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The No-Brainer Guide to Small Business SEO

Computer over a graph shimmering for No-Brainer Guide to Small Business SEO

A few concrete, easy-to-follow steps for making your business discoverable online.  

When you’re a small business owner, figuring out how to build your SEO can be tricky. If you ask around, you’re sure to get a two types of “expert advice” on small business SEO:

It’s simple! Just change some text in your headlines, decide on a few keywords, start a blog, and you’ll be rolling in web traffic. Seriously! It really is that easy—anyone can do it! Anyone!

It’s impossibly complicated. You have to have immense technical knowledge, know how to code, pay for expensive software, post a new blog entry a day, and tirelessly optimize every web page until you’ve made the Google crawlers happy.

Somehow, neither and both are true.

If you want the backbone of your business’ marketing strategy to be search engine optimization—if you want to rank for a long list of highly trafficked terms, and you expect your primary customer-driver to be search—then yes, really mastering SEO will take some time and expertise.

But if you just want to make sure your target market can find your brand amidst the noise—you can give your traffic a boost just by doing a few key things right.

Here are some SEO low-hanging fruit opportunities every business owner should take advantage of.

First, in layman’s terms, what is SEO and what are your primary rankings factors?

SEO stands for search engine optimization and is a general umbrella term to describe “actions you take to make sure your website shows up in search engines.”

Google has a long list of ranking factors, and the internet has had a long history of “trying to figure out what they are.” Exactly what needs to be prioritized changes with every update. But generally, we divide “optimizing your website for search” into three different categories:

On-page SEOThese are the things you can do on your website itself to make it more credible and more relevant for your users—and for Google. It involves making sure the “terms people search for” appear prominently on your pages, and making sure when people come to a page they find what they’re looking for. It also involves the structure of your site, and how easy it is to navigate. Plus, how much text your site has that Google can index and understand.  
Off -page SEOWhen websites get a lot of traffic—especially traffic pointed their way from other trusted websites—search engines decide: “Oh. That site must be important.” Off-page SEO is sometimes reduced to “link building”—which translates to tactics “tactics you take to encourage other websites to add links back to your site.” But there’s a lot more more to off-page SEO than just link building. Content shares and brand mentions also contribute.  
Technical SEOThere are some “back end” site and server optimizations your website can take to make it easier for search engine spiders to crawl. Your site’s load speed, security, and friendliness on mobile are the big factors here that normally get fixed first. Duplicate content, XML sitemaps, and reducing redirects also fall under this category.

Second, some basics: Here are things you can do in an afternoon that may move the needle.

1. Check your listing with Moz Local and fill in any blanks.

By some estimates, online reviews make up over 15% of your local search engine ranking. And existing on trusted review sites and directories, that may point your website a decent bit of traffic, should be an SEO no-brainer.

Moz Local offers a free tool that breaks down and scores your business based on its presence on those pivotal sites and directories. It will tell you where you lack a presence, where there elements of your listing missing, and where you have your bases covered.

One of the easiest things you can do to improve your rankings is to work out a plan to “fill-in-the-blanks.” Make sure on your site, and on these platforms, your NAP (Name, Address, Phone number) are prominent. On Yelp, that’s as simple as adding your business and claiming your page.

Bonus points: check out this list of 57 local directories, and work to get your business on wherever appropriate.

2. Set up (and utilize) your social media profiles:

There are a few right and wrong ways to use social, and there are a few misconceptions about how social media influences search engine rankings.

It’s not extremely likely that social media is a ranking factor, in and of itself. But it does serve as a very legitimate way to fuel activities that are. A few reasons you should be established on major social networks:

  • Social media is largely driven by link-sharing. If you have content you want to share with your audience, posting it (and potentially, paying to promote it) on social is a good start. If it gets shared—your site gets traffic, links get circulated, and Google is happy.
  • Similarly, existing on social can prompt a greater frequency of “brand mentions.” Increased brand mention changes the way search engines “think of you”—and that influences what terms you rank for, and how you rank for them.
  • Social media profiles rank by themselves in search results. Social platforms are high-authority pages. If someone searches your business name, they’ll likely see your website, and then your social pages. It’s a far better first impression if the people searching for you see a well-established Facebook or LinkedIn page, then a results page of unrelated (or competitor) pages.
  • Social media sites are now also search engines. Increasingly, users are searching for local businesses and events via their social platforms.

Having a robust, engaged, social media presence can help move the needle for your digital marketing strategy, but establishing that takes time. Having your social platforms set up, with photos, a few relevant updates, your open hours, and a quick “about”—takes an afternoon. And even that undertaking yields some measurable benefits.

3. Make a plan to get discussed online:

When all things go well: people are talking about your business. They should also be discussing it online. And when they’re discussing it online—they should be linking to your website. A few ways to facilitate this

  • Set up Google Alerts for your brand name to get notified of when you’re discussed on the web. If your mentioned by a site, you’ll get an email. If you get an email, and notice that your brand mention isn’t linked, follow up with the publisher, and request an addition. This builds a “backlink” and gives your site search-engine credibility.

If you can manage it, request the publisher change the “anchor text” (the words themselves that get linked) to include the location of your business. If they’re mention you as “Pete’s Hot Dogs in Cincinnati,” and that link gets traffic, you’re more likely to rank for “Hot Dogs in Cincinnati.”

  • Look for earned media opportunities. In the digital age, press releases are still a solid way to get the word out. Anytime something of note happens in the world of your business, getting it written about, and getting it written about online, should be a high priority. Try pitching your story on HARO (Help a Reporter Out)—or take down a list of journalists who cover local stories like yours.
  • If event marketing or sponsorship is already a part of your strategy make sure to include link-building opportunities in your agreement. Essentially, if you’re involved with anything—an event, a market, a pop-up, a conference—that has a website, that website should be pointing to your business.

Third, a stronger foundation: Where you should go next if you want SEO to really propel your business forward.

1. Do some substantive keyword research.

There are a lot of tools and tricks for doing keyword research—but your goals are essentially the same. You want to end up with a list of:

  • What your target customer is searching for online
  • How much volume each keyword grouping gets
  • How difficult or easy it is to “rank” for those keywords and absorb some of that traffic.

A good place to start for most small businesses is to focus on ranking for “business type in town” and “business type near me” searches. But if you’re going to expand your business, or expand the role of SEO in your business—it may be in your best interest to get a more comprehensive view of what keywords will bring you relevant web visitors.

2. Build a blog and start posting “lowest hanging fruit” content

Once you have a series of keywords that you know have potential to bring in traffic: start looking into the intersection between “what people are searching” and “what content would solve their questions.”

If you’re a “Coffee Shop in St Louis”—maybe people want to know about “the best coffee shops in St Louis to work in.” If you’re an auto mechanic in Tallahassee, maybe people want to know “how often to get their emissions tested in Florida.”

Looking back at your keyword research, the best content will be:

  • Hyper relevant to what your audience is looking to know
  • Interesting and engaging to read
  • Something you can answer better, or more clearly, than existing articles
  • Demonstrative of your expertise

The important thing to note, as you build your content strategy, is that you’re using research from search data, but designing content primarily for readers.

3. Optimize the pages on your site that do get traffic.

Once you have an understanding of which terms are important to rank for, and what content you can create to get you closer to the top results—there are some subtle, on-page tactics you can take to better your odds.

  • Optimize your headlines/H1: Search engines are smart, and there’s no need to match the “exact keyword” you’re hoping to rank for. But having it “as close as possible” in your headline, and as close to the beginning of your headline, could substantially help your rankings.
  • Optimize your subhead/section headlines: Search engines tend to prioritize the text of subheads and section headlines (usually H2s – H3s) over your paragraph text, as they try to get a grasp of “what a page is about.”
  • Optimize your meta descriptions: Your description is the paragraph text after your headline that comes up in search underneath your headline. This text doesn’t technically affect your rankings, but it does affect what gets clicked on by searchers. And that traffic matters.
  • Add meta-descriptions to your images: Search engines can’t scan an infographic and know what that infographic is about. But most CMS (like WordPress) have plugins that allow you to give those images written descriptions for search engines to log and note.
  • Promote your page: When your page gets visits, shares, link backs, and a higher average time-on-page: search engines consider it to be more important. If there’s an article or promotion that tends to be performing well, paying to promote it with digital ads might give it the boost it needs to make the top of the rankings.

Summing it up: small business SEO

As digital pathways become more and more of a customers path-to-purchase, digital marketing becomes more of a small business owner’s priority. Making sure your business is discoverable online can be a real difference maker for its success.

When it comes to search engine optimization, a little effort can go a long way. And a more substantive effort, can be a huge growth opportunity for your small business.