Answers to your top SEO questions, and a few search engine optimization myths dispelled, by our SEO expert.

“SEO is evil.”

That little gem was recently spoken to me during a call with a potential small business client, as he explained his exasperation of working with another firm to use SEO as a way to generate leads for his residential construction business.

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What’s disheartening is that I’ve heard that phrase – and a few more colorful variations – quite a few times by small business owners, who are frustrated by search engine optimization (SEO), it’s lack of clear return on investment, and the apparent shroud of mystery that surrounds the optimization business and the tactics and strategies used to increase a site’s rank or traffic for key terms. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m here to help you understand and navigate the ever-changing world of SEO in a clear, transparent way.

So to get started, here are answers to some of the questions I’ve fielded from small business owners. I’ve chosen to start with these questions as they commonly come up in discussions, and they offer a chance to build an accurate foundation of SEO knowledge, upon which we will build in future posts. And if you have questions about SEO for small business that you’d like answered in a future post, feel free to add them in the comments, or email me at [email protected]

1. Can you guarantee me Page 1 results in Google?

No. No way, no how. I’ve heard of other firms promising first page results to our clients, and it makes me sick. There are so many problems with this concept, I don’t even know where to begin. But I’ll try my best.

Don’t get caught up in the allure of ranking first in Google, because your goal isn’t to be on Page 1, it’s to drive traffic to your site and get more business.

First, if they guarantee Page 1 results, ask if they are promising you’ll get top billing for any and every keyword you desire, or just one? And ask what will happen if the keyword is extremely popular, or not related to your business? Chances are, strict restrictions will apply.

To put this into a real-world example, let’s say your small business’ website is dedicated solely to custom car exhausts, but you want to rank on Page 1 when someone searches for “motorcycle exhausts”. Under current SEO best practices, this will be exceedingly difficult to do without ample space on your site devoted to motorcycle exhausts. Similarly, if you are in the business of hand-carved wood iPhone covers, there’s no way you’ll outrank Apple on the first page of Google for the term “iPhone.”

Second, ask this SEO firm if they are guaranteeing first page placement for eternity, or a set period of time. What will happen if Google updates its algorithm tomorrow, and it disapproves of all the tactics that firm used to get you to No. 1? And what if a competitor springs up two months down the line and outranks you? Will it re-invest the time and effort to get you back to that top position? Unlikely.

The only company that could guarantee you Page 1 placement is Google, or someone who has first-hand access into the secrets behind the current algorithm. The companies that promise first page results are suspicious, preying on uninformed business owners, and could be using less-than-recommended tactics. Don’t get caught up in the allure of ranking first in Google, because your goal isn’t to be on Page 1, it’s to drive traffic to your site and get more business. Remember, this isn’t just SEO for your website, it’s your livelihood. Entrust it with care, just as you would any other investment in your business. If you find an SEO vendor offering first page result guarantees, proceed with caution, and be sure to ask the tough questions.

2. To rank high in search engines, can’t I just add a bunch of keywords to my pages?

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At one time in SEO’s evolving history, loading up a page with a bunch of keywords, or repeating the same keyword within the text, was all it really took to get results in the search engine rankings. Luckily for search engine users, Google, Yahoo and other search engines have gotten a lot smarter. There are dozens if not hundreds of factors influencing where you appear in search result pages, and not all of them are under your control. Read on to learn some high-level basics.

3. How can I get my website to appear higher in the search engine result pages?

This is the million-dollar question, and if there was an easy answer for every website, I’d be sipping mojitos on the back of a yacht somewhere in the Caribbean. The best answer I have is that to rank higher in search engine results, don’t try to rank higher in search engine results; instead, be the best resource in your industry for your audience and market.

To rank higher in search engine results, don’t try to rank higher in search engine results. Instead, be the best resource in your industry for your audience and market.

The good news for you, as a small business owner, is that there’s most likely a lot of low-hanging fruit you can leverage to improve your rank in the search engine results, and outrank your competitors. Here’s a quick overview of the top factors to get you started:

On-Page Elements: This is probably the most important in terms of impacting SEO rank for small business owners. Over the years, search engines have rewarded content-rich, authoritative websites with higher rank on search engine results pages. When referring to “authoritative” content, it generally means:

  • 1,500-2,000 words per page
  • 100% unique content on the page
  • Content that is linked to by other sources, and is shared via social media.

What this also means is the content can’t be an advertisement for your business or content duplicated from a manufacturer’s website. It has to be original and serve as a resource or your target customer or audience – much like this very blog post.

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Off-Page Elements: Once you have good content, this piece of the puzzle becomes much easier. Off-page factors largely include increasing “backlinks” – getting other sites to link to your site, and having your site’s pages get shared on social media. If you have awesome content, this will happen organically. One important note is that quality matters when it comes to the sites that link to yours. If unrelated, low-value or spammy sites link to your site, search engines could see yours as spam as well, and reduce the rank of your website. For this reason, it is of the utmost importance to know how your SEO firm is increasing your backlink profile, and where those links are being built.

Accessibility & Indexability: Getting technical, these aspects cover the actual code and files on your site, and if they are optimized to be read by the search engines. Tweaks to this section can help boost a website’s rank somewhat, but in general, not nearly as much as improvements to the two previously listed factors.

Keywords: Last but not least, the keywords on your site do have an impact on how you rank in the search engine result pages. I like to evaluate keywords in the context of how actual users are searching the web, and how they are getting to your site via search engines. Many times, business owners think they should optimize for vague or generic phrases (wood fence, aluminum fence) when users are actually searching for something slightly different (deer fence, privacy fence). Keep the users’ needs in mind when thinking about keywords, and results will follow. But please take heed to the above note on how search engines have changed their appreciation for keywords over time. Stuffing your page text with keyword make for an uncomfortable reading experience for your users, and even more importantly, the search engines have figured out how to identify keyword-stuffed content and reduce its rank.

4. What’s the quickest way to get to the top of Google?

No two sites are the same, therefore the method to increase rank on search engine results pages are different for each site. And, no decent SEO work is quick SEO anymore. The best SEO in the market takes a lot of time and even more effort to plan, execute and analyze. There is no one-size-fits-all program for SEO – it depends on your business goals and should be tailored to fit your industry, audience and market.

No decent SEO work is quick SEO anymore.

That being said, making your website serve as an authoritative industry resource for your users is one of the best ways to rank well on search engines today. It’s not quick, but in the long run, you’ll come out far ahead by doing it right from the get-go, than wasting time and money on fly-by-night SEO services, only to find yourself in the same place six months from now.

5. Why does SEO cost so much?

If you’ve read the two previous answers, you’ll have an understanding of why good SEO work costs as much as it does. Gone are they days of simple code updates and a few pieces of page-title writing. For example, my current SEO plans are custom-created for each client and are much more than SEO – being more along the lines of a digital content strategy:

Think of these SEO strategies as an investment in your digital marketing space and a foundation for future growth.SEO-for-Small-Business-Owners-part1-time

  • Code and Site Optimization: These are the easy code fixes and site optimization tactics to get your site to the base level of good SEO practices. This includes unique titles and descriptions for every one of your pages, as well as optimizing images and other on-page code elements. There may be several hours of work devoted to this section, and the returns in terms of rank improvements will be moderate.
  • Content Creation: Here’s where the bulk of the cost and hours lie. But it’s also where the vast majority of improvement will be seen. This involves putting together and executing a content strategy to get your site to serve as a resource for your users. Whether that means bulking up existing pages with unique content, creating videos, infographics, whitepapers, eBooks or in-depth blog posts, these items take time and considerable effort to develop.
  • Search Engine Marketing (SEM), Social & Content Marketing: Once that awesome content has been created, we need to put it in front of the right people to get it shared to a wider audience. That could mean executing a pay-per-click advertising campaign on Google Adwords, Facebook or Twitter. It could also involve posting the content to social media via your own accounts. It might even involve finding industry blogs, thought-leaders and influencers, and sharing our content with them in hopes they will link back to your site. All of these processes involve manual research and execution, but the payoff when done well is unmatched.

As you can see, the SEO efforts that result in the most bang for your buck require a great deal of hours and effort from your SEO team. Think of these SEO strategies as an investment in your digital marketing space and a foundation for future growth.

6. If I pay for Adwords, does that get me to rank higher in Google?

No. Google Adwords – its pay-per-click advertising network – has no impact on how your site is listed in the organic search results. Participating in Adwords does allow your ads to possibly be seen at the top of the search engine results pages within the paid section. But this is unrelated to how Google will place your website within the traditional search results.

7. Why does [Competitor X] rank better than I do for [Keyword Y]?

If you’ve been reading along to this point, you’ll know that there are a lot of different factors that influence how a site is ranked in the search engine result pages. Only a comprehensive site audit of both your site and the competitor by an SEO professional such as myself will provide insights as to why another site might be outranking yours for a key term or phrase. However, some key factors to investigate on your own include social media engagement and the amount of authoritative, unique content on the site.

8. Why does my company’s listing show up higher/lower than when someone else views it?

Some time ago, Google began personalizing Google search results based on users’ location and their Google+ account info. So, depending on your location, and the size and engagement of your Google+ network (if you have one and are signed in), your search results may be different than someone else’s. This will continue, as Google has stated that it will strive to provide results that are the most useful and accurate for a user at that given moment in time.

9. How often do I need to update SEO?

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Google, Yahoo, Bing and the other search engines update their algorithms every day. As such, it is a full-time job just to keep up with the changes, and ensure that the tactics deployed match current best practices. Luckily, if SEO is done right – with the end-user in mind, not the search engines – updates to the site’s SEO will be periodic based on business changes and evolutions. That being said, the most important part of an SEO strategy – a digital content development platform – should be continuous and reviewed for performance at least on a monthly basis. And finally, a word of warning: if you employ an SEO strategist who uses tactics you don’t fully understand, or doesn’t clearly explain how they can increase rank, you are in risky territory, and potentially liable for getting a penalty from the search engines if the methods used are not to their best practice. Any good SEO will explain exactly the methods they use and how they work.

This article originally appeared on the Graphic D-Signs blog