SEO for Small Businesses – 20 Questions Answered

I recently responded to request for a source for an SEO article that Manta.com was writing.  While they used a portion of what I submitted, I thought that it would be valuable to publish my entire response since it might help others who are researching the same topic.

What is SEO?

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization, which is the process of managing variables to increase your presence in the “free” portion of a search results page.  When you look at a page on Google, you’ll notice paid ads at the top and products or other information in the upper right – the “free” or “organic” results come below those.

While driven by an immense number of sub-factors, a simplified way to think about SEO comes in three tranches:

  • the ability for Google & other search engine spiders to crawl and interpret the information on your website
  • the unique content and information search engine spiders find when they crawl your website
  • the number of links from other trusted, relevant sites to your site

How would you define what SEO is not?

SEO is not the same as managing paid search campaigns, which is often referred to as search engine marketing (SEM).  While you should expect to spend money on SEO, any expense is indirect (copyrwriting, technical fixes, etc) whereas SEM requires a direct media investment and allows you to control your placement on search engine results pages (SERPs).

Why is SEO important for small businesses?

It’s key to think of your normal behavior – when you go to a new store, restaurant or even doctor, you likely start on Google or another search engine, right?  Being found on search engines is critical for large, small, local, ecommerce and other types of businesses.

Since small businesses often have finite or limited advertising budgets, ensuring that their websites are set up for success to capture free traffic will help drive both foot and web traffic at a far lower cost than most other media.

Do certain companies need SEO more than others? Which companies need SEO?

All companies should focus on SEO, but it’s most critical for those who have limited advertising budgets and are in a competitive space.  If a small business doesn’t have a strong brand name already, they will need to perform better on “generic” or broad keywords in order to be discovered.

When is SEO necessary?

SEO is not something that happens one time – it’s an ongoing process which evolves, whether due to changing search engine algorithms (think of these as “recipes” by which a search engine spider determines whether or not a site is worth ranking) or changes on the website itself due to product offerings, changing seasons or information.

Where should small business owners begin their SEO efforts?

It’s ideal to build a new site with SEO in mind rather than retrofitting an existing experience, but if that’s not feasible, then they should begin immediately although they will likely work in phases depending on their maturity, resources and budget.  For brand new small businesses, it’s ok to start small – have good quality writing and make sure that the fundamentals are in place.  As you the business grows, put more money into public relations to get links to the site, and invest in other more advanced tactics.

What does a successful SEO strategy look like?

A successful SEO strategy is diversified and ensures that all three pillars are being addressed: on-site content, technical architecture of the website, and obtaining quality links to the website.

How much should small businesses budget to spend on SEO?

Unfortunately, this is a very broad question and it truly depends on the size of the website (# of pages), competitive nature of the space, and whether the business is trying to rank locally or nationally.

What can SEO do for a small business website?

SEO can help drive traffic and sales/leads/foot traffic depending on the objective of the website and the keywords it is optimized for.  This can help create a low-cost marketing channel from which profit can be re-invested in other marketing channels or dropped to the bottom line.

What are the essential SEO tactics to boost a website’s SEO?

A few essential tactics include:

  • Ensuring that you have quality, original content on the website. Content may be everything from product descriptions to a blog, and even product ratings & reviews.
  • Securing links to your website without buying them outright, as this is against Google’s guidelines
  • Making sure your site loads quickly and is mobile-friendly
  • Updating your website’s content on a regular cadence
  • Making sure that the fundamentals are met (site can be indexed, appropriate meta & title tags, etc)

Can you optimize a business’s search rankings if that company doesn’t have a website?

If you do not have a website, you can create a business page on Google.  This can house much of the same information that you’d find on a non-transactional or local small business website.

How can social media help a company’s search rankings?

Awareness is a key element in gaining additional links to your website, a key factor in improving rankings.  With additional awareness through social media, you may be able to secure new links and also have your URLs shared.

How can online reviews help a company’s search rankings?

On-site reviews can help a company’s rankings by providing a consistent stream of new content which is generally written in a more natural voice.  This can help add new keywords to a given page, which is valuable in helping spiders understand the context of the page.

Off-site reviews, such as those on Yelp, can help if they include links to your website.

How should a company use keywords on a website to improve SEO?

A company’s marketing team should help determine the most important keywords to rank for – not only by looking at traffic, but also by looking at conversion rates.  Once identified, those keywords should be used in copy, meta tags and links on the website, however they should be used sparingly.

Keyword “stuffing” is a no-no and should be avoided.  Google and other search engines are becoming smarter each day in terms of identifying synonyms and misspellings for keywords used on a website, so it’s best to write for your site’s visitors, but ensure that the words are common enough to be worth ranking for.

What are the best SEO tools (free and for purchase) you’d recommend small businesses use?

Personally, I use a variety of tools including Ahrefs, SEMrush, Raven, Google Search Console, Bing Webmaster Tools, ScreamingFrog, DeepCrawl, the Adwords Keyword Planner, Excel and others.  Depending on the size of the small businesses website and number of terms for which the company is trying to rank for, it’s possible to start with free tools.  I would not recommend signing up for any annual plans in the beginning; instead, try out a few tools and see which ones are used frequently enough to justify the cost.

Which is better SEO or SEM? How do the two work together?

SEO and SEM are different and both are valuable.  SEO has a definite cost advantage, however SEM allows you to control the message and landing page, so it’s ideal to use both.  A company can test different strategies to find the optimal mix by keyword – bid on keywords where you have an organic ranking or don’t, bid only on keywords where you don’t rank organically, etc.

What do reputable SEO companies do, and how much should a business budget?

Reputable SEO companies and consultants will perform an analysis of the website and it’s competitive set, identify technical issues, identify low-hanging fruit opportunities and stretch goals, assist with guidance for copywriting and/or provide copy, track keyword ranking changes, and develop a link building strategy.  The cost is highly variable depending on the nature of services rendered and the size of website, but can range anywhere from $1000/month to $25K+/month.

Does SEO takes time? Why, and how long should one expect to wait for results?

SEO will take time – months and potentially years if it’s in a heavily competitive space.  If the business is trying to rank locally on a set of niche terms, then the process will be on the shorter side; if the business is trying to rank on very high traffic keywords at a national level (for example: flowers), they will need to exercise their patience.

What are some reasons SEO might not work?

It’s unlikely that SEO wouldn’t “work”, but instead, a website may not rank highly for a keyword if it’s not deemed to be relevant enough.

One challenge that small businesses will face if they are trying to compete on broad, high volume keywords against other more established sites is that those businesses may simply be outspending them on link acquisition.  This would make it difficult for a small business to reach the top placements or page one.

What is a solid SEO To-Do list for businesses just beginning?

A simple, but efficient to-do list for a small business would be to:

  • Find a trusted advisor, whether that’s an in-house specialist or external firm
  • Pair that advisor with the technical staff that updates the website, copywriters, public relations and merchants
  • Allocate an appropriate budget for copywriting and link acquisition
  • Provide direction to the company or appropriate teams that SEO is a priority.  This can’t be underestimated – SEO is everybody’s job, not just the job of one person.

You can read Manta.com’s SEO article here which features information from tons of other SEO professionals.  I was quoted in section 6 as the owner of OfficialCouponCode.

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