earch engine optimization, or SEO, is the process of optimizing your website's content to improve visibility in search engine (i.e., Google, Bing, or Yahoo) results. It's one of the most effective methods for enabling your customers to find your business online without spending money on ads.
Most people often click on one of the top 5 search engine results. Include SEO in your business marketing and growth strategy to drive brand awareness, traffic, and inbound leads for a fraction of what it would cost to run ads.
Even with minimal experience, you can develop an SEO strategy for your small business. Whether you already have a website or are creating one for the first time, read along for the following tried-and-true SEO tips for small businesses.
While not all of the tactics listed below may apply to your business, this article provides a starting point and outlines several SEO fundamentals.
1. Understand how your customers search
First, it's crucial to know how your target customers search online. What keywords or phrases are they typing into search engines? What problems are they facing that could lead them to your business? If you're a hairdresser, people might primarily search for localized recommendations like "hairdresser near me." If you're an e-commerce merchant, your customers might search for terms like "women's dress pants," "blue men's fleece pullover," etc. Knowing what they're searching for is the first step in developing a robust SEO strategy.
Here are some starter questions to ask yourself when determining customer search intent:
- What problem is the customer trying to solve?
- Are they looking for information, or are they looking to make a purchase decision?
- Are they searching for local results, or does location not matter?
- Are they looking for reviews or comparisons?
- What kind of content are they looking for – long-form content, images, or video?
- Are they looking for content on a specific subject, or are they interested in broader, industry-related content?
Asking yourself these questions will help solidify your SEO strategy by providing better insight into your target customer's behavior.
Look at your competitors to see what SEO strategies they use. What phrases or keywords are they targeting? You can do some light competitive research by simply typing in your business offering (for example, "marketing consulting services los angeles") and seeing what comes up first. Alternatively, you can use a free tool like Moz to analyze competitors.
2. Conduct keyword research
A keyword is a word or phrase your target audience uses to search for relevant topics. Keyword research gives you insight into what your customers are searching for and is a precursor to creating relevant content! Keyword research melds art and science – first, you'll think creatively to develop a list of base topics related to your business offering. Then, you'll need to utilize keyword research tools to analyze whether those keyword opportunities are worth pursuing.
Free vs. paid keyword tools
You can use a free keyword tool like Keyword Surfer, a Chrome extension that shows local and global search volumes in their database.
This is Ahrefs’s pricing plan:
This is Moz’s pricing plan:
When using any keyword research tool, you'll need to enter your seed keywords (which are the base topics you brainstorm before moving on to research) to find related keywords you can target. Depending on your tool, you'll get a host of information about related keywords, including monthly search volume, keyword difficulty, estimated traffic, and competitor rankings.
Determining keyword search intent
Google aims to show the most relevant results based on its assessment of user search intent, so look at the SERPs to determine whether targeting a given keyword makes sense for your business. For example, someone searching for "golf shoes" is likely looking to purchase golf shoes. Writing an article on the evolution of golf shoes will probably not rank highly for "golf shoes," no matter how well you optimize the page.
Terms to know
Keyword search volume is a valuable metric in search engine optimization (SEO) and refers to the number of times a specific keyword is searched for in a given time frame.
Keyword difficulty (also known as "SEO difficulty" or "keyword competition") is an assessment of how difficult it is to rank for a specific term in the SERPs.
Both metrics are typically provided by your SEO tool but can vary from tool to tool.
3. Create quality content
Before implementing other, more technical strategies, be sure to maintain a high standard for content quality. Visitors will turn away from your website if they don't find what they're looking for and potentially lose trust in your business. Develop relevant, valuable information for your visitors, and they'll be more likely to convert into customers.
Here are some guidelines to help you improve the user experience:
- Create relevant content that aligns with the keywords and headlines on a page. Customers will be annoyed and detect clickbait if you don't answer the question they're looking for.
- Appeal to your target audience. Put yourself in your potential customer's shoes and understand their interests.
- Include rich media, such as photos, audio, and video, to help round out your content and make it more engaging.
- Include original, informative content. Don't just copy and paste from other sources. For example, if you have access to an expert source, you may want to include a quote to differentiate yourself from the competition and provide a unique perspective.
Use keywords – the right way
After generating a list of keywords using some keyword research tools (listed in the next section), distribute them into your content. Use a mix of:
- Primary keywords, or keywords directly explaining your offering. For example, "marketing courses."
- Secondary keywords, or keywords that support your primary keyword. For example, "online marketing courses for beginners."
Use the following best practices to optimize your website for organic search:
- Target one main keyword per page.
- Avoid using the same main keyword for multiple pages on your website.
- Use the target keyword in your header, subheadings, URL, first paragraph, and throughout the text.
- Use secondary keywords throughout your content.
- Experiment with long-tail keywords (longer phrases that generate lower search volume but can be highly successful, such as "how to do marketing for a small business").
- Avoid keyword stuffing, which means filling your content with keywords to the point that it sounds unnatural. Not only does keyword stuffing undermine the credibility of your content, but it is likely to hurt your SEO as it's frowned upon by Google.
Lastly, make sure you are regularly reviewing and updating your site's content. The internet and your customers' needs are constantly changing, so keeping things fresh will help maintain and improve your rankings.
4. Optimize your website for on-page SEO
As you get further along in your SEO research, you'll probably hear the terms "on-page" and "off-page" SEO.
On-page SEO refers to the optimization of your site's content. In contrast, off-page SEO refers to SEO activities you pursue that happen "off" your website – this could be backlinks, directory listings, or social media content. We'll cover those in the next few sections. Here are some key on-page SEO strategies:
Write title tags and meta descriptions
Title tags define the name of your webpage and are one of the most prominent features of your SERP results. They don't always need to match the main header on your page. Ideally, your title tag is between 50 and 60 characters. Important keywords should come first to catch the attention of organic searchers.
Meta descriptions are snippets of descriptive text (under your page's title in the SERP) that draw in the searcher. While they may not directly help your pages climb the ranks, they can help convince would-be visitors to click through to your website. You can include keywords, but focus on writing a compelling and accurate description.
It's important to note that Google often chooses its own meta description, but writing a meta description can help provide Google with useful context about your web page – especially for your most important SEO pages!
Headings and subheadings
Your content's headings and subheadings should be clear and match the keywords your customers most often use in searches. However, they should be natural sounding and written for humans – not robots!
Content organization and formatting
Make sure your website's content is organized in a clear, easy-to-follow way. Keep formatting consistent across pages, and confirm that your site works well on both desktop and mobile.
Optimize internal linking strategy
Linking within your website allows visitors and search engines to find other important pages. Internal links, when done well, can keep users on your site by encouraging them to click through to additional pages. Be sure that your anchor text (the hyperlinked text users click on) is enticing and relevant to the target page.
User-friendly website structure
If you structure your website in a way that isn't easy for visitors to navigate or for search engine bots to crawl, you risk losing your audience. Make your navigation intuitive with well-defined hierarchies. Consider using breadcrumbs and tables of contents to further improve the navigation experience.
5. Build backlinks
External backlinks are links from one website links to another. Building high-quality backlinks will help improve your site's SEO and credibility, encouraging search engines and other website owners to point to your page.
Receiving high-quality, natural backlinks from reputable websites helps signal to search engines that your website is an authoritative source on a particular topic. It's important to note that obtaining backlinks in an unethical way (such as buying links or trying to game the algorithm) is against Google's guidelines and can lead to penalties for your site. Backlink building is not an easy process, but getting solid backlinks has shown to pay off.
Five strategies for acquiring backlinks
1. Reach out to relevant websites
Pitching your content to other blogs may be a time-intensive strategy but can pay off in the long run. Curate a list of people and websites that publish content related to your business, and reach out on social media or use a tool like hunter.io to find their email addresses. Pitch a great content piece of yours, and ask if they're willing to link back to your source – ideally, you have a page of theirs you want them to link from.
2. Broken link building
A broken link is a link whose content can no longer be accessed. If you notice that one of your competitors has a broken link, reach out to sites that link to the competitor and offer your content piece as an alternative. You can use tools like Semrush or Ahrefs to uncover broken links across the web.
3. Create great content
Having top-notch content on your website increases the likelihood of other publications finding and linking to your content. It takes work and talent to create content, so either invest your time or hire someone to help. Take the time to experiment with various types of content to see what generates the best response – blog posts, videos, and interactive quizzes are just some examples.
4. Guest blogging
Guest blogging, or writing an article for another website, is another great way to increase backlinks to your website. But use caution here and only work with reputable, relevant sites. Otherwise, this could come across as spammy.
To get started on the guest blogging journey, make a list of websites that accept guest blogs, or take your chances and offer to submit a post to a website you're itching to get on. In the blog post or the byline, you'll link to a relevant resource on your site to help drive traffic and website authority.
Find sites that accept contributor content by running a search on Google. Write the topic keyword plus "write for us," "contributor," or "guest article" (make sure to include the quotes) afterward. For example, homemade pasta + "write for us."
6. Improve Site Performance
Another way to boost SEO is by improving your site performance and adhering to technical best practices. A laggy site with a poor user experience can negatively affect your website's SEO.
Improve site speed
Page speed is a ranking factor and can affect your website's ability to gain organic traffic. The faster your website's load time, the more likely visitors will stick around and the more likely online search engines will rank it highly.
Ways you can improve your website speed include:
- Compress images.
- Remove unnecessary elements in CSS.
You can do many of these things yourself. For instance, website plugins can help you compress images so they'll load faster. The same goes for cleaning up elements in CSS.
Core Web Vitals
To improve your site's overall performance, you should evaluate your Core Web Vitals report. Core Web Vitals are three metrics that quantify user experience. Core Web Vitals measure how quickly a page is visible (LCP), how long it takes before a user can interact with the page (FID), and the visual stability of the elements on the page (CLS).
These metrics help web developers provide a top-tier user experience. As a result, web users are more satisfied, more likely to return, and more likely to recommend your website to others. On the other hand, if your page is slow, unstable, or cluttered with popups, users will hesitate to return.
Google offers a free SEO Core Web Vitals Report – you'll just need to ensure that your website's Google Search Console is set up. This tool will lay out any issues it finds, providing you with insight into what to improve. Consider hiring technical SEO help to navigate these issues and assist with resolution.
Design for mobile
As of November 2022, 60% of web traffic comes from mobile devices. Google employs a mobile-first indexing approach, which means that it uses the mobile version of your site as the starting point for understanding and ranking your content.
This step may be beyond your technical skills, but it doesn't need to break your budget. You can purchase a template optimized for mobile or hire a designer to help.
7. Leverage local SEO
In a nutshell, local SEO helps your business rank for localized search results. If you run a location-specific or brick-and-mortar business, customers might find you when searching for companies in their area. Here are some simple ways to leverage local SEO:
- Set up a Google Business listing so your business appears in local searches. Include your contact details, and make sure to keep this page up-to-date.
- Ensure your business name, address, and contact details are consistent across online directories (Yelp, MapQuest, Google Business, etc.)
- Add your business website to relevant online business directories.
- Link to your website from all your social media profiles.
- Include your business address in your website footer.
- Encourage customer reviews.
- Use local keywords on your website. Local keywords contain geo-specific phrases that generate localized results.
- Get backlinks from location-specific websites or web pages.
8. Leverage social media
Many industry experts have debated whether social media marketing can boost search engine rankings. The consensus is that while direct links from social media channels don't help you rank better (otherwise, it would be too easy to game the system!), they give your site a more "human touch."
What that means: Google knows that your content is being viewed and shared by real people and that you're creating content that people like.
SEO benefits of using social media
Aim for virality. You can go viral through infographics, video content, or memes related to your content. Getting your content to go viral has many SEO-related benefits, including:
- More eyeballs on your content.
- Increased likelihood that someone links to your content from their site.
Regularly posting on social media can also help you gather information on what content your audience engages with and wants to see. Think of it as research and development!
9. Tracking and analyzing performance
There are many analytics tools for monitoring and measuring your website traffic and search rankings. Google Analytics, Moz, Ahrefs, and Semrush are some of the most popular. It's important to utilize an analytics tool to know where you stand and shift your strategy if need be.
Site crawling and auditing
After several months of running an SEO program, it's a good idea to re-evaluate your site and do a fresh content audit.
If your site has a lot of pages, you can save time by using a tool like Screaming Frog to crawl your entire site. Completing a technical SEO task like this can be daunting; finding common site errors like broken links and duplicate pages are just some of the things you need to do.
Stay organized by creating an audit checklist. This way, you'll have a plan of action on your biggest issues and can take the necessary steps to improve.
Should you outsource SEO?
SEO is time-consuming and requires a good amount of investment. You might not be able to do all of the above yourself. If you're considering outsourcing SEO, consider the following:
- Do you have the bandwidth and/or expertise to run an SEO program yourself?
- Do you have the budget to outsource one or all aspects of SEO?
- Do you have the budget for SEO tools and resources, such as keyword research tools, auditing tools, outreach software for backlink building, etc.? An SEO freelance professional will likely have their own tools to work with.
- What are your SEO goals, and what timeframe do you hope to achieve them?
Whether you outsource SEO ultimately depends on your needs and available resources. If you decide to go this route, do your due diligence and find a reputable agency. If an SEO expert promises you overnight rankings, they're probably just after your money. To vet SEO freelancers, it helps to learn the fundamentals first – you'll understand how something should be done and what kind of results to expect so you don't get scammed by false promises.
Investing in SEO is a great strategy for funneling visitors to your small business website. You can build an SEO program that will drive results by understanding how your customers search and investing in great content, high-quality links, and a solid on-site experience.
It's important to note that SEO is an ever-changing industry, so the specifics of these tactics may evolve. If you're looking to invest heavily in your SEO presence, stay on top of Google updates and industry trends.