When it comes to small business SEO, I’ve noticed that certain questions come up repeatedly: How do I optimize my site for search engines? What keywords should I use? When writing a blog post, what should I do for SEO? How can I get my site to rank on the first page of Google?
These are, of course, important questions. Every website these days should be optimized for search engines. However, it’s important to understand that SEO is part of an ongoing, overall online marketing process. It can’t, and shouldn’t, be done by itself separate from your other online marketing efforts, including your business blog and social media activity.
What is SEO, Really?
First, let’s start with a bit of background. SEO refers to search engine optimization, which is the practice of optimizing website content for search engines. Basically, it means implementing certain techniques that will make it more likely for search engines to serve up your website in the results when someone searches for a particular word or phrase online (note also that SEO focuses on organic search results, not on paying for ads).
When we’re talking about search engines, we’re really talking about one search engine for all intents and purposes. Google is not the only search engine out there, but it does have the greatest share of the search engine market. It has 66.7% of the market, whereas the runner-up (Bing) has 16.3%, Yahoo has 12.2%, and Ask has 3%, according to comScore (AOL, in case anyone still remembers it, has 1.8%).
Google has been sending clear signals in the last couple of years that the sites it will serve up in its search results need to have fresh, quality content. This makes sense from Google’s perspective because their entire business model is based upon giving users the best search results possible:
Our goal is to help people find the best information on the web. To make this possible, we want to help websites focus on creating great content, not tricks and gimmicks to game search engines. (http://www.google.com/competition/transparency.html)
This means that you can’t talk about SEO without also talking about creating content – and not just any content, but great content. If Google is telling you that you need to create great content so that they can show your site in the search results, then you need to figure out how to create this content as part of your SEO efforts.
Key SEO Factors & Developments
SEO is a dynamic field, and there both existing practices and new developments that you as a business owner should know about:
- Content marketing: As you’ve just seen, Google has made it clear that great content is no longer optional: it’s a requirement. The sites that will see their results served up are those that produce quality, relevant content for users on a regular basis. This is one of the key developments in SEO and has crucial implications for how you market your business online.
- Pandas & penguins: Google’s focus on content was reflected in changes to its algorithm in the past couple of years. These changes are known as the Panda and Penguin updates and they basically penalized sites that had low-quality content. It’s important to realize that the search engine algorithms are not static – they are constantly changing, and you’ll need to keep up with new developments in order to ensure that your site is continually optimized.
- Social signals: Google is increasingly factoring social signals into its search results. This means that Google is now considering Facebook likes and tweets in deciding what search results to serve up. It’s no longer enough to think that optimizing for certain keywords alone will get you to the top of the search results; you also need to think about how to get your content shared on social networks.
- On-page vs. off-page SEO: On-page SEO refers to changes that can be implemented directly on your website. You can implement many best practices, such as having keywords in your page titles (this is one that a lot of small business owners miss!). Off-page SEO refers to practices that you can’t implement directly on your website but that affect your search results, such as getting links back from other high-quality sites. This is a fundamental distinction in the SEO field, and at a bare minimum you’ll want to make sure that you’ve implemented all the best on-page SEO practices.
- Black hat vs. white hat: Black hat SEO refers to shady practices that can violate search engine guidelines and provide a poor user experience such as stuffing so many keywords onto a page that it doesn’t even make sense when you read it. White hat SEO refers to working within the search engine guidelines and implementing best practices to optimize a site and improve the user experience. Beware of black hat SEO practices (tell-tale signs include spammy emails that guarantee to get you on page one of Google’s search results).
Strategic SEO for Your Business
Given these key factors and developments, it’s important to broaden your thinking about SEO from a stand-alone practice to one that is an integral part of your overall business strategy and online marketing efforts. The traditional focus on keywords is still an important part of SEO, but now it needs to be positioned within a broader strategic context that includes:
- Differentiation: Take the time to define your niche. All of your competitors are also realizing that they need to create good content to compete online, and you only have seconds to capture a potential client’s attention. Your content needs to be able to meet your business goals, differentiate you from your competitors, and be relevant for your clients. It’s hard to do this if you’re not sure what your business niche is.
- Audience: Understand the content that is relevant for your ideal client. What questions do your clients ask you on a regular basis? What are the issues they’re struggling with? What tips and advice can you provide? Your answers to these questions can help your clients, provide great ideas for your blog posts, and give the search engines the fresh content that they want – it’s a win all the way around.
- Strategy: Develop a content strategy for your business. Since content is critical to your online marketing, you’ll want to make sure that you’re creating that content strategically. A content strategy is an important component of your online marketing plan, which will help you to ensure that your online marketing efforts and your content creation are aligned with your overall business goals.
- Capacity: Figure out your capacity for content marketing. Creating good content on a regular basis and sharing it on social networks takes time. Do you have the time to do it? Can you make the time, maybe by dedicating 30 minutes to blogging every morning? Or can someone on your staff help with this? Do you need to hire someone, maybe a freelancer who can help you? There are many possible solutions, and it’s important to find the one that will work for you.
- Content Creation: If you don’t have one already, it’s time to start a business blog. How are you going to create the great content that Google is looking for on a regular basis? A blog is the best way to do this. If you do have a blog but haven’t posted for a while, it’s time to dust it off, put together an editorial calendar, and start writing.
- Social Sharing: If you’ve resisted using social media for your business, it’s time to rethink that decision. You don’t have to be active on every network; in fact, it’s better to focus on one or two rather than to spread yourself too thin. Also, you need to make sure that you’re making it easy for your users to share your content via social networks, such as by adding social sharing buttons to your blog posts – this is a basic practice that every website should have in place by now.
- An Optimized Website: In addition to creating and sharing good content, you need to make sure that your website is already implementing best practices for on-page SEO. I’ve seen businesses that have great social media activity but a website that is lacking in basic best practices. Having a well-optimized website is important because it serves as the hub of your online activity.
- Continuous Improvement: Realize that you’re in this for the long haul. After you’ve defined your niche, identified your ideal client, developed your content strategy, created your content and shared it on social networks, you’ll need to monitor your results to see what’s working. Are there certain types of content that generate better results than others? What keywords and social networks are driving traffic to your site? You’ll need to make adjustments as the data begins to come in.
This may seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be! You’re probably already working on these elements in one way or another anyways, by trying to stay a step ahead of your competitors or get the attention of your prospective clients. This just provides a framework for making sure that your SEO, online marketing, and business strategy and goals are all in alignment.
When it comes to small business SEO, there are no short cuts. You can’t just think about choosing keywords for your website and expect search traffic to go flowing to your site; to effectively optimize your website, you also need to integrate content creation and social sharing and figure out how to do that on an ongoing basis.
A good analogy for this is actually weight loss… although there are hundreds of thousands of products on the market that guarantee you will lose 10 pounds in five days or some other variation on the theme, there is really no substitute for eating healthy and exercising on a regular basis. In a similar way, there is no better way to do SEO for your business than to create good content on a regular basis that other people will share on social networks.