Accounting firms are using Google text ads this tax season and beyond to bring in clients for tax prep and other types of accounting and financial planning services.

Anthony Sykes & Co. Accounting of Sante Fe Springs, Calif., spends between $200 and $300 per month to bid on keywords such as "tax," "accounting," "business" and "incorporation" through Google's AdWords program to draw clients to Sykes' Web site. The site attracts phone calls and e-mails from potential clients. Sykes estimates that about two or three a month become customers. "On average about 40 to 50 percent of the inquiries turn into clients," he said.

His business increases about 50 percent during tax season from AdWords traffic, he estimates. The kinds of clients he attracts from Google are usually more computer savvy, and he frequently gets calls about how to use their software better. His site usually ranks somewhere between No. 1 and 8 on the Google search rankings, and he takes advantage of localized search to draw clients who are looking for a nearby firm. Sykes has also bought search ads from Yahoo but hasn't found them to be as effective as Google's.

A user might type in search terms like "San Francisco" and "tax prep" and Google will show a list of tax preparers in the local area along with a map. It also has links to Google Earth.

"We call that local business ads," said Google spokesperson Gretchen Howard. "We make it easy for local businesses to add their times of operation and their phone number so when they advertise locally those results come up right away." The accountant doesn't even need to have their own Web site to be listed as prominently as a large firm's.

"AdWords and Google democratize the Web," said Howard. "It's based on the relevancy of your ad. As long as I'm bidding on the appropriate keywords, my ad will appear alongside Ernst & Young. There's no special treatment for large businesses." Intuit has an agreement with Google to help promote small businesses through the use of QuickBooks and Google AdWords.

Sterck Kulik O'Neill, a firm based in San Francisco, began using Google AdWords in 2002 and spends between $100 and $250 per month on the search ads to draw clients to its site. During tax season, the firm regularly goes over the $200-per-month spending mark. Approximately 40 percent of the firm's customers come from the Internet, mostly by way of Google.

Galen Workman, director of marketing at the firm, does two types of campaigns, one of them with typical accounting terms and the other with local terms such as "San Francisco" and "San Francisco Bay Area."

"It can show up when people are looking for a local accountant and when people from other countries are looking to open up business in our area," he said.

However, the firm actually stops buying any tax-related terms during tax season. "We're not in competition with the storefront tax preparer," said Workman. "We will actually cut off the ads with 'tax' in them in mid-March. We do a lot of taxes, but we are not really for someone with W-2 income who is looking for the cheapest price, because we can't give them the cheapest price."

Instead, the firm will bid on search terms that can bring in more lucrative clients with keywords such as "financial statements" and "estate planning." After tax season, the firm will start advertising again with terms like "tax planning." Workman said the firm even does well in rankings on "organic" searches, for which it does not pay Google, for some of its services. But when the firm begins offering a new service, it will advertise more heavily on Google to build up awareness.

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