Google may be the megamillion-pound gorilla in the search space, but you don't have to be a gazillionaire to compete there with the big boys of commerce. The folks from Mountain View, Calif.,  have rolled out a number of free, low-cost tools for small businesses that enable them to play above their weight. You just have to know where to find them.

Like it or not, search is a big deal when it comes to consumer purchasing patterns. Google says that 97 percent of consumers go online to do research on products or services. Even local research is being done online, they say. But you can't play if you don't show up.

A lot of small businesses fail to report for duty. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of businesses do not have a website, Frederick Vallaeys, Google's AdWords evangelist, told BusinessNewsDaily.  And another 25 percent are invisible online. Search their name and you find nothing.

The first thing small businesses should do is shed their cloak of invisibility and claim their place in the sun, Vallaeys said. Google Places is a good place to plant your flag, he said. These are free directory pages for local businesses; there are 50 million Place Pages globally, with 8 million that have been verified by their owners.

"Type in your business name in Google," he said. "If a Google Places page exists, it will show up in the results."

If you've already staked out your Google Places page, check the information to make sure the details are correct, Vallaeys said. If your business name is unclaimed, take ownership and populate with as much information as possible. The more detail you provide, the better able Google is to match your business with someone looking for your services or products.

"The only investment is the 15 minutes it takes to sign up and say, 'This is my business,'" Vallaeys said.

From the minute you take ownership of your Places page, Google begins generating a series of reports that business owners can use to fine-tune their pages, he said.

When you're ready to up the ante and take your game to the next level by advertising, you can take advantage of Google's AdWords. This is self-service, keyword-based advertising that works on a cost-per-click basis. You only pay when someone clicks on your ad and comes to your site.

You create text ads that contain keywords relevant to your business products or services and specify how much you are willing to pay per click. When people search on Google using one of your keywords, your ad may appear next to the search results. User clickthrough rates and CPC help determine where the ad is shown. The most relevant ads rise to the top and no one can lock in the top position.

"You can't just buy your way to the top," Vallaeys said, which helps maintain a level playing field.

There is no minimum commitment, he said, and Google provides a phone support line and a gamut of online help. It also provides tools to forecast your budget and select target keywords.

The average CPC for a representative group of Google AdWords advertisers in 2010 was $1.24, according to Hochmann Consultants, a marketing and technology consultancy.

If you want to eliminate the chore of pricing keywords, Google also offers AdWords Express.  Just give Google a monthly budget and they'll take care of the entire process and fine-tune your ads over time using feedback on keyword ROI from Google Analytics.

These Google tools are gaining traction with small and medium-size businesses, Vallaeys said.

"Google has more than a million advertisers and most of them are SMBs," he said.

Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at nsmith@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.

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