SEO, or search engine optimization, is crucial for any business with a website or even just a social media presence.
SEO isn’t new. If you worked on websites back in the 90s, you witnessed the early growth of the Web and the birth of SEO. Google dominates desktop and mobile search in a massive way. According to statcounter.com data, Google’s worldwide search market share in June, 2019 was 92%. Bing is Google’s closest competitor, with 2.5%. On mobile devices, Google’s share us even higher, at 95%, and Bing fares a bit better on desktop search, with 5%.
Search engines are pretty much the only way to find online content. Businesses and other organizations must make SEO a top priority for their online content and branding strategy. Social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter have their own in-app search capabilities. Users access content and search mostly within self-contained, native apps. You can still use web search to find social media content.
How do SEO and social networks work together? According to social media expert Neil Patel, “social is the new SEO”, although Google said a few years ago that social activity (likes and follows) had no impact on search rankings. Things have changed. Hootsuite suggests that social activity does influence the search rankings of web content. Also, searches leading to social media content rose dramatically after 2015.
The takeaway for your small businesses is that your SEO strategy should take into account the increased sophistication of SEO and your web and social media presence.
What is SEO?
SEO stands for search engine optimization. It helps search engines, such as Google, Bing or DuckDuckGo, discover and categorize your website content. Search engines index all public websites continuously, look for content and add links to it in their databases. Those links, or URLs, are what people see as clickable search results.
Very few businesses can get by without a website or a social media account. A gas station, a convenience store or maybe a dollar store, rely mostly on local traffic more than online search. Most other types of small businesses need some sort of online presence, at least to for company awareness, if not for branding and transactions.
How does SEO work?
The goal of SEO is to optimize your online content and determine the most relevant search terms for your company or product so that people and search engines can find it using specific search terms. It should also aim to get the highest possible search engine score, or rank, for your content. When SEO is well implemented on your website, links to your site and snippets of content should appear near the top of the results. Search engines sort results by relevance.
Your content competes with thousands of other search results for top billing on the first page of search results, because people rarely go past the first page. Google also places sponsored, or paid results, at top of the first page. Unfortunately, if you don’t want to pay Google to show up in paid results, your SEO efforts matter. As it is, Google usually reserves the top of the page for paying customers. Organic search results come from quality content, SEO and Google’s rankings of your site based on keywords.
Organic vs paid results: Google rules the roost
Every business would like to have top ranking organic search results. You don’t pay for organic results. They come naturally from a search engine’s ranking of the relevance and usefulness of your content. According to Brian Dean, an SEO guru and founder of Backlingo, Google uses a complex formula of over 200 ranking factors to determine ranking. Here is his high-level list of Google’s key ranking factors in 2019:
- Referring domains
- Organic click-through-rate
- Domain authority
- Mobile usability
- Dwell time
- Total number of backlinks
- Content quality
- On-page SEO
Some factors are fundamental and won’t change, but many others are hotly debated and the subject of geeky speculation. Marketing and SEO experts follow what Google does closely since Google changes its proprietary formula regularly.
In theory, Google wants content to rank highly based its own merits and depth rather than SEO magic. But as a search monopoly, it can place as many ads as it wants in search results. Google also knows that most users tend to click on the first 2 or 3 results. Some see this commercial manipulation of search results for Google’s own benefit as a problem, especially given how much of search Google controls.
Often, the best organic search results, that users want most, are at the bottom of the first page or on page 2 or 3. Alternative search engines, such as DuckDuckGo, limit sponsored links to 1 or 2 per page, clearly identify them and don’t blend mix them in with organic results.
Getting top ranking organic results
Top organic results are hard to achieve since so many websites compete for the top spots on page 1. Also, web designers and content creators know how SEO works and use similar strategies to boost rankings. But despite great content and SEO, even the best organic results can be eclipsed by paid results on Google. It can take months for search engines to discover and organically rank your content.
Businesses who want results fast can pay to be at the top. But for small businesses with limited budgets, a long-term strategy to get top organic results relies on the basics of great content and SEO. Futurepreneur Canada’s SEO for small business guide covers basic approaches to SEO and boosting local search results. Increasing your domain authority, or how your entire site performs for search engines, requires:
- Readable, clear content and page descriptions and titles with an easy to navigate site structure are search engine friendly and easier to index. Your content and site structure should easily explain what your business, products and services are all about. It should be relevant to your customers and within your industry.
- A number of unique sites that refer to your site, also called earned backlinks. You don’t have much control over other sites, but the more you build awareness, including blogs and social media, the higher this can be.
- Readability on desktop and mobile devices.
- Social signals – how many likes and shares your site pages get.
- Content authority. Regular updates, new content and earning links and mentions from other sites increase a search engine’s boost your importance as far as search engine results go.
SEO for small business should aim to improve overall site ranking in search engines, but also focus on local search. Let’s say you operate a thriving online coffee roasting and equipment business, with a large showroom in a big city. You’ll want your business to show up online because you’re a leading seller of espresso machines and coffee beans. But you also want local exposure for walk-in sales.
Local SEO involves checking your listings on other sites, social media presence, leveraging local directories and your contact information. Also make sure you NAP data (name, address, and phone number) is consistent on all sites and pages, and always in text form.
What are the benefits of SEO for small business?
SEO isn’t only for big business. It was years ago, but today, with billions of sites online, you can’t get around it. Here are some of the benefits:
- Better site, better content. SEO can make your site content better and more focused, This attracts search engines and customers.
- Low cost, high reward. Many SEO basics are easy to implement and cheap or free, with impressive results. The low-hanging fruit is ripe for the picking if you’re new to SEO.
- Increase sales and grow your business. Betterrankingsearch results means higher visibility of your brand or products. SEO optimized sites are faster, and more likely to convert visitors to buyers. Combine SEO with social media activity to drive traffic to your site. Sites with high rankings get more social media exposure.
- Open new markets. Top search results are visible worldwide. If you’re at the top of the page, expect interest from customers worldwide, 24/7.
- You need SEO to stand out. Your competitors use SEO. If you don’t, you need to. You’ll have a leg up on competitors who don’t.
Getting started: choosing an SEO specialist for your small business
Because SEO and marketing changes all the time, hiring a competent SEO consultant with a proven track record can help you stay on top of changes. Before you interview consultants, you can do your own homework to understand the field and avoid unethical SEO practices that hurt your rankings and your business. With so many blogs from top SEO experts online, it’s easy to find good information.
Determine what your goals are first. Maybe you want to build brand awareness for your store or increase online sales. Ask people you interview for references and past results.
Ask for proposals, discuss process and how results are measured. Many consultants work on a “best efforts basis”, or some variation on that theme, meaning they don’t guarantee results. That should raise warning bells, especially if their proposal is vague.
You might throw a curve ball at candidates and ask if they can get you top organic Google search results quickly. If the answer is a confident, “sure, no problem, won’t take long”, ask them how they plan to do it. It the answers aren’t convincing or detailed, move on. You can’t afford to lose business if Google flags your site and puts you in the penalty box.
Five SEO tips for small business you can use right now
Hiring an SEO specialist isn’t always necessary, especially if you run a small, local business on a limited budget:
- Google Search Console is a free tool that reports problems you can fix to optimize your website’s results. Bing also has a set of useful tools.
- Google creates pages for local businesses. You need to manage that information and your online reputation. Manage your information vis Google My Business. Also add your information to other directory listings such as 411.ca, Yellow Pages and Bing, to appear in local searches.
- Brainstorm keywords based on what customers search for. Check them in KeywordTool to find others.
- Your business needs a blog and social media accounts and regular activity. Social media drives traffic to your website. Blogs are 4 times more likely to get your website high-ranking results. Plus, they attract a lot more leads.