SEO Demystified: What Every Small Business Owner Should Know

Search Engine Optimization {better known as SEO} can be a tough topic to get your head around and even harder to explain in a just few words. I’m constantly being asked by clients and prospects if I offer SEO services or if it’s worth hiring a consultant to help them “land on the first page of Google” or at the very least, boost their search engine rankings.

Unfortunately my answer often begins with a phrase that every business owner can’t stand to hear, “It depends.”

Side Note: OK, so I’m going to warn you upfront that this week’s post is a what we call in the digital space a “mega post”. That’s shorthand for it’s going to be really good but really long. I know this SEO “techie” stuff can be a snooze-fest and I was seriously thinking of breaking it up, but I didn’t think it would make much sense in two parts – so here we go!

Now I’m about to write something here that may challenge everything you’ve heard about SEO. I don’t think you need it as much as you think you do.

In fact, I would advise anyone thinking about hiring an SEO strategist, to first figure out what role you want your website to play in the overall marketing strategy of your business.

Why? Because the first question any good SEO strategist, worth their salt, is going to ask you is, what your goals are for your site and/or your business.

You want to think about the answer to that question carefully before you even pick-up the phone with that consultant. If they are good at closing the sale, as any consultant should be – they can have you thinking that the only thing you need, in order for your business to take off, is a good SEO strategy and all of your business problems will be solved. Right? Lies and garbage!

You’ve simply got to keep your head on straight when it comes to this because a good SEO strategy ain’t cheap. It takes a lot time and money, but if done right a good SEO strategy is worth the investment. The key is to invest in it at the right time for the right reasons.

To illustrate my point, let’s look at three very different situations and then I’ll provide you with some quick tips, at the end, to help you have a more productive conversation with an SEO strategist, should you choose to look for one.

#1: You’ve Already Got More Business Than You Can Handle
If you’re using your website as primarily an online brochure, and not necessarily to attract new clients – you don’t need a complicated SEO strategy, because your referral “traffic” is most likely coming from either you or another source offline.

This is absolutely OK! Let me be clear, not everyone uses their website to generate new business. There is no steadfast rule that says you have to.

For example, I had a client who ran a custom shipping and crating business for art galleries and museums – a father and son team. They had been in business for over 20 years and had more clients than they could handle. Their phones were always ringing with clients asking them for custom quotes.

They didn’t have time to answer each and every call during the day, because they were too busy supervising the shipments and were missing out on business. They considered hiring someone part-time, to answer the calls, but employees can be expensive. They tried it anyway and the girls would get bored, sitting in a warehouse all day and they’d leave.

What they wanted to do was direct their existing client base to their website to submit information for shipping quotes. At the end of the day they would review the quotes from the website that came in and promised a 24 hour turn around time. With the ability to take quotes online, they were able to service both their customers and their business better.

So what was the main goal of their site?

To get their existing clients off the phone and onto their website to ask for a quote, so they could get back to doing what they do best. They had no blog and the site provided only the most basic information.

Did they need a fancy SEO strategy? Nope! Nor did I try to sell them on it.

It never hurts to get new business via your website, but if this is your current situation – I would tell you to think about allocating your money to something that would help you manage your existing client base better before putting more money into something that will bring you even more clients than what you can handle right now. That’s a recipe for burnout and failure.

#2: You Want to Attract New Business
Now let’s look at this from the most obvious angle. If you’re looking to use your website to generate new leads or to expand your visibility and reach, then yes it may do you some good to invest in an SEO consultant at some point in time in your business.

Here’s the thing. SEO’s main purpose is to drive traffic to your site so that people online are exposed to your products and services. Traffic online is no different from “foot” traffic offline for a brick and mortar business.

You can find SEO consultants out there who can legitimately bring tons of traffic to your site. But if there is nothing relevant for that visitor to see or do once they get there – they’ll leave.

Look at it this way, say you own a grocery store and you are preparing for a grand opening. Would you pay to run ads in the local newspaper or send out a direct campaign in the mail and knowingly lead people to your store with nothing in for them to buy?

No! You would make sure that there was something for them to buy because you’ve just spent thousands of dollars in advertising to get them there.

Plus you would also get a pretty bad reputation in the neighborhood, if people took time to come to your store, only to find it empty. They most likely wouldn’t even bother to come back.

You would have paid for the traffic and missed an opportunity. The same is true on the web and yet small business owners do this all the time. They view SEO as this alchemy that is going to create all this business for them.

Remember good SEO generates good targeted traffic for your business, but it isn’t your business. That’s why it’s so important for you as a small business owner to take the time to figure out where your website fits in your business. If you don’t do that first – you’re just throwing perfectly good money away.

#3 I’ve Got a Plan But I Need the Traffic
So I know, by now some of you are wondering, OK I get what you’re saying, but I’m neither of these. You’ve got a marketing plan and you’ve been blogging, posting on social media and collecting emails but you really want to expand your company’s reach online. You want to go beyond your geographical location.

You need traffic, but this whole SEO thing is just too “techie” for you. You’re ready to hire a consultant, but you don’t know where to start. Well here are some quick tips to help you have a more productive conversation with an SEO strategist or if you don’t quite have the budget yet, some things you’ll want to evaluate about your website’s SEO on your own.

Keywords Aren’t As Powerful As They Used to Be
Like any other industry there’s always someone trying to beat the system. In this case, they’re trying to beat Google. So in order to protect their own interests {primarily their Ad Sense business}, Google from time to time has to “demote” for a lack of a better term, certain best practices to keep the “hackers” in check, while serving their customers.

Keywords used to be a good way to rank better in the Google search engine, but since about the end of 2012, Google has made the importance of “ranking” for keywords {aka meta keywords} irrelevant.

They focus more on the “meta description” tags and suggest that you try to make those more “keyword rich” than just listing a bunch of keywords and phrases for your pages and posts on your site.

This is how one of my posts looks when it is pulled up on Google.

Address Any Technical Problems on Your Site
Make sure you have 404 error page, no broken links, minimize redirects when you can, make sure that your pages are loading quickly and are responsive {if you aren’t using a mobile app} and have an up-to-date xml site map.

Pay Per Click Advertising is a Numbers Game
I get asked this question all the time. What about PPC? Well I personally feel that PPC works best for local businesses in smaller towns and for those offering very special products or services. They have a better chance of benefiting the most from the searches being made online.

Why? Because in a small town or local area, there are fewer people competing for those key words so it’s cost effective.

If you are in a large city or in a competitive field where there are literally hundreds if not thousands of people offering the same product or service – not so much. Why? Because there is a good chance that a lot of businesses are competing for the same “ad words” that you are.

You and your competitors are driving up the price and neither one of you will make any money, but Google will because they can use your bids to entice a bigger company with deeper pockets to compete for that ad word too, because there’s “demand for it”.

It’s no different than advertising for television. Are you going to be able to out bid Coke or Pepsi for their spot during the Super Bowl? I think it’s safe to say no.

If you live in New York City and you’re a two person law firm just starting out, are you going to outbid a more established practice that has 10 people in it? Probably not.

But let’s say you’re one of only three shops in your small town {or neighborhood} that carries a particular edition of let’s say Nike’s latest sneaker, that teenagers from all 20 of the local junior high and high schools now want, simply because Jay-Z or Justin Beiber just posted a pair on their Instagram feed. Should you shuck out the dough and buy a PPC Advertising for that? Yes!!

Why? Because there’s a good chance that the other 2 competitors won’t because most likely they don’t have a website or they don’t have a plan. They’re just going to wait and see if the kids come in and ask for them and they won’t because they’ll be buying them at your shop.

You see what I mean, it’s a numbers game. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time.

Don’t Just Generate “Filler” Content
Lots of marketing gurus, suggest keeping your posts short and sweet, but if you have anything less than 250 words on a page or post, Google may view this as “thin” or less than credible content.

In other words, they may view this as you trying to chalk-up a few SEO points for updating your site on a regular basis, with fluff rather than any relevant content that they would suggest to their viewers in the search engine rankings.

This is what I mean by people trying to “game the system” just to get brownie points – it’s a bad practice and I would advise against you doing it.

Have a Consistent Content Marketing Strategy
If you are going to spend your valuable time trying to generate new business via your website, make sure you are providing good quality content. A blog is an excellent way to do this and get SEO “brownie points” from Google, especially if you sign up for Google Authorship.

Google always rewards users for using their products to maintain their web presence. You don’t have to do that in order to rank in the search engines, don’t forget there’s Yahoo and Bing, but it doesn’t hurt.

Just make sure that you find the right tools that work best for you and help you stay on track. Keep in mind that the point is to be consistent in your online marketing efforts for your customers, not just to “kiss up” to Google.

Detox Any Bad Links
Now this might be a bit more techie than most of you would like, but if you really want to dig your heels in, you may want to look at using tools like Google Webmaster Tools.

This tool will help you to “disavow” links from bad SEO practices that you may have been unaware of you were doing (like using the same keyword phrase in your post titles) or spammy “backlinks” from other bots or sites.

Find Duplicate Content & Get Rid of It
There are some shady characters out there who have no problem “stealing” your content to help rank for their own. They essentially copy and paste high-ranking content from other sites and publish it as their own so they can “poach” visitors in the search engine. This doesn’t happen overnight, but most people who have invested a lot of time in their content marketing strategies aren’t even aware of it.

You don’t have to be paranoid about this type of behavior as a small business owner, but from time to time I would suggest you use a tool like CopyScape to keep other websites {and possibly your direct competitors} from copying your content that is ranking well for your site.

You can also use CopyScape to check to make sure that content you are paying for from say a social media strategist or a freelance copywriter or blogger isn’t being lifted from somewhere else and presented to you as original work that they produced for your site.

You don’t want to be in that situation, because you are essentially paying for stolen content and Google and the other search engines will demote your site, in the search engine rankings if you’re caught.

Again, there is no reason to be paranoid about this, there are plenty of legitimate SEO strategists, social media and content creators out there. I always suggest asking for a referral from someone else, but it’s better to know about this stuff now than to pay for it later. You can learn more about CopyScape here —> and I a not an affiliate, by the way.

So I think it is safe to say, that if you have made it this far, your head is probably spinning by now from all of this “stuff”, well it should be. This is why I tell my clients to take it slow and don’t just dive into things like “coding your own site” or “SEO”.

These fields are constantly changing and it is not worth your time to obsess over them or try to keep up with everything new “whiz bang” or “black hat” trick that comes along.

The best thing you can do is to take some time to read blogs like this one, ask a few of your business colleagues for referrals of people they have used themselves and to plan and then plan some more.

Question: What SEO strategies or tactics have you thought about using in your business? Are you struggling to get a handle on how you can implement them? Share your thoughts and comments below.

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This post was updated on August 25, 2017.


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