Being a small business is tough. Many businesses fail in the first year, and many more will not make it to the five-year mark. But even established businesses can fail if they are unable to adapt to changing times.
Marketing is difficult — digital marketing even more so. And the black-box nature of SEO can make it the most difficult form of marketing your business. Yet when done well, there is little that can compete with strong, organic search engine visibility to promote your small business. Organic listings build trust with local customers, and all the best business relationships are built on a foundation of trust.
In this article, I want to look at SEO as a marketing tactic specifically for small businesses. I will share everything we have learned working on hundreds of small business SEO projects. My intention is to arm you, as a business owner, with the knowledge and power to make the right decisions when implementing an SEO strategy — whether you choose to do some or all of the SEO work yourself, employ an in-house SEO or outsource the work to an SEO agency.
It is a given that search engines and SEO will play an important role in the future of your business. And the goal of this article is to use my 20 years of SEO experience to help you make the best possible decisions when putting SEO to work for your small business.
What on earth is SEO?
In 2017, this is a hell of a question. Is SEO market research? Keyword research? Is it building a perfectly optimized website? Is it copywriting? Is SEO content marketing via search engines? Building links and authority? Is SEO conversion rate optimization and analytics? Is SEO ensuring you present a highly positive and credible image to potential customers? Is SEO usability and UX? Is SEO mobile optimization?
The answer to all of these is yes. And much more. SEO is a complex, layered discipline. There are different types of SEO and many factors that can influence your SEO. An experienced SEO consultant will help you identify the type of SEO that is important for your business. This will be influenced by the industry you’re in, the geography in which you operate, and your SEO strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats.
A helpful way to look at this is to consider that a search engine is just a referral engine — a tool that provides the best answers to users’ questions. For your small business to truly succeed in this search landscape, you must do everything in your power to be the best result. Whatever your prospective customers need to make a decision, be driven to provide it. This has the benefit of helping you convert more clicks to customers as well, so this is a sensible all-around approach.
For small businesses, the main SEO areas to consider will be:
- Website. A well-structured, fast, mobile-friendly website is essential.
- Content. Your content should help demonstrate why a customer should choose you.
- Content marketing. Informational blog content can put you in front of a wider audience.
- On-page. Basic optimization is important so think page titles and meta descriptions.
- Local SEO. Local businesses need to consider local SEO best practices.
- Authority building. Links are still highly correlated with strong search engine results.
- Credibility. Case studies, portfolios, reviews and testimonials help you clinch the deal.
SEO can be complicated. So understanding your current situation and marketplace is key to making the right decisions. And fortunately, for smaller businesses we can often strip away much of the complexity, and the conversation ends up being about content, links and website design.
Is SEO right for your small business?
Search engines are a key way in which we all now look for products and services. So, in the majority of cases, search is a great way to get in front of potential customers. This is not to say that it is the right marketing approach for every business at any given time.
The following should be considered:
- Budget. You may not have the budget to compete with established competitors.
- Speed. SEO can take a long time to deliver results, especially in competitive markets.
- Competition from ads. Ads now occupy a lot of screen space.
- Big competitors. Some search terms are dominated by titans, and it can be hard to compete.
So, while organic search visibility is always desirable, it should not be relied upon solely, especially if you need results fast and have a long way to go. Typically, other methods like PPC advertising can deliver fast results while you start running the SEO turtle race.
Generally, some form of SEO is certainly a good fit for most businesses, but the real question here is whether SEO is a good fit for your requirements right now. Consider your budget, speed and starting position to determine when this valuable tactic should be introduced. (I covered the topic of how to determine if SEO is a good fit for your business in a previous post.)
In many cases, a combined approach using PPC and SEO can deliver the best results. PPC delivers quick results at a cost, and when your organic visibility builds, you can look at dialing back on your paid search marketing.
So, you may not rank quickly with SEO, but the sooner you start investing in your SEO strategy, the sooner you can benefit from this highly popular marketing channel.
How to choose an SEO provider
This is tough and does require some groundwork on your part. Does the freelancer or agency have a good reputation and positive reviews? Do some digging, and don’t take things at face value. Who is the owner of the business? Who are the SEO consultants? Are they known and respected in the industry?
The following questions can provide a good starting point to generate a discussion with potential SEO companies. Certainly, understanding these questions and potential answers make you a more educated buyer and as such will help ensure your SEO company becomes a secret weapon rather than a wooden leg!
1. How will you improve our SEO?
This is purposely an open question. You are trying to get a feel for the strategy that the SEO company will follow. We would like to see mention of technical audits and fixes, on-page optimization, local SEO, page speed optimization, mobile optimization, content optimization, keyword research and most likely some form of link and authority building.
2. What type of SEO work do you specialize in?
SEO has many moving parts. Technical. Local. National. Organic. Content. Links and authority. Many smaller agencies focus only on small parts, so ask the question to be sure this agency is a good fit for your requirements.
3. What specific jobs will you work on each month?
We would expect the agency to detail an initial three-month process that involves technical audits and fixes, on-page optimization, content creation, content optimization and link building.
4. What strategies do you use to build links and authority for a site?
This is an important question. We are looking for an understanding of how the web and page rank works. We want natural links. Typically, we would want to see some form of content created (or promoted) to build links to a content piece. Some form of guest posts for exposure. Possibly some digital PR.
We don’t want to see mention of link farms, private blog network (PBN) sites, dropped domains and the like. We really want to ask the company if all links will comply with what Google considers acceptable (i.e., no link schemes).
5. Do you adhere to all of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines?
Leading on from link schemes, we can ask about Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Again, this shows you are an informed buyer, and many a low-quality company will run a mile when you ask this question (which is exactly what you want).
6. Can you provide case studies or examples of similar companies you have helped?
It is always good to get some examples of similar companies that the business has helped. You want an example of how the provider took someone (ideally in a similar industry) from the position you are in now to a position of strength.
7. What metrics do you measure to track progress?
You want to know which metrics the company will use to track success. Keyword rankings are the baseline here, but ideally, we want to see a more robust set of SEO KPIs. For small business SEO, you likely can’t expect too much, but I am fond of total organic search traffic — the total number of pages receiving organic search traffic.
8. Do you have contracts or a minimum term?
You certainly don’t want long contracts for unproven providers. If there are contracts, then you want a get-out clause after three months, when you will have a better measure of the company.
9. How & what will you report to us each month?
The quality of reporting will depend on the budget to some extent, but you will be wanting reports on the visibility of tracked keywords, improvements in results for tracked keywords, work completed (including all links) and work planned for next month.
10. How often do you review progress?
Here we want to know what will be reviewed, and when. After six months with a good provider, you will likely be in a far improved position. Hence, you want to know how the strategy will change. I would be looking for either three-monthly or six-monthly reviews here.
Can you do SEO yourself?
The simple answer here is yes. At least some of it. If you have been running a website, then you are likely doing some SEO yourself already. However, a professional will do a better job and generate improved results more quickly. Likewise, your time may be better spent doing what you do and paying an SEO consultant to do their thing.
Certainly, there are some good resources out there if you want to have a go, and I recommend for all small business owners to at least have a look. Even if you only do the reading and don’t attempt to perform any SEO yourself, you’ll still be a better-educated buyer.
Some SEO resources worth your time:
- Moz Beginners Guide to SEO
- Search Engine Land’s Guide to SEO
- Local SEO Guide — How to rank your local business
- Backlinko Link Building Guide — 2017
If you really want to go deep, I recommend the following two books:
The key takeaway is there are elements of SEO you can do yourself, but a skilled consultant or agency will get you better results in less time.
*Things get a little more difficult on the link-building side of things. Doing this and doing it well requires specific talents. Marketing strategy, content creation, graphic design, outreach — there are a lot of moving parts, and you can spend a lot of time on the link-building hamster wheel with little to show for your efforts. If you can, use a pro.
SEO-friendly small business websites
I covered building SEO-friendly websites in some detail in a previous column, and I would certainly recommend that you give that a read.
The usual suspect platforms like WordPress and Magento can work well here, depending on your business requirements. Certainly, self-provisioning platforms like Wix, Weebly and Squarespace are starting to show real promise as well for creating SEO-friendly sites without a huge learning curve or massive costs.
Small business SEO tools
If you are going to have a go yourself, then there are some tools you can use to help provide information on what you can easily optimize. Many of the big tools will have a monthly fee, and before long, putting a toolset together could cost as much as a reasonably priced SEO provider, so you have to take that into consideration.
- Screaming Frog — SEO Spider. This really is the SEO Swiss Army knife, and it will give you intel on broken links, page titles, meta descriptions, URLs and so much more. The tool is free for up to 500 pages, so most small businesses should have no costs here. However, at only £149 for the year, it comes in way cheaper than any of the typical SEO tools.
- Moz.com. Moz builds on the crawling tool of Screaming Frog and presents issues in a prioritized format. There are also other tools to do keyword research, rank tracking and link analysis. Moz.com is a well-rounded SEO toolset. It certainly won’t do the SEO for you, but it does a really good job of pointing you in the right direction. Moz Pro has a 30-day free trial, so you can likely get in to make some improvements to your site and get out without generating any costs.
- Google Search Console. This one is free and provides diagnostic information direct from the horse’s mouth. It won’t rank your site for you, but it will help you identify potential areas for improvement.
- Ubersuggest. Ubersuggest is a powerful keyword research tool that taps into the myriad search suggestions to help you identify a broader range of keywords you can target.
- Answer The Public. Answer the Public again uses keyword search data, but it uses where, which, who, what, when and why prefixes to provide commonly asked questions. This is very powerful for identifying the questions your prospective customers have so that you can target them with content.
- Google. Often the best source of information is simply the search engine itself. Who are your competitors? Where are they mentioned? Who are the biggest ranking sites in your industry? To truly understand which sites Google finds authoritative in your space, what better way to answer that question than to Google it?
- Majestic/Ahrefs. Both of these tools will give you information on who links to your competitors, and this can provide some simple direction for a link- and authority-building campaign.
Note: None of these tools will do SEO for you. At best, they provide direction. However, SEO is one of those areas where there is always something you could be doing to improve your standing, so if you are stuck for ideas, these tools will deliver in spades.
Small business SEO tips & checklist
Over at my agency, Bowler Hat, we have just compiled a comprehensive list of 30 small business SEO tips to radically improve your SEO in 30 days.
The following are 10 of my favorites and should be easily actionable with a bit of research:
- Register with Google Search Console.
- Register with Bing Webmaster Tools.
- Claim or create a Google My Business listing.
- Conduct keyword research.
- Organize keywords by page.
- Target long-tail keywords.
- Test your keywords with PPC.
- Optimize your page titles.
- Optimize your meta descriptions.
- Request links from business partners.
There is so much that you can do as a small business to help improve your own SEO given a bit of time and structure.