesses are successful," Francoise Brougher, Google vice president of global SMB sales and operations, tells Fast Company.
The moves are part of a larger effort at Google to make itself attractive to the kinds of organizations that in previous years would have fallen through the cracks, the types of small businesses--usually local ones, like mechanics and dry cleaners--whose owners have neither the time to learn how to use AdWords themselves nor the money to pay consultants to run campaigns for them.
But the moves also come at a time when the competition for local online marketing dollars is heating up and when new forms of online advertising--those offered by social networks like Facebook--are creating new alternatives to search advertising.
"As advertisers become more successful experimenting with Facebook's advertising options, it's likely they're going to put more dollars there," Constant Contact's general manager of social media Mark Schmulen tells Fast Company.
Schmulen said he hasn’t seen any data that indicates that social networks have started to steal advertising dollars away from search marketing. But, he says, "it's certainly something to think about."
In addition to AdWords Express, Google has launched other programs aimed at small and local businesses. It's piloting a credit card that can be used to buy advertising on AdWords--effectively serving as a low-interest loan during times when businesses might want to do a lot of advertising, like the Christmas season, but don't necessarily have the cash flow to support it.
Google has launched a Mobile Site Builder to help businesses create simple, mobile-friendly websites. It plans to make AdWords Express available to resellers who already sell AdWords advertising on its behalf. And last fall, the company teamed up with American Express to launch a video competition to encourage small businesses to post videos to YouTube.
Google has also launched an outreach program, called "Get Your Business Online," to help small businesses set up their own websites. The program has taken place in a dozen states and about 20 countries overseas, including the U.K., Brazil, and Kenya.
Google's initiative comes at a time when it is increasingly imperative for businesses of every size to have a presence online. Consumers today have gotten in the habit of turning to the web for many of their shopping needs, in a way they weren't necessarily doing even five years ago.
According to a BIA/Kelsey study, almost all consumers (97%) now go online to research products or services in their local area. Not being online today is the equivalent in earlier eras of not having a storefront or a Yellow Pages listing. It's effectively impossible for potential customers to find you.
Small businesses are beginning to grasp that. Just three years ago, Ad-ology Research found that only 54% of businesses with 100 or fewer employees had a website. In its most recent report, Small Business Marketing Forecast 2012, it found that 82% of small businesses have a web presence.
But helping small businesses set up websites also helps Google. Once a company gets online, they're only a hop, skip, and a jump away from considering online marketing, including search marketing.
Google won't release details on how AdWords Express is doing, but it does say that the majority of users are new AdWords customers. "Our small businesses are fueling a lot of revenue for Google in a way they didn't before," Brougher says.
That may be increasingly important given how the fight for online local advertising dollars is heating up. Ad-ology CEO Lee Smith tells Fast Company that the sales teams of traditional local advertisers, like newspapers, radio, and TV, are increasingly emphasizing their online options. And Yahoo and Microsoft's Bing have both developed extensive programs to work with local partners.
And then there's Facebook, which has developed a suite of new advertising options, like Sponsored Stories , which are focused on amplifying the holy grail for small businesses: word of mouth. In its Fall 2011 Attitudes and Outlook Survey , Constant Contact found that 81% of their small business customers had dabbled in social media marketing. That was up from 73% just six months earlier.
All of which gives Google reason to turn its eye on a category of customer it previously had not focused on. And indeed, Brougher says the company has even more programs up its sleeve. "In the next 12 months," she says, "there will be more products coming out for small businesses."
[Image: Flickr user Wisconsin Historical Images ]