Today we’re talking about SEO for small businesses.
Showing up on page one of Google search results is the Holy Grail of small businesses marketing. Not only is it as valuable, it is also almost as unattainable as finding the mythic chalice. So I’m going to take the next few minutes to try to demystify SEO as much as I can and give you a few action steps that you can take right now to start moving in the right direction.
First of all, what is SEO?
SEO — or search engine optimization — is not the only way to get found by customers online. I just want to lay that out right at the beginning, because SEO can be very competitive, especially depending on where you’re located and the sort of industry you’re in. SEO is definitely one of those things where your mileage may vary depending on a whole ton of variables, and not everybody has the time and the budget they need to really invest at getting ranked at the top of search results. I’ll tell you right now — your money might be better spent investing in other marketing strategies to help build awareness of your brand.
But regardless of whether you’re a pizza shop in Manhattan or you have a very niche business — like you make custom hamster-sized tuxedos, I don’t know — there are things that you can and should do to lay the groundwork for a decent SEO strategy to make sure you’re not neglecting possible opportunities for people to find you organically on Google.
As we delve further into this, one thing to understand is SEO is not one thing. It’s actually over 200 different things, or at least that’s the widely publicized number of Google’s ranking factors.
But for simplicity’s sake, let’s break it into three legs of an SEO tripod.
Let’s do a quick rundown of all of these components and then finish up with a few ideas on how to grab some low hanging SEO fruit you can pick off each of these branches.
Technical SEO this is the way your site is actually structured and coded to ensure that Google’s robots and crawlers and spidery things can actually read and understand what is on your website. Stuff like:
- page titles
- URL structure
- image alt tags
- proper use of header tags
Technical SEO can also involve site speed and page performance, making sure it’s responsive, and accessible on mobile devices (although this does blend a bit into the next tripod leg).
This is what is actually on the site. Gone are the days of where you could just pack out a site with the keywords you wanted to rank for. That’s how a lot people used to do it in the early aughts. If you were a plumber, you might have a website that had a full page of gobbledy-gook. “Looking for the best plumber in Bucks County. Then hire Joe Plumber, because he is the best plumber in Bucks County. Toilets are a thing that you need to get plumbers to fix, and Bucks County has the best plumbers to fix toilets in Bucks County!”
It wasn’t really good or helpful content, and that is what Google is looking for now. Google needs to maintain the trust of people using its platform. They want to make you happy by delivering the best search results that are actually going to answer the questions that you’re asking. It’s won’t cut it anymore to just stuff a bunch of keywords and try to hack their algorithm. They want to make sure your site is user friendly and delivering helpful information.
Google is looking for sites that are visually appealing, that have genuinely valuable content, that render quickly and works well on mobile devices (because that’s how most people use the Internet nowadays. If you haven’t heard). So when you’re thinking of on-site content, you need to be thinking about the whole enchilada.
But all that being said, including relevant keywords in your website’s content is still one of the primary ways Google and other search engines are going to know what your site is about what it’s about. We’ll unpack on-site content a little bit more. But first, let’s hit on the third leg of the tripod…
If other sites are linking to your site, that’s a vote of confidence that your site is delivering the good user experience and genuine value that Google is looking for, especially if those sites themselves have been deemed to be worthy or have high domain authority.
Google likes to see other people trusting your site. It makes them more comfortable with promoting your site to their users. It’s all about trust.
So once again, the three legs of the tripod are technical SEO, on-site content, and backlinks. And they all work together.
Whether or not you want to heavily invest in SEO, you should still take some basic steps to make sure that you’re at least not doing things that are hurting you from being ranked highly. Google does penalize people for doing things the wrong way, and it won’t just make you not rank more highly; it will make you rank worse.
So let’s start talking about some action steps you can take to position yourself better on search rankings.
A practical example
There’s a ton of different ways you can attack SEO. Instead of throwing a bunch of tips and hypotheticals at you, I’m going to present some real life suggestions and steps I recently took with a client of mine. A couple of years ago, I helped build a website for Courtney’s Carolers.
They are a singing group — really top class act I might add. But I did not realize how competitive the Victorian carolers for hire spaces in this area, and they were not ranking well in search results. They actually had, like… zero organic traffic. So we took a look at their site. They were missing some opportunities with their page titles and metadata.
I installed a WordPress plugin called Rank Math. That helps walk you through the process to make sure your site is set up with the right metadata. They’ll even analyze and give you an SEO score for the content on each page (but more on that later). Another thing it does is help set up your schema markup.
Schema — simply put — is special code that you wrap around different pieces of information on your site so you can let Google know that this string of text is a street address and this other string of text is a recipe. Or your company name, or a book review, or a phone number, or a product rating.
When search engines understand what your content is, they’re able to present it in a more helpful way on search results pages. You’re probably familiar with the Google Knowledge graph where they’ll show different types of content based on what you’re searching for. If you’re looking for an actor or an athlete, you don’t have to go into the website at all.
It will surface information from websites with a citation usually and give you a card with all the content right up front.
It also comes into play in today’s world of Voice Assistants. “OK Google, what’s the nearest pizza shop for four years?” Technical SEO and schema markup are what make it possible for Alexa, Siri, Google-lady, or other AI of choice to tell you how tall Michael Jordan is.
Image Alt Tags
Another thing we did for Courtney’s Carolers was comb through the site and make sure that all of the images had alt tags assigned to them. Human beings without any visual impairments are able to easily see the photos of lovely carolers in Victorian costumes. But if you’re a robot, you wouldn’t necessarily know what a website looks like. Although computers are getting frighteningly good at being able to identify what is in a photograph, don’t neglect image alt tags. It’s an opportunity to include more relevant keywords, and it helps anybody who can’t see and is relying on a screen reader to walk them through your website to understand what your website is about and how it looks.
Most website builders like Squarespace or Wix will allow you to click into an image and add your alt tags pretty easily. If you’re using WordPress, you can go into the Media Library and edit the title, the alt tag, and description.
Keywords and Keyword Research
Now that the site was technically sound and nice to look at, the actual written content on the site was pretty sparse when it came to relevant keywords.
Where keyword research comes in.
Think about how your ideal customers are searching for your services. Better yet, have a friend do it. Because sometimes you’re a little too close to your own company and you might have some preconceived notions as to what terms you want to use, and maybe you’re familiar with the industry jargon that the general consumer isn’t.
You can go through a whole process to identify which keywords do you have the best opportunity to rank highly. Software is available to assist with keyword research. Some options are available for free, at least to try, but it can get expensive pretty quickly, and there’s a learning curve around it. It’s worth checking out. But before you do, I’ll recommend the same exercise I recommended to Courtney for her website:
Give a friend a prompt, have them pretend that they’re planning a Christmas party and they need to find carolers to hire to perform. Have your friend note all the different search terms they use while researching the different options available. Better yet, have them record their screen.
This is a great exercise to start with because it goes way deeper than just keyword research. You can get a better understanding of what information they find useful, what catches their eye, what were they finding and noting to help them make their decision.
You should walk away with a better idea of what sort of content you want to include on your website and start enriching your content. Just remember, you want to make sure that your content is natural and helpful. You don’t want to be the overly repetitive keyword stuffing plumber from earlier.
Read your copy out loud and make sure it sounds natural, like something a human would actually say. If Google thinks your keyword density is too high, it’s going to start counting that against you.
I mentioned the Rank Math plugin earlier. You can also check out Yoast or All-in-One SEO. These plugins offer similar features, just implemented differently. Most of them should give you an “SEO score” for the content on your page. You indicate what keywords you want to rank for and it will return some suggestions and grade you on how well you use those keywords throughout your site. Some plugins will even flag you down if it looks like you’re keyword stuffing.
Now, most small business websites don’t need to be very complex and include much content at all. Courtney’s Carolers has a home page an, “About Us” page, and a booking information page. That’s about it.
They don’t have a huge digital footprint and there’s not a lot of space for them to include keywords without it getting repetitive, unhelpful, overly thick and stuffy. What’s a Victorian Caroler to do?
I know I don’t like blogging either. I left all of that behind in college when Xanga got shut down.
Who’s got the time? What are you going to say? Who even cares? I mean, they’re not even finding me online to know who I am to care about what I say on my blog….
We’re getting this all wrong.
A blog can actually be the main gateway into your site. At a university I worked with, one of their most trafficked web pages — second only to the home page — is a blog article that answers the question, “What should I major in if I don’t know what I want to do after high school?” When a confused teenager hits up Google for some life advice, the school gets all of that traffic.
Courtney might consider writing an article about “How to throw a COVID-safe Christmas party,” or recipes, or decorating ideas for a Victorian themed Christmas party. Or maybe even “Who is King Wenceslas?”
What sort of questions can you answer that are related to your industry? Make sure it makes sense. If you’re a daycare center, you probably don’t want to do smartphone reviews, but you might write an article about smartphone apps for parents of young children. Note: Most of the traffic isn’t going to consider doing business with you… but you never know.
Blogging and other content development helps you build momentum. As you blog and you add more posts and articles and content, your digital footprint grows. Over time, you may find where you were once a small fish in a very competitive sea, and you wouldn’t stand a chance for ranking highly for your main desired keywords, but now that you’re starting to get traffic for related keywords and topics, Google is going to start nudging you a little bit higher and give you a better chance at ranking for your business related keywords.
Good, interesting content might also give you a backlink benefit.
Someone might never linked to courtneysecarolers.com to promote their services, but they might link to their “Victorian Christmas party playlist” that they posted, and when that happens, they start to share some of their domain authority.
Ideally, backlinks are established organically. People just love the site so much, they want to share it and send more people in your direction. But you can do some proactive outreach and PR to speed things along. If you’re a member of a church, or a meetup group, or a Chamber of Commerce, or you have connections with people who run other websites. Maybe you have an employee who has a blog or you serve other businesses. In the case of Courtney’s Carolers, I recommended that she reach out to people who hired her in the past, and see if anyone would consider posting an event recap on their website that includes a link back to her business site.
There’s a bunch of different ways you can approach this. It’s a little bit of work, but it’s worth it… unless it’s not.
Is SEO right for you?
And that brings us all back to where we started. SEO is not the only way to be found. I think it’s worth at least a little bit of time to learn the basics of SEO to make sure you’re not doing anything that’s actually going to hurt you, but you might decide you don’t want to go too much further than the bare minimum, and that’s perfectly okay.
It might be a lot easier and ultimately more cost effective to spend some money on Facebook or Google ads and buy some eyeballs for your website. Take that lead generator that we worked on together in my previous walkthrough and put a little bit of money behind that. That will very likely get qualified traffic to your site a lot faster than blogging about figgy pudding. Heck, hire a sign spinner, or call the guys at Brerro and they’ll help you design a marketing and sales strategy that is custom tailored to your business.
But before I take a ginormous topic like SEO and turn it into an even more giga-ginormous topic like marketing in general, I’ll leave it there.
I just wanted to introduce and demystify the core tenets of SEO and give you some action steps to consider. At Self-Employment Sidekick, we really want to help businesses thrive. I don’t want people to have to just flounder around, second guessing if they’re doing the right thing or not. I want them to get the support they need so they can move their businesses forward or take those first steps to get it off the ground and start living a life of passion and purpose.
Originally published at https://selfemploymentsidekick.com on January 4, 2022.