Brett Farmiloe, June 11, 2021
SEO (search engine optimization) isn’t reserved just for big companies with authoritative websites.
Using best practices, small companies and local businesses can follow simple steps to increase their visibility online. This getting started guide introduces best practices and provides small businesses with a checklist to follow to put their best foot forward online.
In particular, this guide will cover:
One of the most stressful things in running a small business is thinking about how to generate a steady stream of customers and cash flow.
SEO can help solve that problem for business owners. By ranking for keywords that customers are searching for every month, a website can drive a repeatable and predictable flow of inbound traffic from search engines and convert that traffic into leads and sales.
While a successful SEO campaign can help a small business achieve sustainability, it’s not easy.
Search engine algorithms have become increasingly sophisticated and smart, making “gaming the system” an obsolete marketing strategy. There are more marketing agencies than coffee shops within a few mile radii of most offices, making knowing who to trust for SEO very difficult. Plus, with a steady stream of subject lines like “We will get your website to rank on page one” or “$99 / month SEO services,” there’s a lot of noise and misinformation for a busy small business owner to sift through.
That’s why getting educated about SEO is a great place to get started.
The answer to “What is SEO?” can be broken down into three central categories: Content, Digital PR, and Technical SEO.
Content are web pages that target keywords to increase inbound traffic and produce outcomes like leads or sales.
Digital PR helps increase the authority of a website so that content outranks competitors. Technical SEO helps search engines easily discover, understand, and index the content on a website.
When all three elements come together, SEO campaigns can generally be successful.
The purpose of SEO content is to increase visibility for keywords that will drive inbound traffic to a small business website.
There are many ways to utilize content to increase organic traffic. Some of the types of SEO content that a small business can focus on to improve their performance include:
Blog posts are articles that address customer needs in an informative way.
Good blog content may answer a frequently asked question that customers have or target a keyword that describes the problem you are looking to solve for a customer.
For example, a software company that helps customers better manage their email inbox may target a customer FAQ like “How do I stop spam emails?” They may also target a keyword like “best productivity tools for small businesses” through a blog post to develop awareness for their software.
Action Item: Identify customer FAQs and think about creating blog posts around them. Chances are, if your customers have these questions, more people are searching for answers to those same questions online.
Landing pages are dedicated pieces of content that describe the mainstays of a business.
Services are great examples of landing page content. Some small businesses may decide to list all of their services as bullet points on a home page. Instead, creating a landing page for each service may help search engines determine that your website content is a better match for a customer’s search query.
For example, if you are a pest control company, you may decide to create dedicated landing pages for key services like pest control, rodent control, termite services, and so on. By having a landing page for each service, a website can make it easier for customers to discover information about a particular area of need they have. Search engines also recognize that these pages may better satisfy a search query.
Action Item: Evaluate how services are displayed on your website and think about whether a dedicated landing page may make sense.
Product pages are where your products or services are listed for sale on a website.
Many websites make the mistake of putting minimal information on these product pages. For example, if a website sells nuts and bolts, a product description may simply list something like, “¼ x 6 screw.”
Instead, writing an in-depth product description can help a product page rank for multiple secondary keywords and a primary keyword. The nuts and bolts website can share information about the screw type, screw material, and much more to better describe a product.
Action Item: Search for your type of products on Amazon. Review a few of the product listings, and note the information displayed on the product pages. Then, seek to refresh your product pages with complete information to fill in the blanks for customers and search engines.
Page title tags and meta descriptions are the content displayed about a URL on a search result page.
In other words, it’s the content that inspires a potential customer to click on a search result, and it’s the information that a search engine uses to understand how to display the content.
Overlooking page title tags and meta descriptions is a common mistake for small business websites. Some small business sites may leave the title tag of their home page as the word “Home” or may have the same title tag on every page of their site.
These page title tags and meta descriptions are opportunities to better describe your content to customers and search engines alike.
Action Item: Audit your page title tags and meta descriptions. If you use WordPress, the Yoast SEO plugin offers an intuitive way to view and edit page title tags and meta descriptions on each page of a site. Make sure that the page title tag accurately reflects the contents of a webpage and stays within the character display parameters of a search engine.
Google My Business offers a free profile to help a business be discovered in places like Maps and Search. For searches looking for local businesses, such as “Mexican restaurant” or “credit repair,” a searcher will typically see localized results of businesses nearby.
Google is unusually transparent when it comes to how to improve your local ranking on Google. They provide small businesses with how ranking is determined, which includes Relevance, Distance, and Prominence.
To improve local ranking, small businesses can create content on their Google My Business profile to help their business be seen as more relevant and prominent for searches related to their services.
Digital PR can help a small business increase its website’s prominence to outrank competitors for target keywords.
Google defines prominence as “how well known a business is.” Prominence is based on information that Google collects about a business, like links and mentions in articles or directories.
There are a few ways that small businesses can seek to increase their prominence online. Here are digital PR strategies for small businesses:
Reverse engineering takes a look at where competitors are getting backlinks from and seeks to replicate their success.
This strategy is especially useful when examining the backlink profiles for multiple competitors and comparing their links to your website. Often, the commonalities of competitor backlinks will present a relevant directory or niche website as high-value backlink and placement opportunities.
Action Item: Use a paid SEO tool like Ahrefs Link Intersect tool to identify commonalities in competitor backlink profiles.
Skyscraping content describes the SEO strategy of identifying weak content and making it better.
The process involves searching for an older piece of content that ranks well for a target keyword. Ideally, many authoritative or relevant websites link to this outdated content. The idea is to create a better piece of content, notify all the websites linking to the old content, and hope they update their link to your new, more valuable piece of content.
This technique is commonly used by many SEO agencies and requires quite a bit of work. However, when done right, this can be an effective approach to boosting prominence.
Action item: Search for outdated resources online that are relevant to your industry. Consider whether it would be worth the time and investment to engage in a skyscraper strategy by evaluating the sites that link to the existing piece of content.
Sharing your expertise online can be a great way to promote your business and build authority.
Action Item: Sign up for a service to receive queries. Answer questions and get published to help build links and awareness to your business.
While most digital PR strategies are external, there are some excellent opportunities to boost online authority within your own website.
Internal links are when a page on your website links to another page on your website. For example, a blog post may include a link within the content to another helpful and relevant blog post. Or, an important page may be included as a dropdown item within the site navigation.
These internal links can be signals to search engines that these pages are “important.” They can also be used to help search engines discover and crawl the most relevant pages on your website.
Action Item: Review the content on your website to see if there are opportunities to link to other pieces of content on your website. If you are looking for a paid SEO tool to assist, Ahrefs has an internal linking audit feature.
While generating reviews can sometimes feel tedious or awkward, the benefits of honest reviews from real customers are valuable to both search engines and prospects. There are many ways to get more reviews organically, including personal requests and adding a reviews landing page to your website.
Action Item: Pick a few tactics to generate real reviews, and incorporate the most effective tactics into an ongoing customer communications strategy.
Technical SEO helps search engines understand and index the content of your website.
While technical SEO can be quite hard for a small business owner to fully understand and grasp, there are a few areas that are sufficient to focus on for most websites.
Key components of technical SEO include:
There’s nothing more frustrating for a website visitor than a slow loading page.
That’s why site speed and website performance is so important. The ability to quickly access information not only impacts customer experience, but it also impacts a search engine’s ability to crawl content.
There are several tools that measure site speed, and it is useful to use them all to gain different perspectives on how to improve a site’s performance. Google Page Speed is perhaps the most important and most frustrating of the lab-based tools. GTMetrix and WebPageTest are two other tools that offer free site speed evaluations.
Action Item: Run a page speed test to see what issues are slowing down site performance.
The most important thing in technical SEO is making sure a site is included in a search engine’s index.
The robots.txt file is the first place to check for indexing issues. A robots.txt file tells search engines what can or can’t be crawled and indexed. Sometimes, a website may mistakenly tell search engines that nothing can be crawled on the site, which may entirely exclude the website from search results.
Submitting a sitemap to search engines is another way to ensure content is discovered and indexed. While there are other indexing issues like canonical tags or noindex tags that can block search engines, the robots.txt and sitemap are the main areas to audit.
Images add a way to visually discover and understand information on a website. But with issues like broken images, large sizes, HTTPS pages with HTTP images, and missing ALT text, images can also detract from website performance.
Google Images best practices guide offers some tips ranging from optimizing images for speed to using descriptive ALT text. It’s important to review best practices and then audit a website for images that may not meet those standards to ensure optimal performance.
Action Item: Audit image file sizes and ALT tags to make sure images are optimized for the web.
Error codes like “404 - Not Found” and “504 - Gateway Timeout” indicate problems on internal pages.
Broken links and server issues are common on small business websites. Leaving these issues unaddressed can result in a poor customer experience and decreases in organic search traffic.
Action Item: Review Google Search Console’s Index Coverage report to fix errors that Google detects.
To get some clarity on how your website performs, Google Search Console’s Core Web Vitals report provides field data on which URLs are good, need improvement, or have poor performance.
Action Item: Review Google’s Core Web Vitals report and consult with a web developer on how to pass the Core Web Vitals assessment.
Yes, the ultimate measurement of SEO success is “leads” for B2B businesses and “sales” for B2C companies.
But, SEO takes time. In fact, Google says that SEO can take 4 to 12 months to implement improvements and see a potential benefit. How can a small business know if an SEO campaign is successful before the leads and sales start trickling in?
There are a few critical SEO KPIs, or key performance indicators, that provide insight into SEO performance.
Here are five SEO metrics to monitor monthly besides leads and sales:
Organic keywords are a metric that measures the number of keywords or phrases that rank in the top 100 search results.
This metric is an indicator of future success. By seeing an increase in organic keywords, a small business will likely see an increase in organic traffic and leads as these keywords rise in search results.
For example, let’s say that your small business ranks in the top 100 search results for 100 keywords at the start of an SEO campaign. After some diligent content creation and optimization efforts, let’s assume that your small business ranks in the top 100 search results for 500 keywords at the end of month four of an SEO campaign.
Even if website traffic has stayed the same, the rise in organic keywords indicates that the small business will increase their organic search traffic and leads as these keywords mature and rank more prominently.
You want a website that is as error-free as possible. Website health score is a metric that lets you know how many URLs have “issues” that may prevent search engines from easily crawling and understanding the content on your website.
There are over 100 SEO issues that factor into website health. Common issues can include slow web pages, non-optimal HTML tags like title tags, meta descriptions, and heading tags, as well as content quality issues like duplicate content or low word counts.
Monitoring website health captures the resolution of existing issues and can help detect new issues that may arise with additional website activities.
Crawl errors in Google Search Console are one place to detect issues that Google has found on your website. In addition, several SEO tools offer site audits that can run scheduled crawls to proactively address issues before search engines detect them.
A referring domain is when one website links to another website. By following these links, search engines can obtain a good understanding of what a website is about without ever visiting a website.
Google says that “prominence” is a ranking factor in search results. Prominence is determined by the information Google has about a business, including links, articles, and directories.
By measuring referring domains, a business owner is effectively looking to measure the prominence of their website. Generally speaking, the more prominent a website is in their business category, the more Google may consider the website to be the best match for a search query.
The links report in Google Search Console is one way to stay on top of referring domains to a website. Business owners can also measure referring domains and view graphs to determine trends through various SEO tools.
Ultimately, a website needs traffic to convert to leads or sales. The more qualified web traffic a site receives, the more likely that leads or sales will increase.
Google Analytics and Google Search Console provide an analysis of organic search traffic. These tools can offer insights about the sources of organic traffic, as well as comparison tools that enable a small business to determine increases month over month and year over year.
Regardless of the tool, measuring organic traffic on a month to month, quarter to quarter, and year over year basis can lend some significant insights into SEO performance.
Traffic value is the equivalent monthly cost of traffic from all keywords that a website ranks for. In other words, if you were to pay for every organic visit, what would that traffic be worth?
Not all organic search traffic is of equal value. For example, a keyword like “personal injury lawyer seattle” may command a cost per click of $150 through Google Ads because of the likelihood that someone who clicks the ad will convert to a client. Advertisers are willing to pay a premium for this traffic because of the high likelihood that traffic will convert, versus a keyword like “pro bono lawyer,” which may have less advertiser interest and therefore carry a lower cost per click.
That’s why measuring traffic value is a significant SEO metric. Attaching a dollar sign to web traffic adds additional perspective beyond “visits” and can help illustrate how likely web traffic will convert to a lead or customer.
Ahrefs Site Explorer is a paid SEO tool that quantifies traffic value. Alternatively, placing a request with a SEO company to pull traffic value for a website can equip a small business with this information as well.
Whether you want to do SEO yourself, outsource SEO to an agency, or hire someone internally, there are several immediate things you can do right now to improve your presence.
Before starting an SEO campaign, it is important to prioritize issues that need to be addressed. An SEO audit can help a small business identify issues on their website and help shape a strategy depending on how a site ranks in comparison to competitors.
Screaming Frog is a tool that offers technical recommendations and analysis for a small business website. There are also some helpful DIY SEO audit checklists and sites that offer a free SEO audit to help you get started.
Keyword research is the starting point for a SEO campaign. The right keywords can get your business in front of the right audience at the right time.
As a small business, selecting long-tail keywords typically provides better ranking opportunities and has higher conversions. Rather than targeting a generic keyword like “life insurance,” a long-tail keyword may be “life insurance for diabetics” or “life insurance for women.”
These long-tail keywords have less competition from larger companies but still have significant search volumes to drive traffic. Plus, these keywords have a high cost per click, which can signify a high conversion rate.
Selecting the right keywords starts with a series of questions like:
Who are my best customers?
What keywords do we currently rank for?
What keywords do our competitors target?
Which keywords have search volume, low difficulty, and a high cost per click?
Google Keyword Planner is a free tool that can assist with selecting the right terms. Google Trends can also be an interesting keyword brainstorming buddy. No matter what keyword research tool you utilize, make sure that the keywords target the right customers.
Once keyword research has been completed, it’s time to develop a SEO content strategy.
An SEO content strategy defines what pieces of content you will create to target the keywords that make sense for your business. A good strategy should define the content type, the content creator, and the content creation date.
For example, the keyword “life insurance for smokers” may call for a long-form blog post that answers all FAQs smokers have about life insurance. This blog post may be outsourced to a freelance writer and should be created within four weeks.
Defining content types, content creators, and content dates can help put a plan in motion. Build out the content strategy in a project management tool or within a spreadsheet to help keep things organized.
It’s not enough to just publish great content. Each piece of content needs a promotion strategy to help give the content some momentum.
Once the content strategy is created, develop a few standard steps that you’ll take with each piece of content. Will you share on your LinkedIn company page? Send an article out in a company newsletter? Interlink relevant pages and post to the new content piece?
Brainstorm multiple ways to put your content in front of target customers. Try out tactics, see what works, and then alter your promotion strategy so that each piece of content increases its chances of success.
Each piece of content needs a solid foundation to stand on. Fixing technical issues on a website ensures that search engines can crawl, discover, and properly index the content on your website.
Using the insights discovered in “Step 1: Conduct a SEO audit,” take action and fix some of the key issues impacting the site. For more technical issues, especially web development issues that fall into Google’s Core Web Vitals update, consider outsourcing technical fixes to a web developer.
Relevance, Distance, and Prominence. Improving local ranking on Google starts with these three factors.
Relevance is the easiest and most actionable factor that small businesses can focus on. Simply fill out all profile information on a Google My Business profile, including information about services, business description, and more.
By sharing relevant information about your business, Google can better match your business to customer queries made on a local level.
Now for the hardest part: doing it and taking action!
It’s important to understand that SEO is a long-term investment for a small business. Success won’t come overnight. Assigning a dedicated owner of SEO initiatives and due dates to deliverables are important to ensure progress is being made.
Follow the items on this checklist, and the result may be a website that helps drive sustainable and predictable leads to help you grow your business.
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