What You Need to Know Before You SEO

What every small business owner should know about Search Engine Optimization

Search Engine Optimization is a highly effective, and highly misunderstood, component of any small business marketing strategy. Despite its impressive results, for many small business owners “SEO” is just another acronym in an avalanche of empty buzzwords: something they should probably just outsource and hope for the best. But SEO isn’t just another fly-by-night marketing trend (I’m looking at you, Pokéstops). SEO is something every small business owner should embrace.

Image a potential customer hears about your company. They go to Google, search for your company name, find your site in the results, and click over to your website. That’s SEO at its most basic level. But what about customers who are looking for your product or service, but have never heard of your company? That’s where the real power of SEO kicks in.

SEO is Not a Science

Sure, SEO is science-y. It has a lot of spreadsheets, and a lot of data. But data is only as good as the input it’s based on, and the most fundamental part of SEO is not crunching numbers, but understanding the audience you are hoping to reach. What are the words that your potential customers are typing into their search engines when they are looking for your product? This is the fundamental small business SEO question, and the answer blends marketing, psychology, information science, empathy, and culture into a true multidisciplinary art form.

The data can help determine if more people are favoring one term or another; for example, if “custom” is used more than “personalized” (answer: yes, at about a 6:1 ratio). But just knowing which keywords rank better won’t do much good: it’s the context of the search that makes that data useful. Adding even just one more word changes the whole scope of the search, for example, “personalized gifts” flips the ratio to trend 5:1 over “custom gifts”.

Should you use the word 'custom', or 'personalized'?
Should you use the word ‘custom’, or ‘personalized’? It depends on the context.

What are the words that your potential customers are typing into their search engines when they are looking for your product? …the answer blends marketing, psychology, information science, empathy, and culture into a true multidisciplinary art form.

For small businesses, good SEO strategy isn’t about being number one for every search everywhere, it’s about ranking well for the users who are most likely to buy from your business. Before you can figure out how people will search, you need to know who is searching. The culture, dialects, slang, sentence structure, and even emotional state of your target audience all comes into play. Understanding and incorporating this level of nuance or “micro targeting” into your strategy will help your site rank higher for the customers that matter most.

SEO is About Sales

Social media is fun. It’s got pictures, videos, filters, hashtags, emojis and lots of people chit-chatting, the virtual equivalent to a 24-hour party. Likewise, the social networks themselves get most of the tech press: the evening news covers the latest celeb Twitter feud and Facebook’s latest Newsfeed layouts. Google’s latest search algorithm? Not so much.

For small business owners, it’s important to look past the glitz to understand one of the key differences between social media and search engines: the state of mind of the user. People hang out on social networks, but search is where they go when they want to actually buy something. And overwhelmingly so: According to Google, 75% of mobile users use search engines as some part of their buying research, and 48% of users start their research with search. Even better news for brick-and-mortar small business owners: When users are ready to buy, they are really ready. 83% of mobile researchers using search engines want to make a purchase within a day, and 55% want to buy within an hour.

People hang out on social networks, but search is where they go when they want to actually buy something.

Good SEO will help businesses show up for their customers at each stage of the purchasing cycle, whether users are just starting their search (“what kind of couch do I want?”), comparing prices (“how much does this couch cost?”) or making a final decision (“where should I buy this couch?”).

SEO is Like High School

Since SEO is such a trendy topic, many small business owners assume there is only one right way to “SEO.” But ranking in search engines is like trying to be popular in high school. Just like there is no one way to become popular, there is no one way to rank high in the search results. The truth is, search engines don’t want you to try to rank. They want to be the ones to do the ranking and all that over-optimization you’re doing just gets in the way of their summary judgement (as the cool kids would say “you’re trying too hard”).

Of course, if you do ask Google and Bing how to rank better, they inevitably reply “write original content,” the SEO equivalent to “just be yourself”. Original content is, indeed, the cornerstone of any successful SEO strategy. Search engines use on-page text as the primary arbiter of quality and writing original content your potential customers are interested in is the surest way to attract both your audience and search engine spiders.

Is just be yourself helpful SEO advice? (Image: StepanPopov)
(Image: StepanPopov)

That said, just like in high school, no matter how cool you are, you’re never gonna rank if nobody knows you exist. A healthy stream of unaffiliated links pointing to your site from other reputable websites is a major factor in your site’s credibility level, and every SEO strategy should incorporate this at some level. And while it isn’t as social as social media, SEO still heavily emphasizes human judgement: Ensure sharing buttons appear on the unique pages and posts of your site so when potential customers do find your business, they can easily share it with their networks. The social sharing stats of your site’s content are an increasingly important factor into Google’s vast ranking algorithm. Users who link back to your site aren’t just vouching for your business with their Facebook friends, they are also vouching for the quality of your website with Google.

SEO is a Long-Game

The web is littered with SEO companies that promise top-of-page rankings and an immediate deluge of fresh prospects. But those types of immediate gratification promises are just that: promises. No one can guarantee you’ll be ranked first, or that you’ll even be on the first page. There are best practices, recommendations, and, of course, plenty of data to help you get there, but with SEO only one thing is certain: It’s all about long game.

Of course, search engine rankings can make big financial differences in a short amount of time. A client I worked with went from selling $50 a month via his online shop in April 2016 to more than $5,000 in June 2016, after a keyword-targeted blog post suddenly jumped to a favored position on the first page of results. But even that seemingly overnight success wasn’t immediately: The post received only a few hits a day for the first few months before jumping to a consistent 100+ hits a day.

Moral of the story: When implementing an SEO campaign, don’t let a lack of immediate results deter you.

SEO Can Get Technical

I firmly believe that with the right information, most small business owners can, and should, do the fundamentals of SEO on their own: developing content, selecting keywords, and building the on- and off-line relationships that get links. But writing targeted product descriptions isn’t the same as lacing your site’s content with correctly formatted schema markup, and knowing your customers call your products “flags” instead of “banners” is only the tip of the keyword analysis iceberg. Once you understand your product, your customer, and the basics of how they are interacting with search, it can be hugely beneficial to hire a reputable and SEO freelancer or company who can implement more consistent targeting and handle the more technical aspects of your campaign.

That said, no one should spend $300 for a reformatted Google Analytics report. If you choose to outsource your SEO, be sure to maintain active involvement in the ongoing decisions about the direction and goals of the campaign. (And if any SEO company attempts to take your money without mentioning the word “content”, pack up your keywords and run.)

Image: Becris
Image: Becris

Please note: If you understand less than 50% of what your SEO expert is telling you, you don’t need to hire an expert. You need to hire a teacher. Given that SEO can have such a significant impact on small businesses’ growth, and since it doesn’t look like Google is going anywhere anytime soon, it’s worth taking the time to learn the basic terms and concepts in SEO. Putting quality content on your site doesn’t have to cost anything extra. Most web platforms have free SEO tools or plugins, included as part of their services. Then, when you’re ready to expand into the more technical aspects of SEO, you will understand what you’re paying for, and if it’s worth it.

Bonus note: When hiring an outside company, it is essential that your business retain control of all of its assets. You should always own and control the main admin account for analytics, advertising campaigns, and any business pages or accounts.

SEO is as Google Does

I’m a huge advocate for bucking trends. I think small businesses should set the trends, not follow them. But search is Google’s game (Bing and Yahoo are like Google’s entourage), and when you’re playing their game, you gotta play by their rules. Using tactics banned or discouraged by Google are expensive and time-consuming to repair, and any temporary gains you may have experienced will be gone before you can say “scam”.

It’s not just “black hat” tactics that can leave you in the dark. Sweeping algorithms changes happen, with or without Google’s public acknowledgement, and any trendy optimization tactic, like embedding H1 tags all over the page, can be a boon one day and a bust the next. The only strategy that has consistently survived the search engine chopping block is customer-focused content development.

Developing and implementing an effective SEO strategy can seem like a daunting prospect to any small business owner. There are a lot of new terms to learn, and a lot of different experts telling you what you should and shouldn’t do. At its most basic, however, SEO is simply putting quality content on your website so your potential customers can find you on Google. At its most technical, SEO is implementing targeted coding and content development tactics … so your potential customers can find you on Google. And at the end of the day, the secret to successful SEO campaign is also the secret to a successful small business: Understand your customers.


Featured image: fuzzbones

Sé Reed

About the Author Sé Reed

Sé Reed helps small business owners develop ideas & implement strategy through code, content & communication ... usually involving WordPress! Follow her on Twitter @sereedmedia.