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The $20 ad campaign: small businesses find alternatives to Google AdWords

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Gerald Gorman, who runs online businesses like, pays Google (s goog) $100,000 a month to place ads near search results and on Google’s partner sites. While the ads have proved effective at attracting customers, their growing price tag has led Gorman to look around for alternatives.

In the past, Gorman would have been out of luck. That’s because, despite the internet’s rapid growth, most small and medium businesses had few viable online ad options beyond Google or Bing. This is changing, however, as upstart ad companies tap into new publishing tools and social media to offer effective online campaigns for as low as $20 a pop.

In Gorman’s case, he laid down $1000 on two such companies, Outbrain and Virurl, and was delighted with the results. While he pays as much as $10 for a customer to click on one of this Google ads, he found he paid 8 cents and 5 cents at the other sites and also earned a surge of traffic.

This may sound too good to be true but, for the growing number of businesses priced out of Google Adwords,  it could be the real deal.

A new type of advertising: how it works

Instead of buying a search keyword like they do with Google Adwords, advertisers like can pay Outbrain and Virurl to act as distributors for their messages. They supply the message in the form of a link to a piece of content — a picture, a story or a video. Outbrain and Virurl then spray the link across the web via third party publishers and on social media sites like Tumblr and Twitter.

Compared to Google Adwords, the upstart services are remarkable for their simplicity: Outbrain and Virurl provide a website for the advertiser to upload a content link, and to set a budget and duration for the ad campaign. While Outbrain has traditionally worked with publishers to augment and monetize their traffic, it recently added an advertising tool called Amplify for small and medium businesses.  Here are screenshots of how the purchase process looks:

Here’s Outbrain: 

Here’s Virurl: 

The advertiser can use a credit card to get the campaign up and running almost immediately compared to the 5 days that Gorman says it takes for Google to approve content (the delay is important for brands that want to jump on time-sensitive ad opportunities like Big Bird). As for the money, the advertiser’s allocated budget is depleted every time someone clicks on the link; some of the money goes to the publisher who hosts the ad and the rest goes to the distributors — in Gorman’s case, to Outbrain or Virurl. The distributors also share real-time analytics that let the advertiser monitor the campaign.

To be clear, the two would-be Adwords-competitors have different business models. Outbrain is bigger and works primarily with major publishers, including premium ones like CNN and Time, to find augment traffic or to find spots for ad-driven content. Virurl, on the other hand, is aimed at getting ad content to go viral on social networks like Twitter where “influencers” retweet the links and are paid for clicks. But, from a small business perspective, the underlying strategy is the same: find ad content that people want to see and pay to distribute it.

Gorman notes that the young ad companies’ geographic targeting isn’t as good as Google (“you can target down to the lamp post with Google AdWords”) but that they do permit users to choose between US and oversees viewers. He also says they have been forthcoming about fraudulent clicks and will refund money for suspicious traffic.

What it means for businesses: a scramble for quality content

The advent of cheap, easily managed ad campaigns is good news for companies like But there is, of course, a catch.To sign up for these distribution networks, a company can’t just show up with 20 bucks — it also needs to have a piece of content that people want to see.

“We spend a lot on screening. We’re pretty fanatical about taking on only quality,” said Outbrain CEO Yaron Galai by phone, explaining that the company rejects half of all would-be clients. He added that advertisers like GE are producing “wonderful content” such as a video interview with the inventor of the LED. Media companies looking to acquire more traffic to meet ad needs are also logical customers for Outbrain.

In the case of, Gorman said the site produces quality original content that suits Outbrain. But what about other small companies? Galai said small, non-media companies are unlikely to have the capacity to produce quality content and their best bet is to use “earned media” like reviews or press mentions. If they are ambitious, they could of course still try to make Outbrain’s quality cut; a bakery might, for instance, start a cupcake or recipe blog.

Virurl, which was featured at a Paley Media Center’s “Next Big Thing” event, is less finicky about the content it sends out. But the social advertising start-up likewise uses a quality control process to weed out junky ads.

“A human in our Santa Monica office, views the content and either approves or rejects it. We will never drive anyone to a product page or anything that is spammy or a clear ad … The underlying philosophy is that – If the advertiser put enough thought into tapping into human emotion it will likely be approved,” wrote CEO Francisco Diaz-Mitoma in an email message.

The bottom line is that the new ad distributors offer small businesses a low-cost way to get their brands before huge numbers of potential customers — provided they have the ingenuity to make or earn quality content. The people who see the ad content may not have the same “intent-level” as those who click on Google search ads but, for now, the price advantage mean companies like Outbrain and Virurl could one day emerge as viable competitors to Google.

(Image by Monkey Business Images via Shutterstock)

35 Responses to “The $20 ad campaign: small businesses find alternatives to Google AdWords”

  1. I will check these out.
    Google Adwords ARE far too expensive for the average small business with a low value product or service.
    But, they prices are set by the market bidding.
    So some people must think the prices are worth it.

  2. First time ever on a blog but felt that some input may assist with a few questions about the tracking of clicks and the protection against the relevance of the potential consumer. Their are a few forms of sem or click program options. Some actually report how long a person stayed on your site and even what they clicked on that grabbed there attention. They also have tracking numbers that are utilized like a call forwarding number to track the calls or emails generated from the website it self. Just some knowledge to help. Good luck and happy new year everyone. Ty

  3. Google Adwards is a money eating system! you put $1 or $1000 – it will all gone before you blink and not all the time the traffic or the consumers you would like. Bottom line who cares how many clicks, we care how many people took action and close a deal! I will try Virurl for a bit and let you know how it worked for me :)
    Let see how it will work for my business

  4. A big difference between Google and some other forms of advertising is that with Google, you are reaching people who are in acquisition mode. They specifically asked about the product you are selling, and there is a very good chance that you can convert that enquiry into a sale. When people visit Twitter or other social media sites, they are not looking to buy anything, so advertising has to be about brand awareness so that they will consider you when they are looking to buy what you sell, or informing them about the availability of a product they didn’t know even existed which they might impulse buy.

    For example, I moved house recently, and I needed to hire a van so I could move stuff. I went to Google to search for van hiring companies in my local area, looked at the websites of a few local companies, selected one of them and hired the van from them. People don’t hire vans as an impulse purchase. People do know that vans exist and that it is possible to hire them, so brand awareness advertising isn’t going to bring in many sales.

    • It’s up to the advertiser to place the ads effectively – if you want people who are in research mode that’s a lot easier – just spray and pray. If you want users who are in buying mode then choose your ad locations or keywords carefully and you are laughing, all the way to the bank.

      If someone just searches on a brandname or generic brand term they probably aren’t that warm. If they search for “cheapest/discount/freedelivery” productcode then you know their intent is a bit more serious.

  5. Athough it looks to be much less expensive to use Outbrain and Virurl even $30  per day is much too rich for the average small business. At a thousand dollars a month one would be better off adding products to their inventory and using established websites like Amazon and Ebay etc. to sell. Personally I think there is too much potential for fraud in per click advertising. What types of checks and balances are out there to prevent fraud. Its not like buying ads in print where you can see what you get and know what circulation of the media is. What is the margin of error as mentioned by Cletus when ads are clicked on by mistake. Is it just the initial click or is there an amount of time that has to be spent at the link site before a charge is made to your account? Maybe some one can explain to me how per click ads actually work and what checks and balances there are in place against fraud. Thanks

    • Hi Ron,

      I don’t have the answers to most of your questions but as a long time Google AdWords customer, the major advantage of the click and pay advertising is measurable results. When you purchase the print advertising you mentioned you are always left wondering how effective it was, how much “bang for the buck” you received. With click ads you can measure the response and if you are sophisticated enough you can follow the clicks and links within your website all the way to actual purchases. While not perfect it is the ultimate in measuring the success or otherwise of your marketing campaign.

  6. what about the costumer who gets flodded with unwanted ad’s and annoying advertising. Absolutely no one wants advertising, it’s totally annoying and people try to avoid it like the pest. That’s the reality. I also highly doubt that online ads really work. If i ever click on an ad it’s always by mistake and then i have to spend the next couple days to get rid of all the ensuing spam. User’s horror…

    • If, as you suggest absolutely no one wants advertising then why are billions of $$$ of goods and services being purchased via this form of advertising? In my experience there are a huge number of people, for instance those using a search engine to find something, who are very glad of a carefully targeted advert that takes them directly to a relevant provider. Admittedly the quality of the clicks does fall off markedly when you move away from actual searches and rely on affiliate web page content alone however a certain % of people still purchase via those ads too. Bottom line: As long as customers purchase via these ads, “totally annoying” and “people try to avoid it like the pest” as they may be, vendors will happy to pay for these ads.

  7. Seriously? These companies are junk. We tried Virurl and it was nothing but click-fraud. Spam accounts do the posting AND the clicking. Congrats, you got a surge. A surge of turds. It’s a joke.

  8. Sources like this have been around a long time. I’ve been involved in SEM since 1998, and they come and go. Fact is traffic quality trumps cost per click, typically. And quality is what these sources normally lack.

    We’ve gone another route: create a tool that allows the small business owner clear insight and expert recommendations into what is working on Google and Bing. Help them succeed there, despite the competition. We’ve found that this approach is a lot more effective than trying small new sources and rolling the dice.

    If you are a small business, might be worth getting into our closed beta: It’s free right now. So can’t beat the price!

  9. I am a big fan of Virurl. I’ve used virurl since January 2012 and it has created the best engagement out of all the other services I have tried, Virurl is a smart company, one of the things that I like the most about Virurl is that anyone can use it. You don’t have to have thousands of dollars to advertise or spread the word about something you are interested in.