Really the move to SEM by the big guys was inevitable as more and more success stories began to crop up. And just like any other part of business, things change. The early days of managing SEM campaigns has probably come to a close. That doesn't mean that small businesses still can't find success with it, it means you're approach will need to be adjusted. And those small businesses who are just dipping their toes in to SEM it's extremely important to know what it's going to take to be successful now as compared to years (and even months) past. I found this comment (posted by someone using the nickname of targetmarketingsolutions.us) on the BusinessWeek site to get right to the point:
"Some of the PPC newbie mistakes that we see even in Fortune 500 companies: * Use of less-targeted content networks for campaigns * Negative keywords not used * Lack of geo-targeting for local/regional companies * Short keyword list * Bad, inappropriate landing pages * Few ads for very, different keyword groups * No conversion tracking All of these options, when not used, waste budgets quickly. When experienced professionals create campaigns with these options, there is generally high ROI. SEM is relatively new and more complex than print, TV campaigns, etc., hence the negative article comments. Also, no perspective given on other media costs versus ROI... Much of the old media is non-trackable and/or poorly tracked."
So I would say the rules of engagement have changed for small businesses. It's definitely become more challenging and complex. But if you know what you're doing, or hire in someone who does, you can still find success. And as Dharmesh says, search engine optimization should strongly be considered as an equally important tool for lead gen and brand building. You also have to take a hard look at social media optimization to garner attention for your business. Now that's a lot to take on but it's worthwhile to find the right mix of activities for your company to create the kind of opportunities you're company will need to succeed.