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SmallBiz Grows w/ Social

Small businesses are confident about their ability to weather the recession, with more than one-half saying they have either fully recovered or will do so by the end of 2010, and nearly three-quarters claiming they will drive recovery in the overall economy, according to the “Third Annual FedEx Office Signs of the Times Small Business Survey” from FedEx Office and Ketchum.

To that end, almost two in five small-business owners reported they would be growing their businesses with social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. That was up from less than one-quarter who planned to up their game with social in 2009 and made social media the only tactic to increase in importance since last year.

Twitter Business Center

We have confirmed with Twitter that beta testing of its new business features, dubbed the “Twitter Business Center,” has begun.

According to the company, “only a handful of accounts have these features presently,” but it will expand on a gradual basis to more accounts. One of the biggest additions is the ability for businesses to accept direct messages on the service, even from people they don’t follow.

Google Map-Based Ads

Google began testing the Tags program in February in two markets, San Jose and Houston. Its objective was to create a simple paid ad that even the most harried shop proprietor can grasp. The result is a $25 per month ($300 a year) yellow box that appears alongside a business listing on Google Maps and search results, as well as beneath the advertiser’s itemized listing adjacent to the map.

Today the company expanded the three-month-old Tags feature to three new cities: Austin, Atlanta, and Washington D.C. In the coming weeks, Google said it will add Tags to five more cities – Chicago, San Diego, Seattle, Boulder, and San Francisco – bringing the total to 10.

Marketers do not have control over where or when the ads are served. Rather, their appearance is determined by Google local search algorithms, which factor in distance, relevance, and other factors. In other words, Tags do not affect a business’ ranking in local search results, but rather offer a visual cue along with additional information in a sponsored link.

Only advertisers who have claimed their business listing and set up a Google Places account can purchase Tags. To claim a listing, a business owner confirms her contact information, business categories, and other details before verifying her identity either over the phone or by mail.

According to Google, 2 million businesses in the U.S. and 4 million globally have claimed their listings. A spokesperson declined to say how many of the 2 million U.S. participants are based in the 10 cities where the Tags program is currently active, but she said the cities were chosen in part because of the number of businesses with claimed listings.

The new ad product is part of a raft of changes to Google’s Small Business Center – including giving the center a new name: Google Places. The reason for the name change, Google said, is that “millions of people use Google every day to find places in the real world, and we want to better connect Place Pages – the way that businesses are being found today – with the tool that enables business owners to manage their presence on Google.”

Among the changes to Google Places, formerly known as Small Business Center, are the following:

Service Areas: Google will now let businesses designate the geographic areas they serve, either in the form of delivery, in-home service, or other capabilities.

Photo shoots: Google is letting business operators request a photo shoot of the interior of their establishments for use in their Place Pages. The offering is currently available in 25 U.S. cities, as well as locations in Japan and Australia.

QR Codes: Google will offer downloadable QR codes, a form of two-dimensional bar code, that businesses can affix to their signage and collateral. Smartphone owners can scan these codes to access the mobile version of a business’s Place Page. Along similar lines, it will expand its “Favorite Places” program, mailing window decals to 50,000 new businesses that have been highly sought out by Google users. The program was created last December with 100,000 businesses.

The Tags ad system is the first trial of a simplified local ad buying product since Google aborted an experiment called Local Listings Ads (LLA) last year. That program, begun in October 2009 and concluded in December, offered flat-fee listings that appeared on results pages for geographical searches.

Google has not said whether it might reignite the Local Listings Ads program, but appeared to downplay it in a statement to ClickZ. “This limited free trial was one of many beta tests that we developed experimentally as part of our ongoing commitment to help businesses advertise online,” it said. “The LLA beta was fruitful by getting us one step closer towards finding a fast, easy, and effective advertising solution for both users and marketers.”

Google has no plans to offer Google Places or sell its Tags ads through the AdWords reseller program. The spokesperson told ClickZ, “Tags can only be purchased for owner-verified listings in Google Places, so at the time it has to be done by the person who runs the business and manages the Google Places listing.”