Traditional marketing techniques, such as paid advertising, have worked for businesses for decades. However, the rising costs of these traditional routes have left small businesses struggling to keep up with the giants. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) allows your small business to stay competitive while keeping costs lower than online paid advertising. All it takes are the seeds of a robust strategy, a bit of cultivating work, and time for the fruits of your labor to be fully realized.
Here are the foundations of SEO, realistic expectations for an SEO strategy, and how to choose an SEO agency to help refine your SEO strategy.
What is SEO and how does a small business get started?
In a nutshell, SEO works to rank a website on a web browser’s first page of a relevant keyword search result, ideally in one of the top three (nonpaid advertising) spots. However, the end goal is to bring more relevant traffic to your site.
Anchor Text. The anchor text is a word or phrase placed in content that includes a link to another page. The anchor text can be a keyword, but it will always describe the destination page. For example, your brand name could be the anchor text, and the link could be to your website’s home page.
On-Site SEO. These are the elements of SEO that you control on your website. They include keyword optimization, mobile optimization, page load-speed, internal links, meta tags, and content length.
Off-Site SEO. These are the elements of SEO that you may or may not always have the ability to control, but they still affect your site’s rank. For off-site SEO, small business owners will want to focus on creating content to publish on other sites; these content pieces should include keywords and backlinks to your website.
SERP. Short-hand for “Search Engine Results Page”. This is the page that generates when an internet user types an inquiry into a search engine. The inquiry is the keyword itself, and the results are the most relevant pages to that keyword. For example: A user types “shoe store Boston” into a search engine. The SERP lists the shoe stores in Boston that have the highest rank for that keyword.
Organic Search Results. These are the unpaid results on a SERP. Most SERPs include a few paid ads at the top of the page, before the list of organic results.
Internal Links. These are links on your site’s pages that lead to another one of your site’s pages. For instance, a home page can include internal links to shopping categories, a contact form, an About Us page, or blog posts. Your blog posts can include links to other blog posts, shopping categories, or even specific product pages. The possibilities are endless, but there is a ratio of links to the length of content that keeps it looking natural and not spammy.
Backlinks. These are links from other websites to yours. Backlinks are usually good, but the variety and quality of the other website matters. They can help increase your page authority rank factor or decrease it if you’re not careful.
Reputation Management. Service reviews are more important than ever for local SEO. If your business revenue is dependent on local sales, managing your Google My Business, Yelp, and Facebook reviews are a must.
Spiders/Crawling. When Google reads a website to determine its relevance for searches, it deploys “spiders” to “crawl” the code. You need to make sure that spiders can get to any page on your website, so it can crawl everything you have optimized.
How to get started
To get started with SEO, it's typically a good idea to do a full content audit of your site. Audits highlight areas of improvement and are a great place to start whether you have done a little bit of SEO or none at all. After updating for mobile, testing the site speed, and generally making your site more user-friendly (and spider-friendly with HTML code), you can then focus on keyword research for creating on-site and off-site content.
The keywords your small business targets may be different from those a large corporation targets, even if they are in the same niche. This is for a couple of reasons.
First, larger corporations have already targeted and saturated the highly competitive keywords for their niche, and it will take time for a small business to compete for those keywords. It’s difficult for a new business or small business to rank for competitive keywords right out of the gate. However, it’s not impossible to eventually rank for them after an SEO foundation has been built. Next, highly competitive keywords aren’t even necessary for a small business to start succeeding with SEO. Lastly, your small business can find success in targeting local and branded keywords.
Tip #1: Use a keyword research tool. SEMrush and Ahrefs are two well-known keyword research tools, but small businesses with tighter budgets may also consider Wordtracker or Google Keyword Planner. With these tools, you can plug in a URL (yours or one of your competitors’) and it will analyze which keywords the site is ranking for, what the search volume of the keywords are, and what the pay per click cost would be if used in PPC advertising. From there you can better decide which keywords to target for your small business.
Tip #2: Write for humans first and search engines second. Although Google, Bing, and Yahoo will ultimately determine your keyword search rank, a lot of the algorithms depend on user-friendliness. Always write content with relevant and natural sounding keywords. Irrelevant keywords and/or content that is stuffed to the brim with the same keyword will drive people away from — rather than to — your site. On the flip side, high quality and engaging content that is relevant to a keyword search will draw people to your site and entice them to stay. Search engines consider these factors, always updating their algorithms to meet user needs.
Tip #3: Use local search to your advantage. According to Google, 76% of those using mobile for local search visit a related business in one day, while 28% of those searches result in a purchase. When choosing keywords, tack on your city and state at the end for more targeted results. As the stats prove, most people using these keywords are potential customers just waiting to be converted!
Once you have chosen a few relevant keywords, you can now begin to create on-site and off-site content with these keywords in mind. However, a strategy here is important. Where you place keywords on your site and which links you use for off-site content can impact your SEO. Remember to spread the wealth and not link back to your homepage every time. Also, avoid linking to the same page twice in the same content. Lastly, consistency is key. Google loves websites that continually update with new content. Keyword research is an ongoing process and is something that needs constant attention. There are literally thousands of keywords you could rank for as a small business, so don’t stop after you rank for the first few!
Realistic expectations with an SEO strategy
While SEO isn’t free or instant, it is effective. Most businesses spend about $5,000 per month on SEO, but the cost can go up or down depending on your needs. If you need to revamp your whole website, need help with writing blog posts, or someone to manage your social media, it’s going to cost much more than $5,000 per month. However, if you only need a few press releases here and there and some backlinks every month, then the cost can be significantly lower. Keep in mind that the lower your budget, the more you will have to do yourself.
As far as how long it takes for SEO to start working, it depends on where you’re starting from. If you are building a brand new site or starting out with SEO, it could take up to 6 months to see your site ranked on the first page and traffic flooding in. Remember, SEO is a continual process and builds upon itself. The foundation you lay during those first 6 months will make the process easier later on. Also, the more you keep up on SEO after you’ve made it to the first page, the less of a chance your competitors have to overtake you.
Although SEO may not show instant results like PPC advertising, SEO does provide a long-term solution at a reasonable cost for small businesses. Also, organic search results (ranked in terms of SEO) attract 20-30 times more clicks/traffic than PPC ads. It’s a win-win for small businesses. Once brand recognition has been built up through SEO and pages have been optimized for user experience, an eventual PPC campaign will be even more effective than one without previous SEO work.
How to choose an SEO agency
There’s no shortage of SEO experts waiting to help small businesses with an SEO strategy. The one you choose, however, will ultimately come down to cost, quality, and what you need.
An in-house SEO expert is probably not a viable option for your small business, but there are plenty of other ways to get SEO needs met. Many agencies offer a variety of packages to suit small businesses. Other agencies may propose an individual fixed contract based on the services you want. With this option, you will know the project’s exact cost and are guaranteed fulfillment. If you are willing to do the work but need guidance to get started, you can look into hourly SEO consultants who typically charge $100-$300 per hour.
As with most business services, you get what you pay for when it comes to SEO. An SEO “expert” may be cheap, but do you trust them to provide you with quality on-site content that represents your brand?
Here are some questions to ask a potential agency:
What niches do you specialize in?
What does the process look like, and what will you be working on month-to-month?
What is your link building strategy?
How do you track progress?
How do you report?
How often will you review and update our strategy?
Do you have any case studies of similar projects?
Are there any minimum term contracts?
At the end of the day, working with a skilled SEO professional can be beneficial for any business. At the very least, you should hire an SEO consultant who can offer you advice on how best to implement a strategy. But because you may be busy running your business, you may need to budget for agency-level assistance. One of the best steps you can take for your business is to implement an SEO strategy today.
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