Search Engine Optimization (SEO) increases website traffic through organic search results. A well-optimized website will show up high in the organic (non-paid) results that a search engine returns for a relevant string of keywords.
Why does SEO matter? Because 89% of B2B buyers and 81% of online shoppers research products and services before they buy them, according to Hubspot. And you cannot market online effectively without doing SEO. Therefore, if your business doesn’t show up on Google and other major search engines, your business is unlikely to survive.
SEO forms the core of any digital marketing strategy. Good SEO practices do more than increase website rankings. They also help businesses’ social media sites, videos, images, and blogs show up for relevant keywords. Because SEO is a big, slippery, and critical marketing concept, many small business owners believe it to be complex, ever-changing, and beyond their control. Sometimes, entrepreneurs invest marketing dollars with SEO companies that promise more results than they can deliver. At other times, business owners attempt to do SEO themselves without knowing anything about digital marketing. That approach rarely works either.
That’s why we created this guide to help any size business get amazing SEO. In this piece, we demystify SEO and give actionable strategies that small business owners like you can use immediately to start seeing more of the traffic you want.
The Fundamentals of SEO
Successful SEO increases traffic to your website, and that traffic is composed of likely buyers, subscribers, donors, or users. The details of SEO constantly evolve, but the goal doesn’t move.
Fundamentally, SEO drives traffic by improving your website’s visibility in the organic search rankings. Whatever your doing online should improve the quantity and quality of your website traffic.
Historic SEO vs Modern SEO
In the early days, the spiders at Yahoo! would crawl webpages looking for repeated words and phrases. If the webpage contained the same line of text enough times, the spiders knew what the page was about and how to rank it. Then along came Google to power Yahoo! with a new approach. Google looked at both on-page content and off-page content — basically figuring that if other people were linking to you, you must be a quality site that deserved a high rank. That innovation gave us link building, which is a major component of SEO to this day.
When Google successfully defeated Yahoo! to become the undisputed sultan of search, SEO changed again. Google stopped rewarding keyword repetition as Yahoo! had done and instead started to look at more complex factors such as personalization, geographic location, video content, brands, and social media. Later, Google began to punish sites that produced high-volume, low-quality content by downgrading them or even removing them from their search results. Subsequent changes included optimizing for voice search, image search, mobile-first search, and now AI-first search.
Why all this history? Because if your SEO strategy relies on repeated keyword strings, your SEO strategy is about 15 years out of date, and it is getting you nothing. That doesn’t mean you need to be an expert on the latest machine learning technology, but it does mean that SEO requires more than repeated strings of keywords. It also requires thinking like your customer. Basically, SEO starts with empathy.
The Four Moments of SEO
Google refers to four classic reasons a searcher types a keyword string into a search engine. They call these four reasons moments.
1. The I-want-to-know moment. Two-thirds of searches occur because users want information. Often, they want to learn more about something they saw in an advertisement, watched on a video, or learned about on a social media platform. Here’s where your blog, your podcast, and your long-form videos come in. Produce informative content that’s unique, accurate, readable, and error-free to rank well for this search moment.
2. The I-want-to-go moment. Have you ever searched for something you wanted and then added the words “near me” to the end of your search string? That’s an I-want-to-go moment. People want to know where you are and how accessible you are to them. This means more than giving Google your address. It also means mentioning local landmarks, events, and reviews on your site. Love the places and people around you.
3. The I-want-to-do moment. People want ideas. Teachers are looking for lesson plans, bakers for cupcake designs, bankers for ways to talk about mortgages, dads for things to do with their kids, and on and on. Modern people turn to the internet first when looking for their ideas so your blog and your YouTube channel need some good idea pieces to attract and retain the attention of prospective buyers.
4. The I-want-to-buy moment. It’s the moment you’ve been waiting for, when the propect is ready to become the buyer. But don’t jump to this moment right away. Give your prospective buyer plenty of reasons to love you so you don’t just make one sale but you make a friend who becomes a regular customer and brings you more friends.
Good SEO means you provide information, location, ideas, and products to the people who are searching for them.
Should I Hire an SEO Firm or Should I DIY It?
SEO is its own industry now. Plenty of marketing companies offer search engine optimization to small businesses, and some of these companies are excellent at what they do. Others aren’t. How do you know if you need an SEO company? And if so, how do you pick the right one out of the bunch?
How to Know If You Need an SEO Agency
Hiring an SEO firm works if you have a medium-to-high budget for this type of marketing because, like everything else, with SEO, you get what you pay for. What’s a medium-to-high budget? Plan on spending $100 an hour or at least $1,000 for a small project. Small SEO firms and freelancers often charge less, but the results rarely exceed what you can do on your own.
In some cases, you can hire a large firm in a country such as India or the Philippines for a lower-dollar amount. This approach can mean a good investment, but it can also mean getting involved with a company that doesn’t understand your buyers’ culture and intuitive speech. Consider this move carefully since it’s high-risk-high-reward.
Before you hire any firm, though, do your homework and delineate a clear strategy on what you wish to accomplish. Most small businesses can get just as far, if not further, by executing simple SEO strategies on their own.
How to Pick the Right Digital Marketing Agency for You
If you decide you do need a digital marketing agency to help you create amazing SEO, follow these four guidelines for picking a great digital marketing agency:
1. Know what you want and how much you can spend to get it. No matter what else an agency offers you, make sure they can deliver what you want at a price you can afford. All the other bells and whistles they sell won’t make up for failing to deliver the goods you need.
2. Verify the agency’s credibility. Look for reviews on Google, Facebook, and Yelp. Ask for references. Call your friends and check up on the agency. Even take a peek at their Better Business Bureau page. In short, trust but verify that the agency can actually do what its sales team says it can do.
3. Don’t be fooled by years of experience. After all, 15 years of experience doing SEO work doesn’t mean the agency understands modern SEO practices. Pick an agency for what it can do for you, not what it did for someone else years ago. That said, look for an SEO agency with experience specific to your industry instead of a generalist firm that does the same thing for every client on the roster.
4. Make sure you like working with them. How does the sales staff behave when they come by your office? Have you met any of the writers? Are the people there “your kind of people?” You have to work with this team, after all, so make sure it’s composed of the kind of folks you enjoy working with.
How to Do Effective SEO as a Small Business Owner
SEO isn’t black magic. As a small business owner, you can do a lot yourself to build your site’s visibility and improve the quality and quantity of your traffic without hiring a professional team. Now, you may need to work with a website designer, a freelance writer, or a videographer to optimize specific parts of your site, but you can direct and manage the project yourself. Here’s how to get amazing SEO for your site:
1. Go after the low-hanging fruit for easy backlinks. Local business directories such as those published by the Chamber of Commerce or a municipal website are often the easiest to get linked into. You can also shoot for industry-specific business directories published by professional association in your sector.
2. Properly title your website pages. Don’t try a title that’s too short or too long. Think Baby Bear’s porridge in the story of the Three Bears — not too hot, not too cold, but just right. Also, avoid stuffing the title with keywords, repeating your company’s name, or duplicating the title. Just say what the page is about simply and straightforwardly.
3. Avoid thin content. Every page, every article, every video, every image, and every word needs to add value to the reader. Content that doesn’t add value is called “thin content,” and Google penalizes you for producing it. So avoid duplicating your articles, using auto-generated content, or repeating an article on a competitor’s website. Create new, vibrant, helpful content of your own.
4. Optimize for mobile. Google loves pages that are optimized for mobile. So do users. Most of the time, optimizing for mobile is simple even with a low-cost website builder such as Wix or WordPress. It’s simply a matter of clicking a box in some cases.
5. Improve page speed. Ten seconds isn’t long unless you’re waiting for a page to download. Searchers will click away within seconds if your site doesn’t load. We recommend this guide from CognitiveSEO to help ramp up page speed.
6. Consider voice search. More and more people are using voice search instead of search strings. So when you’re determining your keywords, stick with natural-language approaches. Specific questions. Context. Logic. They all help you create content that can show up for a voice search.
Using basic research tools such as AnswerThePublic.Com or even typing search strings into Google yourself and seeing what comes up can help you know what words, phrases, and topics you could rank for.
What Are Some Solid, Easy-to-Use SEO Monitoring Tools?
SEO doesn’t have to mean buying expensive software. Some of the best tools are free or low cost and can give you all the research you need.
1. Moz analyzes keywords so you know what your competitors are using and which words you might rank well for. The software is not free, but it comes at a low subscription price.
2. SEMRush offers numerous SEO solutions, including competitor analysis, and keyword and advertising research. SEMRush offers a limited free account.
3. Ahrefs helps with link building, keyword research, and competitor analysis. It’s a great way to keep up with what’s trending. Plans run from $99 to $999.
4. Google Analytics helps you analyze the visitors to your website. You can find out data such as age, gender, interest, device, and location of your audience. Plus, Google Analytics will tell you why visitors are bouncing off the site. Best of all, the tool is 100% free.
Building your digital presence through amazing SEO is never easy, but it doesn’t have to be confusing or expensive either. Research your customers. Know your customers. Think like your customers. Create quality content your customers will want to read, watch, or hear. Then make it easy for the bots at Google to know what your content is all about. When the time is right, hire a qualified SEO agency to help you. And you should get plenty of traffic with that approach.
Check out all of the articles in the ‘Marketing Strategies Every Business Should Be Using‘ series: